I’m not very good at sitting at a desk and concentrating. Scratch that: I’m great at sitting at a desk. Maybe even world class. The concentration part is the challenge.
I’m running as I write this.
Well maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I’m out on the trail, but I’m not cradling a Moleskine notebook in one hand, trying to keep my fountain pen scrawl legible as I put one foot in front of the other. Not padding my thumbs on my iPhone keyboard either. Instead, I’m looking straight on, arranging these words in my head.
Does that count as writing? Or have you only written once there’s ink on paper or pixels on a screen? I’ve heard that the writer Raymond Chandler used to try and write a bit every day – a habit of many good writers – but that even on days where he didn’t press any keys on his typewriter, he’d sit still at his desk and concentrate.
I’m not very good at sitting at a desk and concentrating. Scratch that: I’m great at sitting at a desk. Maybe even world class. The concentration part is the challenge. So I’m out for a run, because I’d like to find a bit more focus, and for some reason a pounding heart, laboured breathing, and physical exhaustion help with that. Running clears away the clutter, if only temporarily, but it can also rattle loose some stuff I didn’t know I was keeping around. It’s as if all that pounding across the asphalt jostles an old shoebox off the top of the bookshelf in my head; it crashes to the floor, spilling its contents everywhere, and I wave away the dust and realize “ooh, I haven’t though about that in a while!”
This is one of the first runs of the spring. I know folks who run straight through the winter, though I’ve never found the gumption for that. The sidewalks near me aren’t consistently shoveled, and sub-zero temperatures seem to up my mucus production tenfold. I’m trying for four miles today; down the Iron Horse Trail, a lovely stretch sequestered from city streets and the risk of being struck down by an errant Nissan Altima. I expect I’ll run each of those miles in about nine and a half minutes.
I have an app on my phone that times it out for me. This app also holds a record of my jaunts dating back to 2011. I scroll through the archive and notice my paltry record over the past couple years; I’ve only been out for a jog a handful of times. It also recalls for me those palmy summers of 2012 and 2013, where I ran 35 miles each week, clocking in with seven and a half minute miles. Objectively, that’s not an impressive pace; I once knew a student who’d run for hours at 5:45 per mile. He was spectrally thin, though, and I suspect his bones were hollow like a bird’s.
I was trim back then too, as you might expect, considering the weekly yardage. I tell myself I’m slower today not because I’m older but because I’m carrying some extra weight on my frame. 2012 Brian would be slow, too, were he to run four miles carrying a backpack full of 25 pounds of ground beef. And here I need to confess the allure of finding that trimness again. I’m not just running for mental clarity, or to bring myself to some contemplative cloud. There’s a pleasure in a fit physique, in seeing one’s clothes drape a certain way, in seeing the emergence of some ropey quad muscles. Where the line between the glory of embodiment and vanity is, I’m not entirely certain.
It took some willpower to get out today, and it’ll take the same tomorrow and the day after. But some days, I’ll wake up and running has the character of faith; it’s irresistible, and I’m led down the trail by the enigmatic thrill of a heart strangely warmed, or, I suppose, a heart earnestly thumping. Mostly, though – and this is like faith too – I’ll muddle through it. I make the turn toward home and plod on.