Senses of Running

"Boil the beast" she said, "what else?"

"But it's not dead" protested Belacqua "you can't boil it like that."

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

"Have sense" she said sharply, "lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be." She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. "They feel nothing" she said.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

"You make a fuss" she said angrily "and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner."

She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.

It is not.

--Samuel Beckett, "Dante and the Lobster"

Had Belacqua taken leave of his senses?

What if running were this: practice at not taking leave of our senses? What if it were a kind of discipline of sensation?

We speak so often of running in a goal-oriented way. I was flipping today through Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind, which is the only serious attempt that has been made to bring together academic philosophers to write about running. What's nice about the book is that it reflects the plurality that is our relation to running. Many of us run for many different reasons. And a book like this is good for articulating some of those reasons.

But I was also struck on moving through the essays again--as I am when I read running message boards or talk to friends--by the overbearing need to make sense of our running. We want this activity that we love to have meaning. I suppose this is natural. We want to feel as though our lives tie together and that this thing we do nearly daily plays an integral role in the plan of our lives. Since we run so often, running must be something we learn from, right? We do it to test our limits. Or to teach ourselves to work. Or to become free through a process of self-overcoming. Quentin Cassidy seems to be considering just this point in Again to Carthage when he tells his girlfriend in a sappy love letter that running makes him happy because it makes him feel like an arrow. And it's true: we runners point, aim, make plans, direct ourselves. Running gives life direction, and in this sense it makes life meaningful.

But I wonder if all this obsession over goals and plans and techniques of achievement may also betray a sort of anxiety that running doesn't make much sense at all. Or at least it doesn't add up to the sort of existential "sense" that we desire out of life: the "sense" of progress, success, victory.

So, what if running was about developing a different sort of sense? What if what is essential to the discipline of running is not the ability to make sense, but the ability to feel, to sense.

I write this thinking of my workout today, how in the last mile I was overcome with sensation. The body alive and alert. My eyes wide open, feeling almost everything: pain, pleasure, the bright green of the grass, the slight incline of the path, my running partner on my shoulder, the songs of birds, the fall of my feet, the copper-taste of adrenaline, the sweat on my chest, wind on cheek, rasping breath. It was a long five minutes, that mile, an interval of time marked out by a nearly overwhelming intensity of sensation. It is this intensity that makes running so difficult. It's not the pain, no. It is the full plunge of consciousness into an overload of sensation that we cannot bear: life that has become too much. Running--particularly hard running--offers a glimpse into moments in which we do not make sense, but are sense. Absolutely brimmingly full, overflowing with, sensation.

The best runners are connoisseurs of this experience. It is this experience that we call "effort." What makes effort difficult is not pain at all. It's the influx of a life that breaks down all the barriers of good sense and common sense that we put up to keep life's sensations from overwhelming us. These sensations are too rich to bear, really. We are lobsters in a boiling pot, and the five senses are really the tiniest portals of life, letting in just enough that our sanity be preserved. When we run, we play with these portals, we let life flood in, as long as we can stand it.

It is a quick death, thought Belacqua.

The runner knows--his effort tells him--it is not.


  1. You've been quite the prolific runner and blogger lately. Great stuff.

  2. we are good at making things more complicated than they need to be. education, career, relationships, religion, politics, running. we become determined to control, and we forget to experience.


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