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Running Towards Nothing

Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images

A common refrain I hear from people who do exercise, and sometimes as an excuse from those who don’t, is that running blows. They would much rather do something like play a sport, or be put in a life-threatening situation, as a practical excuse to get their legs pumping. Running is supposed to be the last resort, the thing people do only when there are no better options for physical activity. I’ve been running for well over 10 years, which, according to the above sentiments, means there’s something wrong with me. And yes, running does suck sometimes, but it’s the opposite logic for me: I’d rather run than do anything else before it. Biking hurts my ass, swimming in the desert can only be accomplished by bleaching your skin in chlorine, and the one sport I played, I gave up a long time ago. 

I started running after I quit playing basketball because my mom wouldn’t let me sit around doing nothing after I had spent the entirety of my childhood playing a game I hated. I made each endeavor, basketball and running, much more complicated than it needed to be. For the longest time, I assumed my dad was living vicariously through me when I played basketball. That had to be the only explanation—a tether to his youth that choked the life out of mine. But now I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t been forced to attend all those practices, all those camps where boys in different-colored jerseys eyed each other like moving targets. It didn’t make me love the game any more or less. It just taught me how to suffer through something. That would come in handy later. 

I was tall, taller than the rest of the team, so I was usually kept in for the entirety of each game. You know that point in a birthday party that’s being thrown for you where you wonder, for the briefest of seconds, whether or not everyone is actually there to make fun of you? You catch snippets of conversations, see people who happen to laugh and look at you at the same time. You let the insecurity crawl around your skull. I had that feeling during every second half of a game. My teammates would be freely subbed out while I was trudging up and down the court, energy flagging, thinking height couldn’t possibly be the only reason I was getting to know the grain of the floorboards. Thinking about it now, I usually outlasted everyone during endurance drills in practice. I wasn’t the fastest, but I could run longer. Maybe because I didn’t have to use as many steps. Maybe because it was the thing I’d be doing most of anyway, more than shooting from half court or dunking. Running back and forth, back and forth, rubber squeaking on the varnish. 

This was, above all else, boring as shit. Out of everything, this is what may have predisposed me to running most. I’m sure other players have had different experiences on the court, but I was never less interested in the game than when I had to run back to the other end. Not because it was any harder than the 10 other microgenres of running we had to do, but because it seemed so pointless. This sounds psychotic. How else are you supposed to get from place to place playing basketball? But there was always something weirdly foolish about running back on defense or offense when neither team was particularly energized, when the point guard sauntered over the half-court line and everyone else got into their positions like they were showing up to work on Monday. Maybe this is what separates the pros from the amateurs. Natural talent can’t be faked, but you have to be able to force yourself to participate when your heart isn’t in it. Maybe the pros have more reason to force themselves because of the money, but sometimes I don’t know that any amount of money could convince me to run on a day when I feel tired. 

Anyway. I quit basketball in high school. At that point, I had been playing with a couple guys who would go on to the NBA. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember if they were any good back then, only that they were tall and had feet that reeked. The irony is that I was starting to find my way at the end. I played with a better sense of the game, with more patience, with more control of my body. I didn’t have what it takes to make it big, but I probably could have eked out a fair career at a lower-tier college if I really wanted. Still. The flood of relief that came after every game, when I was safe in the knowledge that it was over and that I could go back to do literally anything else, never went away. I spent a few weeks on the couch after saying goodbye to the game, then my mom came up to me one day and said something to the effect of, “You better find something to do with yourself or I’ll kill you.” Not that harsh, but the verve was there. I’ve been running ever since.

For some reason, I lapse into this false pose of wariness and annoyance about running whenever I talk about it. So many people have told me they hate doing it. They have bad knees or they can never find the time or they’re too out of shape or it’s too boring. These are all great excuses and I’ve tried them all on myself, to no avail. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t run. I often tell my girlfriend that I want her to euthanize me if I ever become an old person who can’t run anymore. I still don’t know what I get out of it. I’ve tried to rationalize it in physical terms, health benefits, routine, space to be alone with my thoughts. I’m sure those are all true. But I’m trapped between my irrevocable love, addiction, obsession with running and the ouroboros of wondering why I’m even doing it. It’s certainly not because of all the car crashes. 

Oh yeah. I’ve been intermittently getting hit by cars while running. None of these incidents has ever resulted in the need for medical attention, but they never get old. I run past a blind corner or the driver is on their phone or, in the very rare instance, I’m running on the side of the road and the driver tries to scare me off by cruising uncomfortably close. Every time, I don’t stop or slow down until it’s too late and I get bumped or jump onto the hood because they’re going too fast for me to leap out of the way. It’s not that I don’t know when it’s too late. It’s more that I’m trying to make some sort of delusional point that they can just go around me, or that they should have been paying attention in the first place. These public education crusades don’t work, of course. Every time, I get up and they drive away like I tried to offer to clean their windshield. The strange thing is I wish these people would get angry at me. At least then, I could bask in my righteousness. No reason for texting and driving trumps, You hit me. With your car! But the truth is, I never get more than a scrape and we both go our separate ways. 

Maybe there’s something profound there, I’m not sure. Perseverance, indomitable spirit. All that I've been able to nail down for certain is that I find oblivion in running, which is why all the “gets hit by moving vehicles” moments feel so funny. I’m seeking a meditative oblivion, not a mortal kind. There are so many moments where running feels like the essence of a pointless act, looking at the clock, knowing you got no sleep, convincing yourself you’d be doing your body a favor by sleeping in, and getting up anyway. In the early days, I still wore my old team shorts on my morning jogs, still ran with a Walkman and a pair of headphones that only played through the right ear. I ran for time, usually 45 minutes, and did loops around a soccer complex. Because running a lap during practice was only ever a warm-up or punishment, running after I quit basketball either felt like I should be doing something else after I finished, or that I had messed up in a way that warranted reprimand. But the time was nice, the nothingness of it. The sense that, for once, my mind doesn’t have carte blanche over my entire existence. I doubt this is what it’s like to be zen, because I think peace is supposed to be a part of it. I don’t find peace. It’s like being restless, but in your soul. The only way to calm it down is to go. Somewhere, in all those steps, even if they’re just in circles, a groove is being worn down. I have no idea what’s beneath it, or where I’m going. Honestly, I hope it’s nowhere. All that running I did on the basketball court, all those trips up and down the floor that had purpose behind them, felt something like hell. Maybe for me heaven is being able to run forever, down the long lane of time, on and on. 

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