And I love running right now more than usual, because I just finished a sixteen-miler on the dirt roads of Faulk County, South Dakota. It’s winter, and the ditches are covered with snowdrifts, the fields beyond them scattered with corn stubble. I passed by cattle lowing beneath panel shelters, voles skittering along the crop furrows. Out here the roads form a perfect grid, exactly one mile between crossroads. I went four miles up, over, down, and back, finishing right where I’d started, at the driveway to my uncle’s farm, where I’ve come for a postponed holiday gathering.
The dirt roads of Faulk County are a fine place to run. They’re predictable and unswerving, easy on the joints and unchallenging to the mind. You won’t get physically lost on them, but your thoughts will wander. So far from home, it would be senseless to stop and walk. Fence post to fence post, rhythm and motion, measurable progress — I need that. For some, idle hands are the devil’s workshop; for me it’s idle feet. Running is better for me than church; better than counseling, pills, or meditation; better than diet plans or twelve-step meetings. Running keeps me literally on the straight and narrow.
My uncle doesn’t understand. Nor do my parents, my sister, my nephews, or the rest of my family on the farm. I can hardly explain it myself, except to say that everyone has their hobbies, their obsessions, their drugs. Mine is running. It’s all I want to do.
On the best days my legs are instruments of worship, my feet fall in cadence with the Psalms, my breath is incense, and my thoughts have the clarity of prayer. I am not religious, mind you. I’m hardly even spiritual. But in the final miles this morning I came upon a new mantra, in which I invoked whoever might be listening — Christ Jesus, Yahweh, Lucifer, Almighty Allah, the Patient Buddha, or the ice over the creek and the hawks in the sky.
My mantra goes like this: Deliver me from injury and save me from fatigue. Guide me down the road. One step, then the next.
It’s later now. My endorphin buzz has worn off, and I’m thinking critically again.
I’m embarrassed by what I wrote earlier. Some fitness junkies get so fervent they become proselytizers, but that’s not me. In fact, I wish I hadn’t run this morning. It was self-indulgent. My whole family was together on the farm, yet I withdrew to be alone in what now seems a showy stunt of endurance.
After my run I feasted on ham and biscuits, thanked my aunt and uncle, and made the long drive home to Brookings, on the eastern border of the state, where I’m teaching college writing this semester. On the way, I thought more about why I run.
I can tell you why I began running: to impress a woman.
This woman and I met as graduate students. At the time I was cynical and anxious, overly concerned with whether my academic efforts would amount to anything. She was the opposite: confident, calm, modest, and hopeful. She had run competitively in college, and when we began dating, I decided I would be a runner, too.
Back then we lived in southern Mississippi, where you can run outdoors year-round. For a couple of months I trained alone, until I was strong enough to keep pace with her; then she and I fell into lockstep. Twice a week we ran with a club called the Pine Belt Pacers, and other mornings we ran alone through the neighborhoods or along the rails-to-trails path north of campus. Weekends we ran beside Lake Pontchartrain, or Mobile Bay, or the Mississippi Sound.
We trained together for races — a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon, and then a full. She always beat me handily. At our first marathon, in Nashville, Tennessee, she ran so well she qualified for Boston. Already I was no longer running to impress her, but rather to stay alongside her.
After we graduated, she took a position in Southern California, and I found work back home in South Dakota for the fall semester. A couple of months ago, in late December, as I was packing to drive to the West Coast to join her, she revealed her reservations about our future together. She now runs along the beaches and back bays of the Pacific Ocean, while I pound the dirt roads and asphalt trails just east of the Missouri River. I still think about her often.
Everyone deals with breakups, I know. I only mention this for the sake of context.
Once she and I separated, I feared the worst for myself. Running with her had affected me. It had changed me physically and emotionally. It had shaped me into someone better. Years ago I smoked cigarettes, binged on alcohol, gobbled junk food, and loafed in dimly lit rooms. I didn’t want that again.
Previously I’d been eyeing California’s Orange County Marathon, but now, alone and vulnerable to self-sabotage, I needed a new goal. As it happened, the Lincoln Marathon in Nebraska was roughly four months out. I signed up and vowed to keep running.
