Time to Run

“If anything sets us apart it is a kind of sensitivity. We can hear a faint chord vibrating on old and brittle strings. It begins to resonate through us when we rise predawn for a morning run. The sound builds the longer we stay at it. On a long run through the mountains our attention becomes focused, in tune, automatic. Each footfall and each breath synchronized with a primal tune. Ours is a re-creation of once necessary dispositions.” – Eric Grossman (Foreword to “Relentless Forward Progress”)

“I will reflect on those days,
Which, like the waving tops of the linden trees, have flown away,
When the silver string that was struck
Produced a clear yet trembling first note;
My entire life long,
It has echoed even until this day,
Although the string has long since snapped.” – Gottfried Keller (“Jugendgedenken”)

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Stephen Dedalus (“Ulysses”)

The relation of temporality to the act of ultrarunning can be seen from a few different, sometimes contradictory, angles. A title like “Relentless Forward Progress” implies a futurist ideology: you log the miles, you progress forward, and each step takes you further from the reality you leave behind. Sometimes this is what I would like to think running does for me, but there are holes in this philosophy – it makes of running an escapist act, the desperation of a fugitive. But Grossman’s remarks on what distinguishes ultrarunners make of running a sort of relentless backwards progress, a return to what humanity left behind thousands of years ago, but still resides in us innately. This elegiac concept of distance running, which pervades the infamous McDougall book as well, valorizes the past and turns running into an introspective and retrospective activity. It struck me while reading that foreword that this Grossman guy’s view of running was not so different from how Gottfried Keller describes his reflections on youth in one of my favorite German romantic poems.

So is running introspective/retrospective, or progressive/exploratory? Honestly, I’d feel guilty for placing so much importance in the act if I felt that either of those is what running is all about. The futurist mentality that idealizes progress is a sham and you see it collapse in projects like Soviet Russia or the digital wristwatch. On the other hand, constant introspection/retrospection is pretty obviously a psychological handicap, and moreover one towards which I have an innate tendency.

Contrary to these progressive or regressive models, I have always conceptualized the temporality of running as an experience of the present; it is one of the few ways I have to shake myself out of the daydreams of projected futures or the misery of replaying the past – a misery which encompasses positive and negative memories alike. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” is a line which I’ve come to regard less and less as melodramatic or histrionic, maybe because my dysfunctional relationship to temporality falls into the same category as Stephen’s and I’m prone to “turn aside and brood…” When you’re running, you “feel alive” because you’re probably too busy experiencing what’s happening right now to think about anything else.

Vipassana meditation is aimed at developing a more accurate perception of the reality of the present moment by re-conditioning the mind. By experiencing and acknowledging physical sensations, but denying them their previously conditioned reactions, the practitioner eventually eliminates the sankaras which ruled their lives and multiplied each time they reacted with craving or aversion. I have a deep respect for those who regularly practice Vipassana, but after attending one of their 10-day courses I found I was unable to incorporate the practice into my daily life. On the other hand, I find that running serves the same purposes, and not in a vaguely defined, new-agey “spiritual” kind of way. The way running positively affects the psyche is straightforward and logical, like Vipassana: the mind and body are re-conditioned by subjecting them to situations which require you to ignore their complaints. Once you have surpassed the artificial limits previously imposed on your mind and body, the sources of lassitude just can’t really take root anymore, because you’ve trained yourself to ignore the unhelpful commentary provided by the sensation we call “pain.”

In transcending physical limits, we also transcend psychological ones. In immersing ourselves in the real experience of the present moment, we lessen the painful aversions to past sorrows or the cravings for pleasant futures. This is what running means to me.

More to the point, this is why I intend to run from Montreal to Vancouver this summer.


~ by edmundmilly on December 26, 2011.

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