I took up running at age twelve. On a sticky summer day, I put on my tennis shoes and ran a lap around our yard. Then I ran another, and another, after which I collapsed, face down, gasping, aching, and bemoaning my existence until my father came with the lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving. I had, roughly estimated, run a quarter-mile.
The next day, I put on my shoes and did it again, this time making it one additional lap. Same the next. Eventually, my stamina outgrew our yard, so my mother drove me around an adjacent neighborhood, mapping out a three-mile course with the odometer. Somewhere between now and then, running went beyond being a hobby, and became an integral part of who I am. I’ve spent more of my waking life running than any other singular activity. Strange, because I don’t remember much of it.
Novelist and runner Haruki Murakami is often asked what he thinks about while running. “Usually,” he says, “the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves.” Because if they did, they’d know the answer: “I don’t have a clue.”
I’m the same way. While some miles are painfully, inescapably real, most of them go by without my knowing the difference. I will sometimes arrive home not knowing how I got there or what I’d been thinking about with only my watch as proof of time having passed.
“Sorry about the other day,” a neighbor recently said.
“You were running. I nearly ran you over.”
“You jumped into the ditch.”
I had no idea.
It’s not that my mind goes blank, it just goes…. I daydream. I think back on significant memories or times. Sometimes I write. I pray. Or none of it. It’s like I’m not even there.
In one of his more famous short stories, Ted Chiang writes of numerous alien ships that appear at various locations across the earth and a linguist who is assigned the task of learning their language. She discovers that through this language they not only communicate but also foresee the future.
According to Chiang, the aliens have a different ‘mode of awareness.’ (Kurt Vonnegut wrote of similarly-inclined creatures in Slaughterhouse Five.) We, humans, experience time as sequential:
one thing happens
the next event occurs
followed, inevitably, by another
and (to quote Vonnegut) “so it goes.”
We understand our existence as the relationship between cause and effect. Chiang’s aliens, however, experience all events at once. Stories exist in their entirety; single events are like toy figurines in a grander train set. It’s the difference between focusing on the overall story, or on the moments within it, that determines how they are experienced.
I’m running up the side of a mountain. It’s raining and the rock face is slick. I lose my footing and slip, tumbling until I catch myself on a sapling.
Mile 22 of a marathon. My girlfriend is in the crowd, cheering me on. So is a man holding a cardboard sign that says “Give up, you’re never gonna make it!”
The day is sunny and deliciously cold. A dog jumps on me as I run by.
I’m running in a crowd and overtaken by a man in a full-body chicken costume. Cluck-cluck-cluck, he says as he passes.
I’m lonely, depressed, the day is grey and as I’m finishing my run, it begins to snow.
What if all these moments weren’t sequential, but were themed? What if I’m encountering God in a composite, not causative, way?
I’ve noticed that when I go for long runs, afterward I tend to be remarkably present. Although my mind may be miles and years removed during the run, I return to the now with a keener focus.
Chiang’s character had a similar result. Far from a prophet or seer predicting doomsday, she experienced time more simply. Like someone re-reading a good story, she knew the ending, knew every page, yet didn’t skip a single line. She read with more intentionality than she had before. Because it’s not the ending but the story that matters.
Running has taught me how to reflect and remember. It’s taught me the brutality of impatience. It’s taught me that generosity heals. It’s taught me that adventure isn’t always glamorous and that life is fragile and yet durable.
There was no ‘ah-ha!’ moment for any of these lessons. It’s just that one day I started running and now they are.
My story of running isn’t sequential. I started at twelve but many days, even now, I start running and find myself back there. Or elsewhere. Or nowhere.
Or there comes along a lawnmower and a persuasive case for moving.