Last Saturday, the first almost-warm day of the year, I went for a run along the river, into town, through the park – a four mile loop in perfect, breezy, sunny conditions. It was glorious for about a mile and a half, at which point I developed a cramp in my stomach. I kept going for a few minutes, thinking it was a kind of test, that I could will myself to be tougher, but at about two miles I had to stop and walk for a while. I was desperately disappointed. Real runners don’t walk, I thought, as I imagined that every passerby was staring at me, registering my failure.
A thing about me: I really, really don’t like to fail. I’d rather not try and never know than try and fail – a terrible attitude, possibly a product of my aggressively encouraging middle-class American upbringing: you can be anything you want if you just put your mind to it!
But I have a very active imagination, and I like telling myself stories. I like thinking, for instance, that maybe I could have developed into a decent runner if I hadn’t quit the track team halfway through my first season in high school. Maybe the only reason I didn’t go to Harvard is because I didn’t apply. Maybe the only reason I’m not an award-winning, critically-acclaimed, bestselling author is because I didn’t write the book I really wanted to write.
Thinking this way leaves open the possibility that I might have the potential to be better, or at least different, without requiring me to actually realize that potential. Equally it allows me to ignore the possibility that I am just doing my best, and my best is this. It’s cowardly, but it’s far easier for me to live in a space of “could have” than a space of knowing for sure and moving on. Sometimes (or so I tell myself), self-sabotage is actually an act of self-preservation.
The older I get, the more settled into routines and rituals, the smaller my world seems to be. I work from home, observe the changing of seasons and the fights and trysts of the neighbors’ cats from the same vantage point day in, day out; I swim my morning mile within the 25-meter-long confines of the same pool; I divide my days into neat segments: PhD work, freelance work, writing work, housework. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s important for me to feel comfortable, productive, safe. But I don’t want to be actively averse to change, or blind to my surroundings.
In this way running is actually just an effort to do something new – or, rather, to see the same things from a slightly different perspective. What does this street feel like at the end of a 10k run? What does it do to my conception of the city to shorten the time it takes to get from here to there on my own two feet, to discover a new route, to think of that particular street corner as the place I had to walk for a bit, or that stretch of road as the place that everything felt effortless and good?
It’s also about expanding my relationship with my own body. Running makes me uncomfortable, physically and mentally. The mental discomfort boils down to fear. Fear of failure, yes, of course. But also: fear of knowing, fear of breaking down, of not being able. Fear of finding out once and for all what my body can and cannot do. I’m afraid of knowing my limits because then my world shrinks again: where once everything was possible, if entirely unlikely, now it’s clear that not everything is possible. I don’t just mean this in relation to exercise, but exercise makes a nice metaphor. I’m reminded of Haruki Murakami - “I’m no great runner, by any means,” he writes:
I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be. Since my forties, though, this system of self-assessment has gradually changed. Simply put, I am no longer able to improve my time.
For my birthday this year, at my request, Xander bought me a watch, so that I can time myself as I swim or run, keep track, measure my progress (or lack thereof). He also bought me two books, unexpected, which arrived at the house one day when he was at work. One of them was André Aciman’s Alibis, in which I read:
Time’s covenants are all warped. We live Fibonacci lives: three steps forward, two steps back, or the other way around: three steps forward, five back. Or in both directions simultaneously, in the manner of spiders or of Bach’s crab canons.
Aciman is writing about memory, about the way certain scents are tied to certain moments, but in other senses as well we live in both directions simultaneously, looking backwards and forwards, being pulled and pushed at the same time. Here we are, getting older every second, moving always towards or away from some invisible optimum moment, some impossible optimum self.
Yesterday was so warm and mild and sweet-smelling that I had to get out of the house. Thinking about last weekend’s rather miserable run gave me a surge of optimism: things would be better this time, because I was starting out in the right frame of mind. Deliberately tempting fate, I followed the same route. All along the river people were strolling or sitting in the sun. A few cyclists weaved laconically through the throngs. For a while I ran almost alongside a rowing eight; I could hear the cox’s heavy, rhythmic shouts and the creak of the oars.
Feeling good, I split from the river at Folly Bridge and ran up towards Christ Church Meadow, which was full of laughing people in T-shirts. As I entered the park I felt a twinge in my right side. This is why I stopped running a few years ago: this very particular, mysterious pain, frustratingly erratic, always in the same place, always expressing itself just as I was starting to feel confident, as if warning me against complacency, re-establishing the supremacy of matter over mind. Once or twice I’d tried half-heartedly to have it diagnosed by my doctor, who remained stumped, but I hadn’t really pursued it; I didn’t really want to know. I always think of that Rilo Kiley song: “I do this thing where I think I’m real sick / But I won’t go to the doctor to find out about it.”
Yesterday was the first real sign I’d had of the pain in months, and I thought for a minute or two that I’d just keep going, pretend I hadn’t noticed, but when this became impossible I slowed to a limping, defeated walk. Everyone in the park was so happy, I thought (making up stories again), all sitting there smugly in the grass with their friends and their families, enjoying the Sunday afternoon calm before the weekday storm. It was a sea of life, streams of toddlers, swells of pregnant bellies, tangles of athletic young limbs. Teenage lovers embraced; elderly couples with stilted but well-practiced gaits walked along with a small distance between them; hardcore runners breezed past me, breathing regularly, carefully.
When I’d left the house earlier Xander had just gone up to the hospital to visit his father, who’s recovering from a quadruple bypass. That you can split open someone’s chest for the sake of improving their health amazes and terrifies me: that such a thing might be necessary, that such a thing might be possible, that such a thing happens on a regular enough basis to be considered routine. It gives extra weight to this idea of living in both directions simultaneously, sabotaging and saving, going towards and away from the optimum self that will never quite exist, never did quite exist.
What a stupid exercise it was really, this running lark, I thought, as I passed a group of picnickers sprawled out in the shade – and now I’d have to jog-walk humiliatingly the whole way home, my wounded pride on public display, and then maybe when I got home I wouldn’t run again for another three or four years, too frustrated, too afraid.
I jog-walked all the way around the park and across the bridge and up the Iffley Road, past the track where Roger Bannister ran the first recorded sub-4-minute mile almost exactly 60 years ago. As I got nearer to home, I started to feel a little better. By the time I reached my house I felt fine enough to keep going. I’d gone about eight kilometers; I might as well run until I hit ten, I thought, so I made a convoluted extension to my route, up and down the same streets, looping back on myself, dodging pedestrians, turning my neighborhood into the site of a very small victory.