Tag Archives: essay

Marathon runners crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

On Running #2

I’m not sure when it happened – but I crossed a line somewhere along the way, and became a morning person. I’d regularly find myself sitting by the window, waiting for the sun to come up, watching the steam rise from my coffee, letting the quiet and the wakefulness and the possibility of the day course through me. And then… I would go running.

On one of those mornings this Summer, I was about six weeks into a marathon training plan, and halfway into an eleven mile run along the Potomac River. On some runs, I just listen to my own ideas. I think about what I see, or I think about myself and assess what’s going on in my life. But on this particular morning, I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” – going for the meta-experience, forcing reflection into my morning’s effort.

I put on the brakes when one particular line struck me. Meditating on his own training, Murakami shared a mantra he repeats to himself on hard runs:

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

There are moments of clarity on some runs, lingering beneath the surface of the repetition – simple truths that bubble up, instigated by a few words, a melody, or some dormant experience.

I started repeating Murakami’s mantra to myself. I pounded the trail, counting my paces. One step, two, three, four.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

A week later, on a tennis court: the “inevitable” pain came, along with the “optional” suffering: a torn calf. I couldn’t stand or walk. My wife had to leave me on the curb while she found a car to drive me home in.

Three weeks of physical therapy went by before I could even think about stepping on a treadmill, another three weeks before I could comfortably log a few miles. I still had a marathon to run.

Running does something to the brain. It lights up cannabinoid receptors, a part of the nervous system that regulates physiological processes like memory, mood, and pain sensation. If cannabinoids sound like cannabis, you’re on the right track. “Runner’s High” is not just shoe company marketing bullshit – it’s science. Running gets you high. High enough that you don’t listen to your body, that you give it a heavier beating than it can withstand, and that you don’t really care.

When I was a teenager in gym class, and we had to run “the mile” – it was death. An entire mile might as well have been a trek across the Sahara. I was not an athlete. Candy bars, soda. Video games and smoking. Those were my things, my highs. Not running. I never let myself go far enough to feel the runner’s high.

I gave up smoking during college, but I didn’t adopt any healthier habits in its place. Instead, I learned to love traveling. It took me a while to connect the dots, but now, when I lace up my running shoes and start going, the relationship is clear. Travel is the essence of running.

A run is a journey like any other – for joy, for necessity, or for any of the infinite reasons people choose to move their bodies from one place to another. The name of the race isn’t an accident: In 490 B.C., following the battle of Marathon, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens – 26 miles – to announce that the Persians had been defeated. To run has always had a purpose.

A few years after graduating, I was working in an office and a group of colleagues invited me to sign up for a 10-mile race with them. I considered it, and running 10 miles somehow didn’t seem any crazier than the other things I was doing that once seemed inconceivable: being an adult, traveling, having a job and an apartment. OK, I said. Let’s run.

I trained for that race with focus and discipline I hadn’t known I was capable of. That I had never run more than a mile before wasn’t important. I inched my way up, night after night, on the treadmill in the gym that overlooked the parking garage. Two miles, then three, then four. Running felt like an easy problem to solve. The equation was simple. Keep adding.

Years later, I’ve grown as a runner and a person. I finished that race and I’ve run lots of others, of various lengths, in a variety of places. Despite the injury, I crossed the finish line of my second Marathon last weekend.

My memories of different runs stretch across the palette of human emotion: from indescribable euphoria, to complete suffering and misery. Anything can happen as my body nears its tipping point; my knees screaming, my feet black and bruised, and under several grimy layers of dirt and sweat, my mouth twisted into a grimace.

Running is a rush of something… a feeling… what is it? I look up into a beautiful cloudless sky, a breeze shushes Spring cherry blossoms, the right song plays. I jog across a car-free bridge, look up at a skyscraper, at a waving flag, or over to the sea. My skin is freezing, or it’s scalding. An old man passes me going uphill, a child in a Superman costume hands out a high-five.

Everything else stops, except for me. I am in motion, I am motion, and my heart pounds. My feet ache, my mind smiles.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

On Change


The impact of a change can be drastically different, depending on what ends and what begins; when a magazine subscription runs out has less force over my daily life than when a new president takes office.  The last time a new presidency began, a magazine with his face on the cover was mysterious – who is he, without a name?  It was actually the cover of TIME, with a superimposed composite, a half-face of Bush and Gore each, which confounded me.  That was a change.  Many more sizable events have covered magazines since, and now the covers shift – to a new face, and another one who went unrecognized until relatively recently.

So after eight years, what has changed America has changed me, and in converse, participations of mine have changed it (in miniscule).  Over the last 2,920 days I’ve spent a fair share in continuity, without any distortions provoked or unsolicited; yet, a number of days were flooring, mountainous arenas of alteration.  The greatest changes can go unnoticed and unrealized until weeks, months afterward, when creeping realization storms in, shouting that Everything is different.  Maybe this current moment – Jan. 20, 2009 – is of the sleeper distinction, a silent assassin of the standard, tripping history’s wires into reverberations that won’t truly sound for decades or more.

The immediate variety of change may recede with the same expediency in which it’s announced.  Changes that consume you the moment they begin – an automobile accident – are presently over, as they happen.  These events that almost transcend time by how their course begins and ends simultaneously can devastate, but they’re a different animal than the sleeper changes, the subconscious departures from our paradigm, which evolve over lengths to mangle the formation of what was into what will be. 

The question then is what change is more important?  More terrifying?  More cause for celebration or despair or hope or reflection?  An adventure of an instant, or the slowly blowing wind of an eon.  I haven’t figured out yet what happens with these new magazine covers, putting away the faces of yesterday for the fresh crop of now. 

A few examples, magazine covers, changes witnessed since the last inauguration of a new American president:  September, 2001 – The now category.  Insta-change.  Glossy pages of terrified faces, burning embers, and the resultant discord.  March, 2003:  An obvious beginning, the war in Iraq.  But what ended?  Peace was already missing.  November, 2004.  Another election.  What kind of change was that?  A slow mover, trucking into another four years of the same?  Or an everything is different, forget your predictions and buckle your seatbelt change?  July, 2007, London: A sea-change, slow and heavy?  A bullet-fast strike to the comfort zone?   June 14, 2002.  A random day plucked from thin air, a date apart from celebrity or notoriety.  What happened?  Something, probably.  Some unrecognized change.  

Change is tricky, because it isn’t classified only by what it hopes to affect, but also by its precursors and motivators.  I don’t know how to rank it – by the end it signifies, or the future it promises.  Changes have distinct forms, the personal and the public –  moving to a new city, or reading new magazines about a new president.  Change can shift in significance from one perspective to the next.  Change can weave softly between life’s moods, like  interplay of air and water in a cirrus cloud, or ravage like wildfire, like the desert sun.