The Art of (Bad) Running

It is my personal belief that every Type A person should have at least one thing they are not good at. Ideally, it is an activity where you possess no talent, at which you will never excel, that you do for the sheer sake of doing it. For me, this is running…

“There is no such thing as a bad runner,” says my friend, who is a very good runner. I wholeheartedly disagree. Bad runners surely exist, because I am one. I am not even a little bit good.

For starters, my legs are approximately two feet long. This is not an insult to my legs; this is a fact. Long, gazelle-like strides are not in the cards.

Sometimes, I plod along like a moderately aerobic turtle. Aesop’s tortoise may have outpaced the hare, but I am not that kind of turtle. Other times, I’ll sprint-walk-sprint-walk, which is satisfying in another way. It’s not unlike the ups and downs of life — the fleeting triumphs followed by the downward spirals. You always get there, in the end.

The most important part of this exercise isn’t my pace or even my progress. All that matters is this: I do not judge myself.

Running comprises a valued part of my alone time, but unlike the time I spend standing in the shower staring into space (also important, in its own way), this is solitude with scenery. I went somewhere! I did something! It’s both meditative and productive.

As Haruki Murakami writes, “When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and I don’t have to listen to anybody… All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing.”

Always, there is music. The soundtrack masks my labored breathing and tricks me into thinking I am not tired. If I’m in need of catharsis, I go for something that will make me capital F Feel. (Running in sunglasses, I’ve discovered, is always a good idea, should an errant tear creep in.) Most of the time, however, the music is highly upbeat and equally embarrassing. I harbor a morbid fear that I’ll meet my demise while on a run, and my obituary will read, “In her final moments, she was listening to an electronic remix of a song that was terrible to begin with.” May the record state: Only when I run.

But, oh. If there is one thing I love more than bad running, it is bad racing.

In bad racing, you do not aim to win. I set out with two goals: 1) Run; 2) Don’t die.

When you register for a road race, whether a marathon or a one-mile dash, you are given a number. From the moment you pin it on, you get to escape yourself. You are like a horse, perhaps, or a very competitive salmon. You are one with the herd, a GPS dot, a mote of dust in the grand scheme of things. But you are a glorious mote. And that is everything.

Living in New York City for over sixteen years now, I sometimes forget to take in the view. I see what’s in front of me: the rat on the subway platform, the pothole I’m about to step in. But I no longer look up in awe. Yet running in NYC races — from borough to borough, across bridges, through parks, down the middle of a closed-off street — is like an aerobic episode of This is Your Life.

This is your first apartment.
There is the block of your first real job.
This is the bench where a date once tried to kiss you and a pigeon flew into his head.
That is the statue your family saw when they first arrived.
Those are the towers that rose and fell and rose again.
This is the place where you became who you are.

When you’re running, everything around you grows and recedes relative to your changing location. It doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly you get there. It doesn’t even matter what route you take. All that matters is that you keep on going, one foot in front of the other. Running, like many things if you look closely enough, is a microcosm for life.

Maybe the whole race passes in the blink of an eye, or maybe it feels endless. Maybe you have to walk. Maybe you get passed by a child. You forgive yourself for all of it.

At some point, you stumble across the finish line, where you are decorated in a crinkly foil cape (unless it is the height of summer, in which case you are handed an ice pop, which is decidedly less triumphant). You strut about (it is always a strut, even if you’re limping), crinkling with every step, feeling like a curious hybrid between a Greek god and an aluminum-wrapped rotisserie chicken. Your heart beats a little faster.

Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

And this is why I run. For however long I’m on the course, I am not Caroline, person with worries. I am not Caroline, person with stress. I am runner #23,106, human who breathes and sweats and feels. I am, simply, alive.

P.S. An ode to alone time and the best time to exercise.