Three or four times a week, since I was around 18, wherever I’ve been, I’ve woken, dressed, and jogged an easy route that loops back to its beginning. I’m now 29 and following what I imagine were those first few months of building endurance (I don’t remember them in any detail), I’ve not improved. I run no further and no faster; I just keep running.
Usually, I run around 5 kilometres in under 30 minutes. If the weather is right and I have the time and inclination, I can run a little over 10 kilometres, but this doesn’t happen more than a few times a year. I’ve never attempted a marathon or a half-marathon. I’ve joined a handful of fun runs with friends but have never trained for an event.
Here’s what I do: I run alone, I run in the morning, and I try not to miss two days in a row. I took this last rule from Haruki Murakami’s sweet and thoughtful book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s the only disciplinary regime to which I’ve ever fully committed. I’ve never been able to perform any other workout for more than a few days; I’ve never written as much as I want to or for as long as I want to; I’ve never been able to meditate with regularity, or scrupulously control portion sizes; I’ve never read as closely or quickly or widely as I’ve meant to. But sometimes I run and am satisfied.
I run in the morning for two reasons. The first: if nothing else is done that day, it will stand as one accomplishment. The second: if I run in the evening, I’ll spend the day in suspense, unhappily remembering what awaits me: looming, incomplete. This is because I never want to run.
I struggle with the relationship between running and desire (or its lack). Why do I feel so compelled to do something I don’t actually want to do? There are more efficient forms of exercise; there are even more efficient ways of running than my unhurried, unceasing jog. It elicits no trance or euphoria. I’ve read about the runner’s high, but have never, to my knowledge, experienced one. I think the appeal (if such a word makes sense when talking about a lack of desire) resides in the activity’s intellectual surrender. I never quite know why I do it, and it’s such a relief not to care.
Of course our desire frequently fails to align with our best interests, but the rhythm of running seems to exist altogether outside the pattern of wanting that governs so such a quantity of lived experience. Much of my day is spent working to get what I want, or contending with the fact that I can’t. Somehow, running circumvents this. I could say that running gives shape to my week, or keeps my weight in check, or improves my cardiovascular health. But its virtue, above all, is that it’s simply what I do.
I think this is why, increasingly, running has become the only part of my life in which I feel entirely myself, because of what it allows me to abandon. I make no decisions, I relinquish ambition, I am uncontactable, and if struck by a yearning to respond to an email or listen to Sufjan Stevens or check who liked my latest Instagram post, I cannot, because I leave my phone at home.
In his hyperbolising polemic ‘Against Exercise’, Mark Greif describes the runner as a kind of haughty, militant evangelist:
With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publically sweating on them.
I concede that the unstoppable activewear-clad enthusiast muttering a panting ’scuse-me as he barrels through your conversation is aggrieving. If it matters, I try not to be this person.
To push back against Greif, instead of seeing running as an imposition, I would like to picture it as a perspective, a method of approach that changes the relation between the body and landscape. Putting aside discourses of exercise and self-improvement, running becomes both a way to see the world and a way of seeing the world.
Away from home, I’ve run through the suburbs of Austin, Texas, alongside Lake Michigan in central Chicago, through snow in Golden, Colorado. In Colorado I thought I was having a heart attack until I realised that it was the elevation making my lungs feel as if they’d been swapped out with the respiratory system of a weak child. My understanding of those places is influenced by these timid half-hour explorations that I was never happy to set out on and always glad to have finished.
For as long as my body allows, I’ll continue to run. However, I don’t plan on refining or bettering myself by it. I don’t want to increase my speed or distance, or incorporate sprints or hill-runs. There’s no teleology. I’m not running towards anything; I’m not running away from anything. I’m running with myself. If nothing happens, that’s okay, though sometimes things do happen.
I’m lucky enough that my current route includes the Sydney Botanical Gardens. This route hasn’t changed in the four years I’ve lived in the city, and I’m not interested in changing it. One day, as I rounded Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, I came across a cluster of people standing at the water’s edge, phones out, filming and photographing. The attraction was a seal playing lazily in the water.
I did something I find reason for only once or twice a year. I stopped running and watched. The seal was on its back, occasionally bringing its flippers together, wiggling towards the small crowd, then back into the harbour, then towards us again, then diving down beneath the surface before reemerging, returning the onlookers’ curious gaze. Without my phone I had no way of recording the sight, so I was reduced to watching, aware of the moment’s singular beauty. When I decided I’d seen enough, I ran on.
Dan Dixon is a writer completing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney.