Giving life the runaround

Of all the tortures to which an otherwise sane person could willingly submit themselves, there are few activities I dread and despise more than jogging. Everything about this most sadistic of ventures fills me with equal measures of distain and revulsion. And yet, as soon as I arrive home from work, I waste no time in changing into my running outfit, setting the meticulously compiled Running playlist – featuring songs of consistently energetic tempo and uniformly thumping, 4/4 rhythm (I’ve heard of people being able to exercise to more irregular or sophisticated time signatures [in compound time, for example], however, for whatever reason, I have so far found myself unable to sustain any kind of consistent pace running to such music) – on my ipod, taking a decent slug of water and setting out on a 5 miler through my North-East London neighborhood. I do this every weekday, without exception, come rain, wind or shine or shite. And I hate it.

 There is little pleasure in a run: you get stuffy and sweaty, your legs ache, stitches suck and pedestrians rarely make room for you to pass them on the pavement. There’s something curiously annoying about that surprised flinch they give when you overtake from behind. You expect that they would have heard your running shoes and exasperated breathing from metres back. Other times, some wannabe, alpa-type assholes (always male), posturing to friends (or simply because they are, by definition, assholes), will go out of their way to leap into your trajectory and yell some insult or distraction at you. I cannot emphasize enough just how annoying and upsetting this can be, not just because you are too out of breath or focussed on not breaking pace to fire anything back at your assailent but also because no one enjoys getting yelled at by a stranger on the street, especially at night. Pulled muscles are a major buzzkill and tend to hurt twofold. Firstly, because they very clearly physically hurt, which is quite self explanatory, but secondly – and perversely more importantly – they suck because a badly injured muscle can potentially keep you from running for anywhere between days and weeks (I went and tore my meniscus muscle earlier this year – which, let me assure you, smarts like an absolute mother-fucker – and it was only after receiving legitimate and stern medical instruction that I could bring myself to take time off).

 And yet, for all that, I have never regretted going for a run. It might not happen often, but there are certain occasions, and I am more than self-conscious to the fact of just how nauseatingly New-age this is going to sound – infact, it’s almost killing me just to type it – when a run can become a transcendental experience. Some people call it “the zone”, a term of which I have long been most deeply suspicious; nothing more than a matter of wild exaggeration. That’s what I thought. However, by way of whatever bio-kinetic/chemical process that may be taking place within the central nevous system while on a run, sometimes, it’s possible to settle into a kind of neurological groove in which any worries or pressing concerns you may have experienced that day, besides those expressly tasked with ensuring your lungs keep pumping and those that motivate you enough to keep your lazy ass moving, seem to evaporate out the top of your profusely sweat-drenched head and off into the evening air. I’m not saying that this is a sensation common to everybody who runs, but it does seem to be the case for me. Over the course of only a moderate run (5k perhaps), it is quite possible to get into a sort of benign fugue-state that’s almost entirely free of overly-conscious thinking for up to 3-4 minutes at a time. This may not seem like all that significant an amount of time, but if you’re one of those people whose brain is compulsively driven to analyzing, overthinking and obsessing its way through every minute of every day, it’s a welcome by-product of the whole wretched process.

At this point, I should probably tell you that I may have undersold just how much of a distraction and an inconvenience those thoughts relating to breathing and motivation really are and just how much they make running suck. There’s this great section in Martin Amis’ 1984 novel, Money, in which the protagonist, John Self, meets a fictionalized version of Amis in a West London greasy spoon. As Self orders a wine with his lunch, he offers a glass to Amis who declines on the grounds that if he drinks in the afteroon, he tends to feel shitty later in the day. The fictionalized Amis character explains to Self:

Yes, well it all comes down to choices, doesn’t it? It’s the same in the evenings. Do you want to feel good at night or do you want to feel good in the morning? It’s the same with life. Do you want to feel good young or do you want to feel good old? One or the other, not both.

No good mood is left unpunished. You can’t have it both ways, there’s no joy without a price. Drinkers have hangovers, narcotics bingers and acid fiends suffer comedowns, and junkies have that horrendous withdrawal sickness. In immediate contrast to those other pursuits, sure, running is actually pretty good for your general wellbeing – though I’ve heard it can be hell on the knees in later life – but that high it gives you, boy do you have to pay for it. The shortcomings of the respiratory system and the complex and all-to-fragile cognitive process involved in keeping yourself moving make very sure of that. In my own experince, their combined effect, while you’re desperately pushing to reach that plateau of mental serenity, is kinda like having a hangover while you’re still drunk.

 It is a sad fact that these two details pretty much totally control exactly how much you are able and how much you actually want to run. With the lungs, the problem is entirely physiological and a relatively straightforward matter. If your lungs are physically weak, you will not be able to run very far. The other issue, unfortunately, is a little more compicated. The knowledge that there is an entire branch of sports psychology (sic) dedicated to the subject of motivation is simultaneously reassuring and demoralizing, i.e. that there is a very real and finite amount of exertion that a person is capable of investing into any particular endeavour before the conscious, rational and highest functioning part of the mind settles on the conclusion that  “I would really rather not be doing this” and that this shortcoming in and of itself could warrant the establishment of an entire field of scientific and academic study as well as justifying the existence of multitple schools of widely differing orthodoxy when it comes to their approach in applying the principles outlined in the impirically substantiated and peer reviewed literature of said academy.

The more you run, the better you get at controlling both of these issues. I was in a seriously unhealthy state when I first started running and I remember distinctly that I made it to all of 0.8km before I had to break pace and walk for a while because it quite honestly felt like one of my lungs had wrapped itself around my windpipe and was trying its best to choke me to death right there on Stoke Newington Church Street. 3 months in, I was running over 7km before having to stop. At 6 months it was 9km, and so on so forth. And I’ve lost weight. Like, a significant amount of weight. About 3 stone and counting. I’m also happier, more confident and more motivated in other aspects of my life. That’s not really what it’s about though, the run is its own reward. I’m not saying that everybody should run but it’s working for me. Although, as I’ve already stated, I hate it.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. ~meredith says:

    Irony: the addiction that feeds us. Good read.

  2. gillswriting says:

    Great read, you haven’t got me in my running shoes just yet though! Thanks for stopping by my blog I hope you stick around for the rest of my Tanzanian adventure.

  3. Absolutely brilliant. Finally someone has written down exactly what I think about running in a succinct manner.

  4. I thank god – the universe – whatever, that I’m too old to start subjecting my body (let alone my mind) to such horrendous torture!

  5. Oh my :). Yes, what tedious and pleasant torture running is. I do it for the buzz and the boost it gives to my confidence.

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