Sunday, December 14, 2014

Running Solo: Thoughts Ahead Of My Feet

valley_view_jaschwartzI’ve been called the Pippy Longstocking or Punky Brewster of running. Pick your generation, I suppose. I get myself into and out of my own troubles, and I tend to run in whatever multitude of clothing layers I can cobble together on a cold day.  The only article of clothing I find indisputably important is the sports bra. It’s my whole support team. (Oof. I’ll take that rim shot now!)

Today was a cold, bluebird day. Beautiful. Crisp. Just under 20 degrees when I set out, with the sun blazing overhead, tricking me into thinking I was warmer than I was. Truth be told, I’d only been running about 15 minutes when I could no longer really feel my legs. Just a slightly rough sensation as I rubbed one wool-covered hand across one reddened thigh. Oh yes. I was wearing shorts. Seemed like the right thing to do. Sunny = shorts. Right? Shorts and a-burst-of-color knee-high socks, socks that, having lost some of their elasticity, would slide slowly down to mid-calf every second mile or so. Annoying. Yet illustrative of the wearisome state of always being “on.” My socks, strangely enough, were telling me, nagging me to relax. I just know they were. Let go, they pestered. Slide a little, slouch, exhale. What a tease.

Running makes me feel tough. (Tough enough to ignore those anthropomorphized socks!) Running hills tougher than that. Bursting out from the tree-shade of an uphill climb into a crystal sky, with my chin thrust out into the glare of an uninterrupted sun, even tougher still. (And I haven’t touched on mountain running yet.)

By and large, however, this feeling, this hardy sensation is more a façade than a disclosure, a false ameliorative, like cough drops or BenGay. I feel empowered for that moment just before I realize that I am indeed feeling empowered. Endorphins in, endorphins out. Recognition lifts the veil. And so begins the push and pull between exhaustion and resilience. The first wind swooshing out just as the second, third, and fourth inevitably take full effect. Physically, mentally, emotionally amped—and drained. My reserves truly tapped (as both a fulsome resource and a tacky depletion). This all happens in an eye blink. A flood of thoughts rain down from an otherwise clear outlook, so quickly, so instantly that I simultaneously swell with vitality—with creative enthusiasm—and crumple under its weight. I know I’m thinking about thinking about thinking about my state of being. Seriously, it’s that ludicrously convoluted. But whatever its label, I thrive on it. And unwind with it.

A tender sadomasochistic streak, perhaps? Is this the mythic runner’s high?

Running today was sheer pleasure, even if only a procrastinative tactic. Better, it was a way to avoid all responsibility for an hour or so, while still feeling beautifully productive. Yeah, that sentence order makes for better accuracy. Descriptive. Honest. Running makes me feel tough. It also makes me realize how much I can accomplish, how far I can move, in a relatively contained amount of time. Procrastination somehow translates to efficiency through the combined mechanics of breathing, foot placement, arm swinging, and head swiveling. Running, unlike writing, always gets me somewhere relatively soon. I’ve yet to find myself (knock on wood) stuck on a run, like on a word. Or hesitant (knock knock) to experiment with a new route, like a risky turn-of-phrase.

At the same time, the yield gained through running also proves how important it is simply to do, to work, to try. To keep moving, as it were, through action verbs. Sitting with a single word, searching for its more appropriate synonym might drain hours from a single day. But that sitting is still moving. Because the moment that synonym reveals itself… Woot! Woot!

The hours suddenly become a satisfactory pregame to the thrilling – if over in a twinkling – match between myself and my own self. Between the mind of a perfectionist, a fusspot, a quibbler, and the frenzied and frantic reflections of a nevertheless resourceful, proficient, well-organized control freak. (See what I did there? Synonyms!) Go figure. Running, like writing, almost exactly echoes (because what echo do you know that is ever actually exact?) the musings of that iconic Romantic rambler, William Wordsworth, when he claims that good poetry, genius poetry comes from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. I paraphrase, kinda. You get it. (And if you want it, check out Wordsworth’s preface to his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.)

Writing, like running, is my outlet. One mental, obsessed with the noumena of the new, the unique, the well-said; the other physical, challenged by the phenomena of my everyday. Both keenly involved in the study of and confrontation with place, with place-making, with home. My preferred way(s) of interacting with the world – unless you find me in the classroom, in front of students, where intriguingly running becomes a mental exercise and writing a physical workout. A chiasmus of identifications. The classroom is an entirely distinct type of home to me, portable, transportable, immediate, iterative, never replicable. A construct of place from which I am me in a way that is wholly unlike me otherwise. Hmmm, I seem to have strayed off course here… but I’ll keep moving.

From my current house, a rental from the college complete with wooded backyard for the dogs to search out new rabbit holes, shrew tunnels, and crow caches, I run up the road, then left up the hill (with a valley view at my back, teasing me to look over my shoulder again and again, typically with a trip and a swerve — the clumsy rubbernecking of a distracted runner).

I turn left again under expansive views of cloudless blue, demarcated by horizon lines of harvested cornfields, silos, and peppered by rooftops. Another left and I’m halfway through the five- or six-mile loop that makes up one of my favorite runs. Another road winding winding winding up and around. Making my final turn I pass athletic fields, a corn field, and I hit home — again.

And I run right by it. Not. Done. Yet. I parody Monty Python and keep running, retracing the familiar route, attempting as always to catch the thoughts racing way ahead of my feet.


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Janelle A. Schwartz teaches literature and environmental studies at Hamilton College. She is the author of Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism, and the founder and general director of Hamilton’s soon-to-launch Academic Program in the Adirondacks. Sited in Keene, this experiential, interdisciplinary semester considers the nature of place and place-making through stewardship and the liberal arts.

Janelle is working on her first travel narrative/memoir, Land and Sky and Chocolate Milk, about the relationship between solitary running, the contemplative moment, and land use in Alaska, New Orleans, the Adirondacks, and some other sites in between. Alaska used to be home for Janelle, but she is thrilled to call the Adirondacks home (home at last!) as of this coming summer.


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  1. Chris says:


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