When all the kids signed up for peewee baseball, I was signing up for my first library card. My brother spent his summers sliding in the dirt, under the hot, Idaho sun, and his olive complexion speaks of it to this day. I once checked out a book on Babe Ruth to impress him, but otherwise I was content to walk across the street from the ball games and while away most summer days in the bright, artificially lit interior of the public library.
In the autumns of my adolescence, when my friends played football, I’d attend games, usually with Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, somebody whose work was as much an athletic feat to carry as read. Come winter my peers said, “You should try out for basketball!” because I’m tall. Sort of. “Yeah,” I’d hesitate, “maybe next year,” directing my attention back to the action on the page.
They got me in the spring, though: track and field. Sure, I could run. And I knew I should. “You’re built for it,” they said, calling more attention than I wanted to my long, skinny legs. I figured I should because I live an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. At the behest of the coach, I ran long distances, both 800- and 1,600-meter races, giving the crowd the encore of me gasping and coughing my way to the finish line, dead last. Teammates were kind and encouraging, as all good sportsmen should be, which only made me loathe them that much more. Not only were they better at employing their limbs than I, they were also better at kindness. Compassion only salts wounded pride like mine, so I decided to run alone.
For a while during my first year of college, the route I ran trailed from campus to the end of the boardwalk on the bay and back. I took that one a few times, and then made the mistake of inviting someone along with me. I had practice, at least, so my friend wouldn’t think me weak and out of shape; I do the same thing with jokes and certain conversations that can’t manage on their own, off the cuff. As we ran, I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed my friend’s pace and breathing rate were compared to my shuffling and wheezing. At the end, he seemed refreshed. My lungs were deflated and my legs were jelly. Only later did I find out this friend of mine was training for a marathon.
“You need something to run for,” he told me as I dangled my sweaty running shoes above the Dumpster six stories down from my room. Fear of pain prevented me from most sports. Fear of complete social rejection guarded me against the rest. After two years of tennis had amounted to sunburns and a total of 142 balls lost, I had nearly stopped exercise altogether when I decided I might do the least damage as an amateur runner. Now I was contemplating my future: offspring who resent their father for never teaching them how to hit a ball, never being comfortable in my own body around those who are, only adequate when discussing other people’s ideas. I thought of Alison Bechdel’s hyperintellectual father in her tragicomic memoir Fun Home, his snobbery and aloofness, and wondered if I would turn out on par with him in 20 years. “Run a 10K, or train for a half-marathon,” my friend said.
“You’re right,” I concurred. “I need something to run for.”
In May, Bellingham hosts Ski to Sea, an annual Memorial Day weekend event consisting of seven legs—cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, running, road biking, canoeing, mountain biking, and kayaking—to cover a total of 85 miles from Mount Baker to Marine Park on Bellingham Bay, where a bell is hung over the finish line. Inspired, I join a team, jumpstart, and begin training in winter, running a mile or two, three or four mornings out of the week.
At best, running keeps me from feeling guilty. The guilt of letting my legs and lungs go to waste. I am a perfectly able-bodied young man; I should get out and enjoy the fresh air.One frigid February morning, President’s Day weekend, while visiting my family, I wave to my father, an avid runner himself, with pride as I step out the door. “I’m going for a run.” Not 15 minutes later, I return and share with him something only a son can: “I think I froze my business,” I say before rushing to take a hot shower and then spending the rest of the weekend hunkered over Stiff, a Mary Roach exposition regarding cadavers and their uses in scientific study.
I persist. In the Bellingham thaw of March and April, I run the trail along the water that I’ve frequently walked to the independent bookstore across town. At best, running keeps me from feeling guilty. The guilt of letting my legs and lungs go to waste. I am a perfectly able-bodied young man; I should get out and enjoy the fresh air, use what God gave me.
As May approaches, previous Ski-to-Sea competitors clue me in to the severe joint pain sure to find me on the course’s eight-mile, downhill run. The pre-race orientation materials I receive add: Runners, bears have been sighted along the highway recently; be aware.