Running is not a metaphor. It’s not theoretical or of the mind but entirely of the body. It’s something you do, not something you analyze. In fact, it isn’t that hard unless you start thinking about it. Once you start thinking, you start hurting. Many new runners quit too soon because they find it difficult to silence their inner doubts. Perhaps it’s our modern condition to want to outmaneuver pain rather than confront it. But me, I don’t mind hurting. Though it sounds perverse, when I run now, I want to hurt.
I began by running ten miles per week, then fifteen, then twenty. I copied eighteen weeks of daily workouts onto my wall calendar in big green marker. No thinking required, just doing. Now my weekly output hovers around fifty miles.
For me it’s best to get going first thing in the morning. Wait until later, and the obligation hangs over me like a term paper. I’m prone to depression and despondency, and given a full day off, I will squander it. Without my training program, I might otherwise stay in bed and hide from the world until noon.
Earlier this semester I recognized myself in If on a winter’s night a traveler, the sprawling metafictional novel by Italo Calvino — particularly in this passage, narrated by a college professor:
Every morning before my classes begin I do an hour of jogging. . . . During the day in this place, if you do not go to the campus, to the library, to audit colleagues’ courses, or to the university coffee shop, you do not know where to go; therefore the only thing is to start running this way or that.
Brookings is a clean city with a polite, industrious population. There are campus lectures and sporting events and museums and cafes and community centers. But I hardly know anyone here, and, like Calvino’s professor, I do not know where to go.
For that reason I’m happy to get out and run on the city streets, where I not only exercise but explore. Here are softball fields and city parks, homes for sale and rent, construction zones, new storefronts, historical markers. I notice smaller things, too: Landscaping. Traffic signs faded from years in the sun. Neighboring driveways flying flags for rival colleges. I scare away rabbits and squirrels, even in winter.
Being outside on foot, you pay attention to what’s around you, not only for your own safety but because it’s all so wonderful and mysterious: Who built this church? Who paved these streets? Who was here before me, and who will be here after? You shed the cloak of observer and become a participant in the daily commerce of your place. People are curious about you as well. There’s so much living going on, and you’re a part of it.
But right now I’m on the treadmills. It’s another couple of months until the Lincoln Marathon, and winter has gotten ugly here in South Dakota. Can’t run outside — too cold, too windy, too much risk of injury. Running on the treadmill is a process, however: driving to campus, finding a parking spot, getting changed, warming up, working out, cooling down, dawdling, futzing, and then finally driving home. It can consume an entire morning.
One recent Saturday my parents came down to Brookings for an equestrian show on campus, though I suspect they were worried about me, and the equestrian show was just a pretext for checking up on me. I’d planned to join them, but by the time I finished my eight-miler on the treadmill, they’d already left the horse barn. Such guilt. All this running is meant to bolster my spirit, but again I had put myself first and snubbed my parents.
When we met for lunch, I apologized and conceded that my training might border on obsessive. But, I argued, with the short winter days and all this snow and so much time indoors, running was how I stayed positive. Sometimes on the treadmill I sense an aura — a pillow of light shining from my chest, warm and luminous, sparking the air like static electricity. But I didn’t want to get too metaphysical and worry my parents even more, so I talked in circles for a couple of minutes, emphasizing self-care — self-care this and self-care that.
My parents got it. I didn’t need to say all this. I’m almost forty years old, and they quit doting on me roughly three decades ago. We ate burgers at a sports bar two blocks from my apartment, and, after we finished, I followed them to their car and hugged them and told them to drive safely.
“Wait,” my mom said. “Don’t forget your book.”
Ah, yes. I’d asked my parents to bring my copy of Harmony of the World, the story collection by Charles Baxter. I’d left all my books at my parents’ house when I’d still thought I’d be moving to California, and now I wanted to study a passage in a story called “Weights,” in which a young man named Tobias channels his aggression into weight lifting. When I got home, I read:
Tobias now had a third eye. The eye was in the middle of his forehead, and when he was doing his sets the eye would shine a beam of sharply focused particle energy toward a point. . . . Most of the time the beam of energy turned inward. It charged his spine with positive electrical ions. When the eye was open, he felt like a bomb that had been cleverly converted into a multipurpose generator.
This character, Tobias, is overeducated but unemployable — a victim, he believes, of a poor economy and an unjust social hierarchy. He feeds his third eye with anger, and it transforms him into a hulking figure, a beast.
