In the preceding posts, I’ve written that running is an addiction, and it’s true; it’s an addiction so strong that it can kick a nicotine addiction’s ass and “run” it the hell out of town – for good.
Inherent in the statement that running is an addiction, of course, is the suggestion that it is a drug of sorts. It certainly has the effect of one, but one without the soul-sucking corollary of an actual substance addiction.
Everyone has heard of the “runner’s high,” that rush of endorphins kicking in like a can of Popeye’s spinach, bringing with it a surge of renewed strength and a staggering sense of euphoria.
“Runner’s high” is a good thing, to be sure, when it seems like maybe you’ve reached your breaking point, when you’ve pushed yourself beyond what your will and training will allow.
So, okay, it’s a nice perk.
But the “runner’s high” is not at all what I’m talking about. For one thing, you can’t count on it. For another, it doesn’t last long, just long enough to get you over the hump.
There are other kinds of highs that runners get, though. I think different runners might give you different explanations about what those highs might be like, even if they’re describing the same thing.
That’s because we use the same effects or highs differently. You might say they’re personalized.
That and there are different kinds of runners. Even the same runner might be a different kind of runner depending on the day, the mileage, or the training goals. How you feel during a race, for example, will be different from how you feel during an easy training run. Make no mistake: running a race will take your mind to a completely different place than the training run will. The way you process sensations will be different; the way you think and what you think will be different, too.
I was giving some thought to this while running this weekend, trying to sort out the details I need to make the final case for running being the “proper” writing addiction. Pleasantly, I found myself thinking of my old friend Henry and his somewhat startling proclamation about running’s effect on the mind.
Running, Visions, and Revelations
I met Henry when we were in the same running club about twenty-five years ago. I was 35. He was 65 and a goddamned inspiration. I haven’t seen him in years, but by my reconning he’d be 90 today. Since he was one of the toughest sonsabitches I’ve ever known, my guess is he’s still plugging away wherever he is and making 90 look like the new 40.
Henry and I were both constants in the running scene back then, piling up so many Tyvek race bibs that had they been made of paper whole forests would have been felled to make them. (Okay, I exaggerate. Slightly.)
Unlike me, a steady middle-of-the-pack runner, Henry was piling up as many age-group medals as he was race bibs, taking his age class in most of the races he ran. He was a powerful runner, tall and muscular. I could pick him out of the crowd easily, recognizing his full crown of white hair and his determined stride.
But there was more than determination in his stride: Henry ran like he was doing battle against the pavement, pushing back hard against forces that tried to stop him.
He looked to the ground as he ran, with fierce concentration. He was there running all right, but he was somewhere else, too, not entirely grounded in the here and now. I didn’t think then to ask him where else he might be during those runs – it was just an impression I’d had, after all, that sense that he was not altogether with us when he was running. Years later, when we happened to run into each other again, he unexpectedly volunteered that he’d been “tripping” the whole time.
* * *
Henry and I had become fast friends because, unlike most of our running friends, we were both avid weightlifters – at least as much that as we were runners. At the time, I thought I was pretty tough. Fast forward twenty-five years, and there’s no way I could keep up with the Henry I knew then. One session in the weight room with that Henry now, and he’d destroy me. At 35, I was able to keep up – barely.
Henry was a “brook no excuses” kind of guy. He was a personal trainer in the day, and most of his clients were folks about his age. I spent some time with him at the gym then and watched as he’d stare down a client like a Marine drill sergeant bent on transforming a raw recruit into a fit fighting machine.
“If I can do it, you can!” he’d say, and somehow his charge would push through the workout the way Henry said it should be done.
The once or twice I’d dared to tell Henry maybe I thought I didn’t want to push it that hard, he’d get this cruel sort of half-smile on his face and slyly tell me I could decide not to do it, but I’d have to go on knowing I’d refused the challenge.
Yeah, he was tough. Tough as nails. Our personal talks went the same way. You make your decisions, he’d tell me, but you’d better make them knowing you’re going to have to live with them.
I’m 59 now. I still run, but I make compromises. I run fewer miles than I used to, and I run them slower. I still lift weights, but with none of the fury I’d lifted with when I knew Henry. If Henry were still in my orbit, I’m sure he’d put me on the receiving end of the drill sergeant harangue, without mercy, until I stepped up my game.
Lest you think Henry was just a hardass, let me tell you he was also funny and a deeply caring man. His mantra was always to lift people up and help them achieve their goals. His pep talks made the inspiring locker room speeches from the great underdog sports movies seem dull. His speeches encompassed a philosophy of personal achievement. He had a way of framing every doubt like it was there for you to fight against. There was nothing you could not do in Henry’s view. You just had to decide to do it and to do it for yourself and no one else.
I thought he was invincible. He was, too. But not because any of it came easy to him I discovered.
* * *
Because I’d moved and undertaken new challenges in my own life, I hadn’t seen Henry in a long while. When I did, he was in his eighties. Unsurprisingly, when I saw him it was at a race, and he was crossing the finish line with that same otherworldly look he’d always had when he ran.
I was glad to see my old friend, but Henry was distracted, his thoughts not fully collected after the run. We exchanged brief greetings, but there was no idle chit chat. Henry had something he wanted to say, and being Henry, he got directly to it, solving for me the mystery of where his mind had been while he was running all those years ago.
“Let me tell you,” he said. “Running isn’t just keeping in shape. It’s a spiritual experience.”
I was taken aback a little with the force of his statement; he was doing his level best to drive it home for me, with an intensity that said it was of the utmost importance that I understand what he was saying.
Now, I’ve always liked running (at least once I became a runner instead of a smoker), and I’m the first to extoll its virtues, but “spiritual” wasn’t the word I’d use to describe it. But for Henry, it was exactly that.
He went on to tell me he experienced intense pain every time he ran a race and had been for a very long time.
“But I fight it. I take the pain,” he said, “and the longer you run with pain like that, the more your mind is freed. The world falls away from you, and it’s like you’re tripping on something.”
Henry, I remembered, sometimes used pop culture slang from the 60s and 70s, phrases like “let it all hang out” and “on the same wavelength” and such. So when he said “tripping,” I knew he meant in the Timothy Leary sense, not the losing your footing sense.
I found the statement a bit astonishing, I’ll admit. Henry had never told me anything like this in the past.
But before I could explore it further with him, I saw my wife crossing the finish line. I told Henry it was good to see him, but I had to meet my wife because only an idiot lets his wife finish a race without being there to congratulate her.
I shook Henry’s sweaty hand and started to walk away. From behind me, I heard him say, more to himself than me, “It’s spiritual. It’s goddamned spiritual.”
I haven’t seen Henry since. Maybe that was a decade ago. Maybe more. (The older you get, the harder it is to put time in perspective.) But his words stuck with me. All those times I saw him run like he was doing battle, he was – and he was finding a release in that battle as profound as the visions coming to the person ingesting mescaline or psilocybin. But true to form, Henry got there the hard way, running beyond the physical realm into his own version of psychotropic revelation.
My own “trips” while running are of a different sort. I wouldn’t call them spiritual, but I have found in them the way to write the novels I could never muster enough thought to write during my addiction to nicotine. And, like Henry, my mind is released, but to a place where it plays with words, meets fictional characters, sees their lives and the world and actions taking place around them. It’s the place where I build my plots and themes, where I find the words to describe them. When I put them down on my laptop, I’m just typing. The writing was done on the trail, through the miles, when, like Henry, I have been tripping somewhere else.