On race day, as I am waiting for the baton pass on Mount Baker, another runner asks me, “What kind of shirt are you wearing? Is that cotton?”
“Yeah, that’s not a good fabric for running. You might want to rub some gel or something on your nipples before the race.”
Joint pain, bears, and bleeding nipples. And I have chosen to wear vintage, gold basketball shorts—the short-short kind—I picked up at a consignment store and a tank-top that reads Holy Smoke: A Tavern. I am everything I hate; I am everything you pity.
When I’m finally taking stride down the mountain highway, I’m given a spectacular view of the Nooksack River Valley. The clear blue sky offers a bearable heat as long as it’s occasionally traded for the shade of the mountain and the brisk breezes from the run-off streams. Even by Mile 4, halfway, I can still catch glimpses of the deep, green gorge at the foot of the mountain. This is easily the most beautiful run I have ever taken, and I am focused on my time, if I am letting my team down. By Mile 6, it’s all I can think about. Although my nipples aren’t bleeding, I wouldn’t know it if they were. I keep my feet moving in numb exhaustion, relying mostly on gravity now to set my pace, feeling only the memory of every footfall as the ground impacts my heel, up my shin, reverberating through my knee and thigh, well into my hip. These are the memories that will be my waking nightmares for the next three days as every step is accompanied with sharp aches and deep regret.
Plenty of people I know love reading about sports, but reading about running, or any sort of sport, reminds me that I’m sitting.I try to clear my head and focus on breathing. I try some meditation techniques. I know that I am breathing in. I know that I am breathing out. I don’t know if meditation is usually this intense and active, although Pico Iyer, author of a recent biography on the Dalai Lama, mentioned at a reading that the Dalai Lama often rides his bike and listens to NPR during his meditations. That might be different, though. The Dalai Lama is a Buddhist holy man, and I am a wiry, bookish competitor in a race I have entered to try and outrun my insecurities.
Approaching the finish line, I remember another warning from runners in previous races: there is a slight incline at the end of the course; many people struggle to adjust from their downhill pace, and vomit. My nervous stomach prevented me from eating much of anything before the race. Chances are if there was anything coming up, it would have happened by now. I cringe for the final mile, relaxing just after I cross the finish line, and nearly fall on my face. Runners around me are sitting in mountain runoff streams to cool their muscles, or munching on Clif Bars and water from the concession stand. I want nothing more than to detach my exhausted limbs from my trunk and exchange them for a new pair, like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Better yet, I wish to hide at home, rubbed down with muscle balm while enjoying essays by Sloane Crosley.
Some people have found a way to balance their literature and their athletics. Nick Hornby’s an unrepentant soccer fanatic. Haruki Murakami likes, presumably at least, to talk about running. And who doesn’t? But I overlook those books for volumes a little less…hmm…aerobic. Plenty of people I know love reading about sports, but reading about running, or any sort of sport, reminds me that I’m sitting, alone usually, on a soft couch, out of the elements, doing nothing to engage the vessel into which I was born. Those books remind me of what I am not: a runner.
Journalist Christopher McDougall suggests in his book that I am Born to Run, and elaborates on the history and physiology of running in his study of the Tarahumara tribe, who run, nearly and sometimes completely barefoot, distances measurable by the standard in your state gazetteer. Someone recommended this summer that I read it. On the one hand, I think it could be a fascinating scientific and anthropological insight into the human machine. On the other, I remember my own body, which still gives stern warning even now when I step too briskly down the slanted sidewalks of Seattle. “Yeah,” I decide, “I’m not going to read that.”
I still run, on occasion and when no one is looking, but when I don’t run, I don’t run because I already spend much of my life walking. I walk to work and to cafés anywhere I can find them, along arboretum trails and through downtown. My car ranks alongside competitive sports in my life—a social construction I am neither skilled at nor invested in—so I forfeit its convenience much of the time to use my young, able legs, and walk. Even if it’s just a stroll across town to cozy up in a café with a good book.