I wore earbuds when I first started running. I am naturally predisposed towards laziness and leisure, and I hoped that the music would keep me motivated. I also needed it to distract me from the aches and pains I inevitably feel—in my knees, which are weak; in my back, which is delicate; in my brain, which constantly and seductively whispers you don’t have to do this, as I stomp out kilometres.
It mostly worked. However, I soon had to ditch them. The reasons were purely logistical: I couldn’t keep the damn things in. I got tired of adjusting them. And I didn’t like fiddling with my phone as I ran.
In fact, I didn’t like carrying my phone at all. I don’t want to run with things. I run to be free of things. So I left the phone and equipment at home, and I began running to the sound of the world and to the sound of myself.
Surprisingly, this also worked. Free from distractions, I communed with the world around me: I felt the heat, the cold, the unbearable Midwestern humidity. I smelled wild onions in the cut grass. I listened to people talking on their phones in their cars as I passed them at stop signs. I watched TVs through living room windows.
And with nothing to distract me from my running, I started concentrating on it. I paid attention to my footfalls. I watched my pace, and ran more steadily, starting out slower so that I might run farther. I became aware of my body: my arms, my shoulders, and my posture.
Mostly, I focused on my breathing, taking in deep breaths and expelling all of that used and cloudy air from my lungs. As my running became more meditative, and my mileage slowly increased, my pace became irrelevant. Then, my aches and pains were music, and I breathed, and breathed, and breathed.
The first person I knew who was a runner was my best friend’s mother when I was about 12 years old. She would come in from a run shining with sweat and looking beatific, as if she’d just had an ecstatic experience.
Phones back then were connected to walls by cords. Running with them was more or less out of the question. Earbuds were called headphones and they clung to your skull, though they were nothing more than big foam pads connected by a tensed length of flimsy aluminum or, if you could afford it, plastic.
She did not bother, my friend’s mum, with any of that. This was a person in tune with her body. This was a person who seemed alive in the world.
By the time she got sick, my friend and I weren’t friends anymore. His mother’s decline was an abstract thing that I had the luxury of paying no attention to. Her death happened off the page.
But we were still close enough, and I was adult enough at age 22, to attend her memorial service. I remember with distinct clarity something that one of her eulogisers said on that day: “When she could run, we ran with her. When she couldn’t run anymore, we walked with her. When she couldn’t walk, we sat with her. And when she could no longer sit, we sat next to her and held her hand.”
Those words were bracing at the time. They revealed to me everything I had missed, everything I had managed to weasel out of dealing with thus far, and everything that my friend—my ex-friend, to be honest—had had to endure on his own.
Those words stick with me now because of how perfectly they articulate the simple nature of things—how they say, with almost a sad shrug of resignation, that this is just the way our bodies work.
To run is to hurt. As it turns out, that’s one of the things I like about it.
I’m 41 now, writing this, and am beginning to understand that getting older means watching the bodies around you start to break down. For some, it happens little by little, for others: catastrophically, and seemingly all at once.
I think about my father, whose gait, with his reconstructed knees and hip, is more synthetic now than human; or my step-father, whose earthly body is nothing anymore but handfuls of ash in the wind.
And with nothing to do now on my runs but let my mind wander, I sometimes think about these bodies that have broken down. I sometimes think about friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, total strangers. Mostly, though, I try to stay present. I focus on the moment. I allow myself to feel.
When I run, I can feel the corns on my feet rubbing against the sides of my shoes. I feel the weariness in my ankles, the burning in my thighs, that subtle pinch at the base of my spine as I cross my seventh or eighth mile. I feel the soreness in my shoulders, and the sting of the wind in my eyes. All of it is painful.
With nothing to distract me from the pain, I feel it clearly and distinctly, and I am grateful that I am able-bodied enough, each day, to experience the privilege of these particular aches, of these specific pains.
And I am aware that one day the body that breaks down will be mine. But that day is not now, not today. I run because I can, and I embrace the body that I have in this moment. I engage with the world and I engage with myself, and I breathe and I breathe and I breathe.
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This article was originally published by Runner's World.