Against the Wind
There are two things I want to be: a writer and a runner.
You could argue that I already am both of those things, given that I run and write on a pretty regular basis. But for whatever reason, to BE either of these things seems to involve far more than simple repetition of a particular action. I know a lot of people who write who would never call themselves writers. I’ve struggled with it for a long time myself. Maybe all you need to BE a writer is the drive to write, to enjoy the process of writing more than the rewards (paltry as they are for most of us). You don’t need to have written a novel or published a certain number of short stories, or gotten an MFA, or won a contest to be a writer. Yet it can feel like the practice of writing alone is not enough to validate that vaunted state of being–that of a writer.
For me, running is the same way. I’ve never been an athlete. I would sulkily walk laps around the soccer field in gym class, not even trying to run during the annual physical fitness test. The mile run was torture. Even though I never tried, I made up my mind that I couldn’t do it–it was hard, and I didn’t like things that were hard. It wasn’t until college that I started working out–without a gym teacher forcing me to move my body, I found that I actually kind of liked it. Sometimes I’d run laps around the track behind the gym or on the treadmill, taking breaks to walk when I got out of breath. After college, I signed up for a charity 5K my sister’s nonprofit was involved with and ran into a friend near the starting line. She was running and though I’d planned on walking, I ended up joining her and ran the whole 3 miles.
In the decade since that race, I’ve run off and on, mostly interval training on the treadmill or a mile or two outside when the weather’s nice. I ran one more 5K with coworkers one summer but the race, through downtown Boston, was so crowded that everyone was forced to do a kind of shuffling trot rather than a full jog or run. Though my relationship to running has been off and on for years now, I’ve always harbored this secret desire to be a runner. A runner is not just someone who runs sometimes. A runner is someone who enjoys running, finds a zen peace in the movement of their arms and legs, actually experiences that mythical “runner’s high” you hear about. There’s just one tiny problem with this desire: I hate running.
I ran a 5K a couple of days after Thanksgiving, jogging in the drizzle through the hilly streets of a town in Rhode Island in $17 sneakers I’d bought at Wal-Mart a half hour before the race started because I’d forgotten my sneakers in Boston. I was frazzled and angry at myself for my stupid mistake, but I still finished the race in a decent time–not great, but not terrible. Most importantly, I managed not to hurt myself in those terrible shoes. Since then, I’ve made an effort to run for three miles a few times a week, and I signed up for another 5K race in a couple of weeks. Sunday morning, as I ran around the pond near my house with a friend who’s run a marathon, I lamented that I was too slow, too out of shape, my legs hurt too much, I just wanted to stop. She reassured me I was doing fine and gave me some tips for breathing and dealing with shin splints.
Last week I read an article about how running is the ideal pastime for writers because it allows them the time and space for creativity, to think about new story ideas or work out a problem with plot. In running, the miles stack up, just like pages in writing! I know three miles is nowhere near marathon distance, and really doesn’t qualify as long distance at all. But it’s a good distance to me–at least thirty minutes alone with my thoughts (or a podcast). But when I run, I think about two things: how much longer I have to go, and how happy I’m going to be when it’s over (and what I’m going to eat).
Writing and running are similar in that I dread doing them, but am really happy and proud AFTER I’ve gone on a run or sat down to write. However, they differ in that while I’m writing, even though it’s hard and terrible and I doubt every single word I put down, it’s peaceful and I know it’s what I love doing. But running–no. I don’t feel peace. I don’t feel creative. I don’t even feel like it’s all that good for my body.
After explaining this all to another marathoner friend over drinks last night, she looked at me and said, “You know you don’t have to be a runner, right?” And I whined, “I know, but I want to be!”
I suppose there’s something valuable about the challenge of it–of wanting to achieve something that’s always been difficult for me. Maybe it’s enough that I’ve managed to work up to three miles, which is the longest distance I’ve been able to run without stopping, ever, I think. Maybe it’s enough to keep trying. I know I may never consider myself a runner, or a “real” writer for that matter, but it’s nice to have something to strive for.