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Hit Trails, Not Buttons

Introducing my love-hate relationship with running.

I am sweaty, itchy, and covered in spider webs. I’m dying for a shower, but I know if I get in now I’ll still be sweating when I get out. No good. I fill a glass from the fridge. Tuck into a half-eaten muffin that had been left on the kitchen bench. I haven’t run in months - a hiatus fuelled by necessity as much as a lot of good excuses and the seductive allure of staying in bed. It’s so fun not running, that I find it’s easy to forget the way running fundamentally changes who I am.

I’m still unfamiliar with this version of myself: the kind of person who runs—a person who willingly subjects themselves to the pain and agonising repetition of the trail. I’ve committed enough time to the effort to nearly consider myself a “runner”, but it still feels like a shirt that doesn’t fit - leaving me exposed and uncomfortable. I would hate for someone to conflate the label of “runner” with any kind of fitness or athleticism. I certainly can’t consider myself serious. I listen to enough podcasts with ultrarunners to know that I don’t have whatever that is. And here already, this close to the surface, we’ve come close to the rub of it - that cringey, competitive streak that pokes its head up from the depths of middle school.

comic trip about middle school running race

comic strip about losing a middle school running race

The sour taste was definitely from missing out on a ribbon and the drama of vomiting under the bleachers let me shift the focus off my juvenile embarrassment.I don’t want to pretend that I’ve grown up all the much since Year 7. I feel the same things I did then, but I label it with trendy terms like ‘imposter syndrome.’ It’s that same self-conscious feeling of having overcommitted to an activity that I am publicly demonstrating my inadequacy in and the childhood misconception that anyone out there is watching or cares.

You see, I was cursed with that strange obsession some children have, to please adults along with the ability to get good marks in banal academic pursuits. Certain things came easily to me including rehashing National Geographic articles into reports, designing aesthetically consistent posterboard displays, and serving dolmades and olives during a speech on Ancient Greece. This kind of isolated success lured me into a comfortable lull of competence, excellence even - leading me to expect that achievement was something that kind of waddled up to me, rather than something I had to chase down. So when it came to running, a sport in which I had limited natural ability and thus faced a measure of resistance, I bolted in the other direction.

Even at University, on the couple of occasions that optimistic peers were able to convince me to dabble in the dark arts of perpetual movement, it ended quickly and badly. I told myself that I did not have the physicality of a runner, that my meager lung capacity, flimsy heart, and stumpy legs simply weren’t evolved for the task. I stuck to activities that didn’t require so much of me - things I could be good at, pretend I didn’t care about or could manage in short enough bursts that no one could tell which one it was.

Running requires something else of a person, or rather, of me. For me, running requires my attention. The ADHD doesn’t help. Putting my feet in front of one another quickly loses its novelty and my body wants to follow my brain as it wanders off to something new and less repetative. The greedy thing also wants my determination, it requires constant choice. Even after months of regular running, it takes about thirty seconds for a chorus of neurons to wave their little white flags and beg for mercy. “We give up!” They cry in unison, “Just stop! There’s no shame in walking from here and grabbing a soy latte!” But instead, this running version of me chooses to keep going despite the complaints of the majority. As it turns out, running (for me) is mostly mind, and not very much matter, which brings me to the last thing this horrid hobby demands of me: to release my incessant need to achieve.

Mirukami, in his strangely satisfying nonfiction, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,’ comments on the activity’s validity outside of competition. Basketball, football, tennis, quidditch - all need a competitor to even begin playing, even if all the participants solemnly (and ironically) agree that it’s “just for fun.” Most sports rely on tallying points or numbers in some form or other and while you can argue that runners compete in races and some keep times and calculate splits and obsess over the data in their wearables, it is technically possible to run without the presence of an opponent. It’s more than possible, it’s what most runners do most of the time. Even those elite athletes and data-crunching type-A personalities largely pursue their hobby by posing a challenge to the only person that counts - themselves.

I find this easier to write than internalise. Even now, after deciding that I am writing a book about running, or rather about running as a metaphor for life, I feel an unease at admitting my participation in such a zealous activity. If I tell people that I did a trail run, and plan to do another, they might expect me to be fit or good at cardio or, worst-case scenario, invite me to run with them.

About a year ago I began to seriously worry about my heart. And about the impending Type II diabetes that runs like a twelve-year-old in a 50m race through my DNA. It feels good to think retrospectively about just how atrocious my fitness was 12 months ago. Now I run on a variety of trails in the National Park near my house. I know, the luckiest one out. Once I’m up in the eucalypt and palm forests, the coastal heath, along the sea cliffs and rockpools - I still fight the battle in my mind of whether I’m the kind of person who keeps going or who turns for home. Do I turn right and add two more km? Do I take the top track and cut out the hill climb? It’s a series of these decisions that take me further than I thought was possible for this flimsy heart and these stumpy legs. I even signed up for a trail run last year and while I think I placed very poorly and my hips had the fire of hell in them by the end, it was the best time by far I’d ever run 13km and, more importantly, there was a part of me that died and was reborn that day.

So I run for the first time in months and it charges me up like a 9-volt battery. And by the next morning I can’t give less shits about it. And the morning after that my son is up from 3am. And the next day after that I drag myself to the front porch because I know that that’s as far as I can psychologically commit to. If all I do is put my runners on, I will have made it. And I do and it turns into a twenty-minute run. It’s something. And tomorrow I can probably manage to make the same promise again, to put my runners on. Perpetual motion, dark art though it may be, is teaching me how to show up. Which is the hard part. And it’s the only part. I have to keep reminding my twelve-year-old self, who still throws tantrums deep inside me, that I don’t have to win or pretend not to care or lose my guts beneath the stands to prove my worthiness. There are no opponents. No comparisons. There’s only one winner…and it’s me. I just have to get to the shoe bench and get those damn runners on. One. Day. At. A. Time.

Runners on. xx

p.s. Next week and the week after that and the week after that are all going to be related to running. So if you have a running friend. Nows the time to share :)

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