When I was young, the idea of a 100m sprint puzzled me. Sure, between our games of Catch and ‘Fire and Ice’, I saw that some of my peers were more adept in darting through tight corners or gaining on a flagging runner, but I tended to attribute their prowess to a competitive streak or a strategic ability to map out the playground field. It seemed strange to me that running – that most elementary of skills everyone seems to master – could be a subject of competition. In the innocent age before talent sprouts, those games of Catch were a shared ritual everyone could participate in equally.
I don’t consider myself a particularly good runner. I belong firmly to the category of weekend runners, the kind who ambles along gracelessly, literally pounding the pavement. Stripped of my childhood’s rambunctious playground cheer, running is monotonous, grinding, soul-crushing. But still I head out for a run every weekend, wondering what I really mean when I tell people I ‘enjoy’ running.
Part of running’s appeal lies in its simplicity. You put on your shoes and move as quickly as you can for as long as you can. There are no rules, no team mates or opponents to contend with, and for the majority of amateur runners, not much skill involved. To run is to be alone with your huffing, imperfect body, to join in a primal heritage of hunters, nomads, messengers.
I don’t mean to romanticise hunters, nomads, or messengers. Running then was a necessity, and running from predators is vastly different from a leisurely weekend run. But I like to believe that they led more present lives, lives which were shorter and less healthy to be sure, but which were also more keenly felt and more attuned to their surroundings. There is a difference between knowing and experiencing your surroundings; despite having lived in the same neighbourhood for 15 years, I seem to observe new things every time I embark on a run – how some roads have a slight, gradual incline, how one path opens up to a sweeping vista, how certain buildings are visible in the distance on a clear day. I’ve come to know the length of roads not just by how many bus stops they span, but also by how long I took to traverse them one sultry afternoon, one stride at a time.
Running also gave me a chance to explore those divergent side-roads winding temptingly into the unknown, roads that had piqued my curiosity from the backseat of my parent’s car. Very often they led to dead-ends or to run-of-the-mill residential estates, but sometimes I would chance upon a hidden dirt track or a mansion containing a stable of exotic supercars. The thrill of discovery made these excursions worthwhile, even if it meant taking a detour and extending my run.
Exploring my neighbourhood is one of the reasons I run, but it’s a reason that loses its shine as I grow tired on my runs. I think more than anything else, running is about the conversations you have with yourself as the initial ecstasy of running fades. It’s about the way you silence the voice nagging you to give up, and instead continue surging forward defiantly. It’s about grappling with the weight of fatigue and having the grit to go on when there’s neither glamour nor glory. Every time I turn into the final stretch of my run, I’m relieved by the small miracle of my victory over self-doubt.
Perhaps this – the quiet knowledge of my mental strength – is the reason I submit myself to the trial of running. I don’t run just to be healthier or to prepare for fitness tests, and neither do I run because I enjoy the physical exertion per se. Rather, I think it’s the literal and metaphorical journey I undergo when running that makes the experience meaningful.
I’ve always seen the struggle to continue down the plodding path as a wider metaphor for life itself. And if life is indeed a race, much has been made of the importance of a head-start or a strong finish. Too little attention, I think, has been paid to the virtue of merely hanging on. It is in these moments that we hold the promise of greatness, for as long as we keep moving – no matter how slowly – we have proven that we aren’t at our limits yet, and that we still hold the final word against self-doubt and fatigue.