As a runner, I find the rhetoric of “finding yourself” frustrating yet indulgent, a seemingly simple way to make sense of why we do what we do.
To be honest, I don’t know how to begin writing about running without cringing at myself. I’m not Haruki Murakami, or an Olympian, or even “competitive” in any way. I feel that the narrative of the runner has been told over and over again, nearly to the point of cliché; the tropes about endurance and determination set up to be simplistic and predictable in order to easily transcend the realm of sport and present a greater story. My story as a runner is the opposite of unique, yet so much of my experience is deep in my own head and being, singular and mine, one of the only aspects of my life over which I exercise total authority.
In October of 2018, I registered for the Providence Marathon, scheduled for May 5th, 2019. Even though I’ve been running consistently for the past seven years and have completed four half-marathons, I feel that the marathon is what will finally justify me to identify as a
“runner” without hesitation. The ability to say “I run marathons” without that nagging “half” preceding it is a titular honor that must be earned through the fruition of completing 26.2 miles consecutively. I was spending my fall semester in India when I decided to register for the marathon. In an effort to make sense of what my life would be like upon returning to America, I hoped that marathon training would force me into a regimented routine, making my transition back less nebulous and intimidating. If I could build a schedule around my workouts, long runs, and rest days (buzzwords that frequent my vocabulary and annoy my friends), then I could make it through the anticipated stress of re-adjusting to “real” life.
Throughout the marathon training process, and throughout my life as a runner for many years, I’ve wrestled with the question of running as an outward expression of my personhood or an internal experience of self-discovery or exploration. At once, running is a quantified and measurable means by which I can organize my day, channel nervous energy and general daily anxieties, and count my “progress” towards a specific goal. As a type-A, hyper-vigilant individual, quantification and neatness brings me great comfort. My running is something I can control, something that can be regulated, recorded, and reflected upon.
On the day that I signed up for the race, I wrote out all eighteen weeks of training in my planner; each day, in red, has its designated number of miles or a cross-training exercise (or my favorite, “REST,” in all-caps). I religiously study the statistics my workout app Endomondo produces for me, reveling in the little rabbit icon next to my fastest mile, attempting to find patterns in pace consistencies (or lack thereof). Endomondo functions to keep track of my progress, but I do not just rely on it to tell me my numbers; the quantification keeps me accountable and makes me feel tangible pride in what I am doing. It gives me tactical evidence of my physical labor by which I can measure my moral dedication. This digital quantification of my labor is not a neutral player in my marathon training, but an active force that enables and encourages me to perform and embody what I consider to be of important moral value, like discipline and consistency. My experience as a runner is bound up in notions of linear and tangible manifestations of progress, relying on these quantifications as evidence of my identity.
Despite my use of these tracking mechanisms, running transcends the monotony suggested by my intense quantifications. Running allows me to invest an unwavering faith in myself that I have not been able to find anywhere else. It makes me feel fiercely independent. When I run, I am simultaneously in a liminal space of being intensely in my own head and deeply aware of myself and my physical presence. I am forced to acknowledge thoughts and feelings about myself from the deepest corners of my mind that would have never otherwise surfaced. Running as a physical act produces specific and unique sensations in which the body reaches inexplicable fatigue and “runner’s high.” Running also induces uniquely unglamorous bodily experiences, such as chafing, losing toenails, and even urinating oneself. Around these physical phenomena, there exists the “running community” a nebulous conglomerate of individuals who form bonds over these shared experiences of training and completing races. My interactions with this community inform my sense of my social world; I have spent hours poring over personal blogs, books, podcasts, and Facebook posts around this unifier. And although I may not be physically encountering the famous runner whose weekly podcast I listen to or the runners encountered via Internet in “real” life, this community creates a sphere in which I feel my training experiences and emotions are commonly held. I take comfort in the millions of others who are putting their bodies under the same rigorous circumstances as I am, even if we have never met. My social world transcends my in-person interactions by the emotional support I gain from this sense of unstructured community. The sense of a running community normalizes and justifies my quest for self-realization through this unique physical and temporal discipline. Within this running community, I can orient myself towards the identity of the “runner.”
When I embarked on the path of marathon training, I initially hoped to come across some enlightened version of myself. I am going through these motions out of the hope that it brings me the self-realization it seems to have brought to all those in the community before me. I am a disciple of my regimen, but my regimen is self-dictated; marathon training simultaneously then gives me the power of autonomous expression and control over my life choices while also setting forth a defined, calculated path for me to dependably follow. Both the ways I quantify and measure my labor and spiritually connect to the physical action allow me to use my corporeal expression (monotonously placing one foot in front of the other, sometimes quickly, sometimes less so) to make sense of my world and feel like I have purpose. The purpose is self-given, informed and regulated by various mechanisms of measurement and self-awareness, but it ultimately keeps me moving forward, constantly reaching for an achievement that represents so much more than a singular race. I run to construct a sense of control over my life so that I feel at peace, and ultimately happy. To me, this endeavor is oriented towards a goal of happiness, though the act of running is not necessarily a happy act (especially after you’ve peed yourself). I run, and I situate myself in my social realm by determinedly reaching to claim the identity of the runner. I know that one race cannot serve as the definitive basis for my identity, but regardless, I have oriented myself towards the goal of the marathon, hoping that I am getting “somewhere,” somewhere happy, wherever that may be.