Essays on Technology and Culture

What I Think About When I Think About Running

In April, I started the Couch to 5K training program. As I write this, I’m in week 7, having missed some time due to travel, injury, and other issues. I run because I want to be in better shape. I want to lose weight, and stave off an early death from a life spent sitting. I do not run because I like it. In fact, I hate running. Even this deep into the training program, I keep it up because I hate it less than I hate lifting heavy things and putting them down. I hate running less than yoga, than swimming, team sports, or most other forms of physical fitness.

Truth is, I’m a walker. I’ll walk all over. I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more. I’m also a fast walker. This comes from being a city person—streets are crowded, and everyone has somewhere to be. So, keep moving and get out of the way. During my lost year, I would routinely take late night walks from my apartment in West Philadelphia at 45th Street, over to the banks of the Delaware river, and sometimes back. I walk most weekends down Queens Boulevard, around Forest Hills, and back. When I take lunch at work, I get in a good walk around Chelsea, most days. When I still wore a FitBit, I rarely missed my 10,000 step goal in a day. If I ever did, I made it up in spades on the weekend.

I find walking to be an almost meditative activity. It’s just me, my thoughts, and the ambient noise of the city. Running isn’t an activity that allows for thought. It’s just pumping and pounding—and sweating. The only way I can make it tolerable is to blast loud, rhythmic music into my ears as I go. I prefer DEVO and Daft Punk, trying to time my footfalls to the beat. This is not what I expected to experience, having read Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book is a memoir of both his craft as a novelist, and as a runner. It made me want to take up running then, in the hopes that maybe some of Murakami’s greatness would rub off on me.

Murakami’s view of running is romantic and freeing, a quiet solitude of motion:

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

My homemade void from running is neither cozy, nor quiet. It is strenuous, and it is painful. At least Murakami didn’t gloss over the painful part:

“If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive—or at least a partial sense of it.”

I can’t romanticize pain. Maybe because i’ve had enough of it in my life already, physical and mental, externally and self-inflicted alike. Sure, it feels good when the pain subsides, when the endorphins kick in and everything feels soft and numb, much like the muscles in my legs after pushing myself on the treadmill. But it always feels good having ran. If I’m going to get into even slightly better shape, I’m going to have to take the pain. I don’t have to like it. As Murakami says, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Besides, I already dropped $120 on the fancy fucking running shoes with the arch support I need to avoid shin splints. I’m paying out the nose for the gym membership, so I’d better use it. I’m at the seventh week of a nine week program, and it’s taken me four months to reach it. If I stop now, that’s all a waste, right? The alternative is that there is no alternative, aside from sucking it up and doing something else I don’t like three times a week.

“What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue,” says Haruki Murakami. What do I think about when I’m running? How soon I can stop.