Meet the Runner: The Runner Runs Alone
Guest Blogger Ryan Novack
Playing outfield on my second grade little league team, I was far more interested in looking like a baseball player than I was actually playing baseball. I smacked my glove, spit sunflower seeds, and waited for the fly ball that rarely ever made it my way. And I was happy about this.
Mostly, I didn’t have that killer instinct to win. I enjoyed watching and observing everybody’s heightened emotions during competition. When our team struck a kid out, or when we made a few runs, it was beautiful to watch somebody my age emote. The blue bulged veins, red streamed eyes popping and cracked screaming voices were such honest expressions, and their honesty and lack of embarrassment was hard to watch, but enviable.
Growing up in the suburbs, heightened emotions were a rarity. People laughed, but they never laughed so hard, they cried. People got angry, but they really only got angry in cars or at restaurants. The emotions I experienced from people in the suburbs seemed so measured, so intentional.
When I was in college, I lived in a dorm in Santa Barbara.
One day, I noticed a beat-up pair of Adidas that I had bought two years earlier when I realized that the Beastie Boys were Jewish like me, and suddenly all I wanted was to be a Beastie Boy.
I found some loose fitting pajama shorts and a cotton tank top, and put them on. I strapped on the Adidas and I walked out the door with my yellow cassette Walkman in my hand. I walked toward the windy, less populated road that lead to the beach, and I started running.
In general, I made it a rule not to sweat in public or to be weirdly out of breath. But the road was empty, so I kept going.
My lungs felt like they were going to come flying out of my mouth, and my legs burned. After the initial shock had worn off, the freedom of solitude crept into my bones. The trail was above a cliff, and the expanse of the ocean spread out to the horizon like a wrinkled blue blanket. I sweat and panted and hacked like a dying man, but I was astonished at how I hadn’t noticed the vibrancy of the ocean quite like this before.
When I got back to the dorm fifteen minutes later, covered in sweat and sucking air, I wasn’t sure what had happened. The tension had been emptied out of me and what was replaced was akin to my veins being filled with honey. I had a hard time not bursting into laughter.
When the runner returns from a run, he notices the eerie stagnancy in the air of a room filled with people who haven’t been running. When I returned to my dorm, the other people seemed in a malaise of melancholy, whereas I felt like a beam of light.
Soon I was running every day, and I could run for a half hour, forty five minutes and an hour at a time. If I wanted to stop I would, and I would gaze at the ocean from atop the steep cliff. Every few minutes, short-shorted girls or statuesque men came running by with their tanned muscles reflecting the sunlight and honey colored skin, like far off fairy tales. They were a harsh juxtaposition to my pajama shorted, tank topped, hairy chested, sweatiness. But it didn’t matter. By this point, there was a kinship that I felt with these strangers. We were out there on this cliff, enjoying the scent of salt and tar in the air. We understood the value of being alone. We both felt on the brink of screaming in pain or laughing in joy.
After my freshman year, I moved to the opposite side of town, and my normal route was no longer convenient. I tried running on a different route, but the change in scenery and the change in path made running unbearable. No longer was I on a cliff, but on a road with cars, and walkers, and professors. There was a smelly lagoon with people making out, or walking to class. This new route wasn’t my place to run. It was our place to share, and the beautiful unspoken connection that I had experienced on the cliffs was gone. I was just a sweaty guy in a tank top amongst crisp and clean people on their way to school. Suddenly, I was back on the baseball team, and I was competing for a place, and I was being watched, and I was the odd man out, and I lost interest. Completely.
Eight years later, I was 30 pounds heavier and living in LA.
I had gotten a four month old black lab puppy, and I soon realized that he needed to be exercised. Every morning we walked, and then we started hiking, but this was becoming easy. One day, I noticed a pair of basketball shoes in the corner, and I put them on along with a t-shirt and some basketball shorts. I simply left the house at a faster pace than usual, and clopped down the street. I ran a few blocks and practically died. When I got back, I felt effervescent, a feeling I hadn’t had since college. Being an adult now, I had experienced hardships, I had a chance to understand my anxiety, and I had experienced the unsheltered world of post collegiate life. This levity that I experienced after my run seemed more important at this older, more wizened age. The need to attain that feeling was reawakened in me, and felt more important. This feeling was a lot more than simple endorphins, but a gleeful response to the blood in my body and a sudden urgency to attain this feeling again.
I run five days per week. During each year, I’ll generally run one or two half marathons and the San Francisco Marathon at the end of each summer. In these races, there are thousands of others running next to each other. A lot of people see this as an opportunity to run with a community and they love the rhythmic tapping of thousands of feet around them. I still, for the most part, run these races alone, nestled inside of the comfortable world of my headphones, and face to face with the my thoughts. I don’t run to compete, but to check and see how all of this running I do on a weekly basis compares to other runners. I run races because I can, at 35 years old, still run 13.1 miles, 26.2 miles or 50K.
I refuse to engage in the subjective argument of “what is better”: headphones or no headphones on a run. I believe that the runner dictates his own world, and if headphones work, that’s great. If the sound of feet crunching gravel, conversation and the leaves rustling on trees gets your feet moving, that is what is better. For you.
There is nothing quite like my Sunday run. I insist on doing this one alone. Rain or sun, wind or fog, Sundays are a strict date with my running shoes, a long run, and some music. The last forty-five minutes, it’s the “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” podcast. If you see me running on Sunday, you are very likely to see me either belly laughing or kicking my feet and flailing my arms to the music in my headphones as I wade my way through San Francisco.
Running seems like a habit, although I think “habit” is too easy of a word. I don’t think “compulsion” is the right word. I don’t even think “love” is the right word. I plan my running schedule out at the beginning of the week, and I negotiate all of my other social and work related obligations around it. Many times I sacrifice social obligations in order to run. If it’s raining, then I run in the rain. If it’s windy, I run in the wind. There are very few excuses as to why I won’t run.
But here’s the interesting thing: I do NOT understand it. Knowing myself for as long as I have, this running thing is very much out of character for me. Historically, my default speed is immobile. Running, for some reason has provided me with access to my full pallet of emotions. Sometimes it’s joy, sometimes other, darker or gloomier emotions sneak up on me. Often times, I feel no emotion, and that is just as good. But this feeling that I get happens, for the most part, when I’m alone. Being alone allows for me to contemplate and absorb this often whirling storm of thoughts that batter my brain.
All along the path of the San Francisco Marathon there are inspirational quotes tacked up on trees and signs along the way. During my first marathon, running through Golden Gate Park, right around mile 14, I read a quote by Steve Prefontaine that said, “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.” It’s probably due to the imbalance of calories and sugar and adrenalin that comes with running 14 miles, but for whatever reason, I was overtaken with emotion. I connected with this idea of “guts” as the perseverance it takes to run, the dedication it takes to connect with your emotions on such a visceral level. I took this quote as a metaphor for life, and for whatever reason, I had a very hard time holding back an unexpected burst of tears.
I had heard this quote many times, but this time something struck me. 20 years later, running had brought me whatever it was that the nine year old on my baseball team felt when he struck a kid out.