Other Runners

Posted on August 12, 2010

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Now I know: I’ve derived enough from Murukami.  I should really shut up about running and reclaim it as a private experience.  But one other passage from his memoir has stuck with me–one in which he so accurately portrays the ways he interacts with other runners as their paths cross. He talks of the brief periods he spent running past world-famous athletes before their untimely death, the old Indian woman  he saw each day in new outfits, and the blond ponytailed Harvard girls in crimson t-shirts and a cool attitude.  In many ways I am like the blond girls (no, not blond or Harvardian), even more so now that I run along the Charles river.  I am not used to being passed (outside of race conditions at least), and I have not experienced as much pain as he, Murukami has.

But far from being distracted like those girls, in an Ipod (which I haven’t got, actually), I think about every other runner I pass, get passed by, or wave to with certain clarity.  For though running for me has been largely solitary, it is still a collective practice.  It is a pursuit by the individual and yet forms a community.  We come in endless varieties but we’ve all chosen to become runners.

And so I wonder, and I imagine, every time I see another.  I see an old man in his blue singlet with two ancient dogs, all hunched over but moving forward at every sunrise. I see a 20-something woman with green nike shorts (and matching top and visor) struggling through each step and frowning as I pass and say hello.  I laugh silently as I pass a young, bald muscle-bound hulk whose running form is so upright and tight it’s a wonder he doesn’t tip over.  I race a little with a 17-year-old boy in a cross country shirt as he does his fartleks and I do my tempo run, in a calamitous back and forth trade of the lead.  I see a pregnant woman smiling and waving at everyone she sees on the path, her laughter infectious.

Now in race conditions I do this too.  I know I”m not supposed to.  Race conditions are when I’m to be thinking about the race, not personalities around me.  But I favor half marathon distances, and with about 85-90 minutes to kill, sometimes I just autopilot and focus on my surroundings.

It’s during these stretches that my most unfiltered responses to human nature spill out. I feel proud when I pass the 20-something in matching Nike apparel, determined not to be beaten by such a tutti-frutti creature (my inner third wave feminist admonishes me).  I think about all those women who cheer me on with “you go girl”‘s and I run faster.  I see volunteers handing out cups of water and I glare at them as they approach too closely.  I wish I could apologize to them later.  Exhaustion is no excuse for curmudgeonry.

Something about pushing past physical exertion into a uniformly endorphin-driven space strips away inhibitions, both inward and outward.  How else do you explain thousands of supposedly sane adults rubbing vaseline on nipples and bengay on thighs, eating disgusting packets of sugar gel and salt packets in the same bite, vomiting or peeing without breaking stride, and taping up every moveable joint until walking is impossible but running isn’t?  We’re not really so strange a breed, just an experiment, I think, in the intransigent boundaries of propriety, community, and identity.

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