In my memory this passage perfectly described my relationship with running, but upon rereading it, I felt differently. I don’t dwell in anger. I feel only love. It seeps from me as light and calm vibration — I can’t contain it within my body. For now, with what I know, there is no other release. I run to gain more energy, just as I love to be more deserving of love.
Of course, later, in If on a winter’s night a traveler, I came across this brief exchange:
“You mean you’re about to leave?” I ask her.
“Tomorrow morning,” she tells me.
The news gives me a great sadness. Suddenly I feel alone.
You can’t do anything after a breakup. You can’t eat or sleep — that’s a given. Even worse, you can’t listen to music or read books. You can’t stay home, and you can’t travel. Everything reminds you of the person now gone. And if, heaven forbid, you find something that moves you — like a stellar album; say, Aldous Harding’s Party — you don’t dare enjoy it for fear the associations will haunt you the rest of your life.
Eight or nine years ago, a friend of mine was going through a breakup when the Gotye song “Somebody That I Used to Know” was a big hit. The song, which begins, “Now and then I think of when we were together,” was too perfect for his condition, he told me. Now, if he hears it in the grocery store, he’ll abandon his cart, rush outside as if he’s left his wallet in the car, and return four minutes later, when a less punishing song is playing.
A word about running apparel.
It’s worth spending the money. The cheap stuff only leads to discomfort and injury. But don’t buy all your gear at once. Start with shoes, the most important item. For a while you can wear old gym shorts and cotton T-shirts, and you’ll be fine. After a few months, buy some nice socks. A colorful headband. One sweat-wicking tank top. Still running? Polyester shorts with a tiny pocket to hold your house key. Then the big purchase: a sports watch with GPS tracking, which will free you up from needing your phone while you run.
Buying your gear gradually prevents it from going out of style at once — if you care about style, which I don’t, so whatever.
When I first began running, a triathlete friend asked what kind of shoes I’d bought.
“Uh, yellow,” I said.
“No, what brand?”
Nike, I told her. They had been on sale that day at the big-box sporting-goods store.
My friend snorted — quite rudely, I thought. “Nike is fashion,” she said.
It’s my impulse, when feeling judged, to double down on my actions, thus asserting my independence — often to my own detriment. It took some knee pain and lots of cracking sounds from my ankles before I accepted that, in running, as in all things, you get what you pay for.
These days there are entire brands built around the concept of “athleisure” wear. Most real running apparel, however, is not visually flattering. It hugs your body in odd ways and exposes too much flesh. But it’s more important to look good after your workout than during.
Final note on apparel: I would like to register that I like wearing compression shorts in my daily life. They’re like boxer briefs that don’t bunch up around my crotch. The less said about that, the better.
With five weeks left before the Lincoln Marathon, I am worn out. When I’m not running, I’m preparing to run. Training has become a part-time job, cutting into my teaching, which has become listless and ineffectual. I canceled a class because of a winter-storm warning, and then it never stormed. I held another class after a storm and lodged my car in a snowdrift. I lost my textbook. I forgot my handouts. I wore mismatched shoes — not socks, shoes! I lectured my upperclassmen for ten minutes before realizing I was speaking to my freshmen. I’m looking at my phone too much. I miss her so badly and want someone to ask how I’m holding up, but no one asks.
My left groin muscle hurts. This weekend we had the storm of the season, and everything shut down, campus wellness center included. The snow was knee-deep, and you couldn’t see to the end of the block. I had to run, but where? Then I got an idea: I would walk downtown to the twenty-four-hour gym, loiter outside until a member entered with a key, and sneak in before the door closed.
It worked! I ran six miles on a flimsy, narrow-track treadmill. Walking home, I was possessed with a devious glee. The snow was so pristine and lovely that I kicked my way through a vacant lot and leapt into the drifts, a child reveling in his snow day.
Then I felt a twinge in my left groin. Grow up, kid. I hobbled home for a ziplock bag, which I filled with snow, and I spent the rest of the evening in my recliner, icing my crotch through my compression shorts.
My groin injury wasn’t so bad that I missed any training runs. It so happens that when moving forward in a natural motion, I’m free from pain, although moving laterally I feel both agony and remorse.
And I said running wasn’t a metaphor.
Treadmills are consistent, mechanically guiding you to your goal, making you endure. And, since gyms are often crowded, they give you a chance to preen and peacock for potential mates.
