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The Art of (Bad) Running

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.

  1. Rachel says...

    Yes! Yes! Alle the yes! This is exactly me while running! Thank you!

  2. valentina says...

    This was a beautiful read, thank you

  3. molly says...

    love love love it!!

  4. Tamara Rossi says...

    Wow…

  5. Jumping up and down and cheering! (And seeing myself in every scene.)

  6. Laura says...

    Oh please, Caroline, can we be best friends!? I love your writing so much! Your potential penpal from the UK x

  7. Kate says...

    Great stuff Caroline. Write a book!

  8. I just love this so much! My racing speed is perhaps that of a fast walker, but I still very much enjoy doing 5ks. Run, don’t die – that’s the perfect motivation.

  9. Ellie says...

    !!!!!!!!! This is beautiful. Rock on, Caroline, I’m right there with you. Printing this now (it seriously is just that good) and lacing up the shoelaces to become human runner #23107 who isn’t going to feel bad about running at a glacial pace anymore :) thank you for sharing your story!

  10. Alexis says...

    Thank you so much! What a beautifully written piece. It made me tear up a bit because this is definitely my running experience. There’s beauty in bad running. I love seeing another bad runner, knowing they’re out here with me – doing what we love… terribly.

    I moved to a new city where I now know way more runners – good runners. Being at a low point in my own fitness and health, running is already a bit harder than it usually is. I’m training for a half marathon and this is definitely the worst training period I’ve had for any race. And now to heap on top of that the burden of comparison…

    This article reminds me why I particularly love running. Not because I am good at it, or because I want to be good at it, but because it’s just quite simply something I love. In my own slow and at-the-moment-kind-of-painful way. There’s nothing like comparison to sap the joy out of anything and this was a good reminder that I need to leave that behind.

    Thanks Caroline!

  11. Rya says...

    My husband and I are race directors and organize 5ks and half-marathons. Before each race, my husband gives the same speech to all the runners about being a winner for just showing up. The training is the real accomplishment, the race is the icing on the cake.

  12. Just sitting here at my desk…I am a puddle after reading this. Running is like therapy for me and your sentiments mirror my own. I’m looking forward to training for my next half marathon in October even more so now :) Have a great weekend!

  13. MaryB says...

    This is my favorite Cup of Jo post ever – and considering how I feel about Cup of Jo posts, that’s a huge compliment!

  14. Jessamine says...

    Caroline, this was so fun to read.

  15. Ali says...

    Caroline, this is so well written. I love it. When I read the title I thought for sure there would be a reference to that episode of “Friends” where Phoebe and Rachel go running and we discover that Phoebe runs like a little kid, all wild, arms swinging free, not caring what people thought, but it was just about the freeing feeling of running for her. Your article was much more beautiful than the sitcom episode, and both made me smile. :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      awwww i just watched that episode the other day at the dentist. so charming :)

  16. Kellilu says...

    What a great piece of writing! I want to sign up for a road race now just so I can tell myself as I run that I am “a glorious mote.”

  17. hahahaha! One of the reasons I started running is Joanna’s post on “bounce-walking” – I linked to it when I wrote my own post recently because it was so revolutionary for me. I’m not a very good runner, but the RESULTS have been very good for me: mental and physical health, some introversion re-charge, and deep pride that I can do an activity I once dreaded/despised/feared.

  18. Lydia says...

    I loved this! Thank you, happy running

  19. This is so well written and (almost) makes me want to run!!

  20. erin says...

    This was just absolutely lovely! And a good reminder of why I used to run races. Signing up for one now!

  21. michaela says...

    This is wonderful. You inspired me, during my yoga class this morning, to enjoy being “bad” at yoga. I’m a pretty inflexible newbie, so I often spend my time in class thinking about how I’m coming up short (literally—short muscles) and how it doesn’t feel like I’m getting as deep into a pose as I’m “supposed” to…but what if I started focusing on how good it feels to stretch at all, however far I’m able to? Slowly, slowly, and enjoy the ride in the meantime.

  22. Bernadette says...

    That was good Caroline! You are such a good writer…and runner…and live-r of life.

  23. Peggy Snider says...

    Yes!!! I feel this down to my core. But I do fully believe there is no such thing as a bad runner. If you run, you are a runner.

    I run to meditate, to move, to dance, to feel, to zone out, to cry, to party, to celebrate, to destress, to travel, to run away, to run toward, to be still, to think, to turn off, and everything in between. Running has healed me from the deepest depressions and solidified the highest jubilations.

    Hope to see you in one of the NYC races one day!

  24. KB says...

    As a mother of three, and a runner, I find pregnancy/childbirth to be very similar to training for and running in a race. Your distance (and belly) grow slowly, you’re excited and nervous on the big day, it’s really hard and then it’s over and time to celebrate! And eat whatever you want. And then eventually you forget how hard it all was and decide to do it again. Also, as a mom, the I really value the silence of running :)

  25. Your writing is a GIFT. I am happy to be the recipient.

  26. julie says...

    Run like Phoebe !!
    I just love Caroline … her writing, her personality, She is inspiring !

  27. Laura says...

    Read this while listing to The Cinematic Orchestra on the train home. Thank you for making me so alive during such a dull moment, Caroline. Also: you bet I’m going for a run the minute I come home!

  28. Amazing writing piece and inspiring! Look forward to future pieces. Atowle|

  29. Heather says...

    From one bad runner to another: damn right, girl. Also, Kelly Clarkson forever.

    But only when I’m running.

  30. Yes yes yes YES. I have accomplished so many un-accomplishable things with running. I said I would never run more than 1 mile, then I ran a 5k (slowly, but surely). A 5k was my limit for so long and then I ran 6 miles. I told my husband I couldn’t run more than 6 miles, then he challenged me to train for a 15K. I did it and felt awesome. I said I wouldn’t run more than that 15K and then I ran two 10 milers. I said 10 miles was for sure, definitely, totally my limit…and then I ran a half marathon. Running has pushed me outside my body’s bounds and made me also feel very very alive. It’s given me wings! Great words, Caroline.

    • zandie says...

      OOOHHH I’m you, just in the 5k phase! I started running last year and it’s made me a happier, calmer, more even-keeled person. I LOVE how I feel. I usually run 3-4 miles a few times a week – ONCE I ran 5 miles straight :) My next goal is a 15k!

  31. Katy says...

    this is so good.