What I think about when I run short distances
Really hard things, finding the words + why stories matter
When I first started running back in the mid-1990s, I had just moved to Atlanta. I was young, the city was alive with energy, and the Olympics were just a year or so away. Everything and everyone in our world was gearing up for that moment, looking forward to it like a new baby about to be born.
On a Saturday morning in early April, my friends and I would go to Oxford Books to pick up the first Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where we’d flip to the Living section and find the paper application for the Peachtree Road Race, the 10K that ran every 4th of July through the heart of the city.
We’d each buy a copy and clip out the toilet-paper-thin application, fill it out, and send it in with a stamped envelope — because the only hope you had to make it into the race was to get your application in the mail in that first Saturday delivery, so it would make it in time to the Atlanta Track Club’s offices on Monday morning.
The years we were lucky, all of our friends — about five or six of us — made it into the race. And then we’d spend the months leading up to the 4th running in the heat of Atlanta’s spring and early summer, readying our legs for Peachtree Road’s infamous Cardiac Hill.
I remember almost everything about the first time I ran the race: the bars in Buckhead with misters spraying water on the runners, little kids slapping my hand as I ran by the apartments along Peachtree, even one of the bakers at the Publix grocery store, wearing his full apron and handing out freshly-baked bear claws to any runner who promised to eat one as they ran.
(I was one of those runners. I, uh… don’t recommend it 😉)
What I remember even more are slow summer days, when I’d get off work in the afternoons. When you’re single and relatively new to a city, and your friends are working all over town, getting off their own jobs at different times, sometimes there’s not a lot to do. (Especially back then, with no social media — the internet was still just a few clusters of web pages on a Mindspring server, believe it or not.)
So, I ran. There was a park just a couple minutes’ drive from my apartment, with a footpath about 1.8 miles around. I ran it almost every day in the months leading up to the Peachtree. Because I wanted to be ready — I didn’t want to crap out around mile 3 and have to catch Marta back home — and, honestly, because it helped me fill the time.
Looking back, those runs helped me transform from what a friend of mine jokingly called a “late post-adolescent” into something approaching an adult, if that makes sense. I learned on those runs how to process my thoughts, how to let them pop up in the back of my mind and take center stage, let me take a look at them, let them run through my head, and give me time to consider whether I should listen to them, or let them go.
(Maybe, it’s better to say I started learning how to process my thoughts on those runs — I’m still learning, actually.)
I share this with you today because, after the half marathon we trained for back in the spring — don’t worry, we’ll train for one together again this fall — I’m back to running those short, summertime distances I did all those years ago. Lazier, more languid runs, just to stretch my legs and feel the air rush into and out of my lungs. I’m not running for time or pace right now, I’m just running to run, and that’s enough.
On these runs, I’m doing a lot of the thinking I used to do back then. Only now, it’s less about myself and my own dramas — then, always some variatino of “Does this girl I like, like me back? Should I call her? If she answers, what then?” — and more about the world we’re bringing our children up in.
This week, I stumbled across three writers who are putting things into perspective for me, writers I thought you all might also love. I’ll share a little bit of their posts that inspired me, but I encourage you to go read what they’ve written in full, as they have helped me process what has been like living in a Stranger Things-like upside-down the past few weeks.
The first is by Emma Gannon, a Substack writer whose work I’ve only just discovered, about the value of studying literature in college at a time when we’re often exhorted to consider only the practical value of, well, everything.
I love that Gannon doesn’t just defend getting an English degree; she does it with a conviction I wish I’d had when people questioned me about pursuing the same degree when I was in college:
“During my degree, I learned to fight for my ideas, how to listen, how to research, how to format my writing, how to make an argument, how to think outside the box, how to be creative, how to come up with ideas, how to work under pressure, how to work with others, how to find a solution, how to believe in myself, how, essentially, to be entrepreneurial. I don’t think learning any of these skills is ‘a waste of tax-payers’ money.’ Inspiring the next generation of thinkers is an exciting investment. In a world of so much fracturing and division, we need literature that stitches people back together.”
Here’s her piece in full — as I say, well worth a read:
The next is by a writer I absolutely love: Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. (Which is brilliant!)
In the most recent issue of his newsletter The Imperfectionist, Burkeman starts off with a provocative, doom-and-gloom headline: “What if it’s worse than you think?” Which makes you wonder, of course… what if it is?
Then he slips in an ingenious twist:
“This question, I admit, appeals to my taste for bloodyminded contrarianism. But its real value is that it expresses what I think of, more and more, as a fundamental truth about human psychology: that we often make ourselves miserable – and hold ourselves back from what we might be capable of achieving – not because we're too pessimistic, but because, in a sense, we're not pessimistic enough.
We think of certain kinds of challenges as really hard when they are, in fact, completely impossible. And then we drive ourselves crazy trying to deal with them – thereby distracting and disempowering ourselves from tackling the real really hard things that make life worth living.”
Trust me, and don’t be discouraged. Read the whole piece, then come back here and let’s discuss. I promise, you’ll love it.
Finally, Nicole Chung is another writer whose newsletter I Have Notes is about the process of writing — in her case, novels, but really the thoughts she shares apply to any creative endeavor.
In this week’s issue, “When You Can’t Find the Words,” she shares her struggle over whether to keep going in pursuit of a creative goal that feels frivolous when the world is on fire:
“If you spend a great deal of your time writing stories or making art, it’s worth considering what it means to you, personally, to do this creative work amid the cataclysms and crises we continually face. Something my friend R. O. Kwon told me not long ago has stuck with me: If I’m writing my book … that means on some level I believe in a future where this book could exist.”
The answer isn’t easy. What I like about Chung’s work is there are no cheap, easy epiphanies. She doesn’t shy away from the bad stuff. However, she keeps going:
“The answer is complicated, because I know that so much more than this is required of me, of us. But I also recognize that there is a place for imagination and creativity and storytelling when our rights are eroded or threatened, as indeed they always have been. We need to be able to expand and nurture our imaginations in order to imagine a different world.”
One last thing: I don’t know if you’re doing the same kind of running I’m doing, but if you are, would you like me to create a training plan for a shorter distance like the 10K, which we could run together over the next few weeks?
It would work like our half marathon training in the spring — it would just be shorter.
Let me know your thoughts — and, as always, let me know how your running (and life) is going. Keep in touch!