Good lord, treadmills are boring, though. For a time I tried watching college basketball, but the bouncing of the screen made me seasick. The console display ticks upward with every hundredth of a mile, only making it more tedious. Worse, at the wellness center my students often approach me as though my workouts are a mere extension of my office hours. Though I dislike wearing earbuds while running — especially outdoors, where I prefer the sounds of my environment — on treadmills I’ve had to compromise.
The best song for running is “Witchitai-To,” by jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper, a Kaw-Creek Native American whose grandfather was a priest in the Native American Church. Many of Pepper’s compositions blend traditional tribal rhythms with elements of jazz-rock fusion.
You can’t listen to “Witchitai-To” without feeling like you’re in a movie. It’s by turns symphonic and psychedelic. The saxophone sweeps you up like a breeze, urging you toward a horizon blurred by heat. The lyrics are taken from a peyote chant and defy literal translation, but the few lines of English hint toward gratitude and renewal.
The definitive version of “Witchitai-To” appears on the 1971 album Pepper’s Pow Wow, but it’s unavailable to stream, so at the wellness center I play the live version from Afro Indian Blues, recorded less than a year before Pepper died of lymphoma at the age of fifty. The live recording is smoother and more patient than the studio one. For its first few minutes Pepper improvises on vocals. At one point he sings:
Walk into the east, everything is beautiful. Walk into the west, everything is beautiful. Walk into the south, everything is beautiful. Walk into the north, everything is beautiful.
Beauty is all around. You can’t avoid it. This path leads to beauty, and that path? More beauty. Close your eyes and spin, toss a dart at a map, run this way or that. Advance with a welcoming heart, expecting beauty. You will find it. It will find you.
I wasn’t going to mention my ex-girlfriend again. She would be embarrassed by all this attention, and it’s unfair for me to characterize our relationship only in terms of running, when in truth we shared so much more. How long will I grieve? Months? Years? Always? I can’t help it. I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.
These were my thoughts when, on the final stretch of a ten-mile run, “Witchitai-To” came through my earbuds and nudged me beyond the point of restraint, into a fit of wild emotion. My aura spilled out around me like thick prairie fog, until I feared I would set off the fire alarms and my veins would explode and my heart would physically burst from my chest. I began to cry right there on the treadmill.
What a scene. My lips were chapped, and sweat was dripping from my elbows. Not far away, some of my students were flirting or telling jokes between sets at the squat rack, and I didn’t even care if they saw me. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to. The treadmill saw to it that I kept going, and for that, too, I was grateful.
Months have passed since I began this essay. Up in Faulk County my uncle is waiting to plant his crops. At the wellness center students have fled for the summer, and the treadmills are mostly vacant. Around Brookings you can’t stand on a street corner for five minutes without seeing runners dash by in flashy shorts and sleeveless shirts. And the Lincoln Marathon has come and gone.
Get this: I ran the entire race wearing cutoff jean shorts and a tie-dye tank top. People saw my outfit and smiled, and their amusement was like electrolytes to me. Along the route onlookers cheered and held signs, and when children beside the road put out their hands, I stretched for every high five. It went as well as I could have hoped. I felt joyful the entire race.
Around the eighth mile, I got into a conversation with a woman from Wichita who was running beside me. She told me about her husband, who drove their Suburban to all her races and golfed nine holes in every major city they visited. She told me about her son, a collegiate wide receiver with a vague, untreatable knee injury. She told me about her previous marathons and how she’d improved by a single minute with each race. She talked so much, I stopped listening.
By the tenth mile, she began asking me questions: Where was I from? What did I do for work? How did I train? Why had I picked Lincoln?
Long story, I told her. Grad school, girlfriend, running together, and now running alone. I said I’d been training for the Orange County Marathon, which was being held on the same day — at that very moment, actually — but, after my girlfriend and I broke up, I’d been forced to adapt. Thus, Lincoln.
The woman from Wichita was visibly moved. I hadn’t anticipated that. I was just stating the facts: I was a runner today because my ex-girlfriend had taught me how.
Then, as happens in a race with more than thirteen thousand participants, the woman and I lost one another. Fine with me. I wanted to keep quiet and conserve my energy. But as the miles added up, I thought more about what I’d missed the chance to say.
I wanted to say that running taught me this: Every day is a trial — every workout, every mile, every step. But you get started, and it gets easier. You discover what’s actually possible. You learn to continue.