Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Running as Drug

Oh, God! You should have been with me yesterday when I finished my ham and eggs and knocked back some whiskey and picked up my Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum and a ball of black Opium for dessert and went outside with a fierce kind of joy in my heart because I was Proud to be an American on a day like this. If felt like a goddamn Football Game, Jann -- it was like Paradise.... You remember that bliss you felt when we powered down to the farm and whipped Stanford? Well, it felt like That.

O Ghost, O Lost, Lost and Gone, O Ghost, come back again. --Hunter S. Thompson, Ph.D.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I do realize that most of the time I'm painting a picture of running like it's this thing worthy of philosophizing about in this high, mighty, and mostly serious way. It's a pretentious blog. I am a philosopher after all. And yes, in my last post, I even went so far as to talk about running as a religious experience.

But if we're going to keep the record straight then it should be noted that none of this seriousness or the attempt to paint this mindless trotting as somehow Meaningful in the way that Great Philosophers conceive of Meaning changes the fact that the last thing I thought this afternoon before strapping my Nike Skylons onto my knobby feet and heading out for a hill workout was Fuck.

Yes no shit there I was yet again running/hobbling down the road, down the road, for the umpteenth time like a damned and gaunt specter looking for a fix. My iliotibial band was raking my knee like a strung wire, but I paid it no mind. It didn't matter that there were papers to write or houses to clean or emails to send or tests to write and papers to grade, not to mention other people in the world. All that mattered was wresting some kind of high out of these beat up legs. Or at least conjuring the memory of being high, which is really what drives the addict down and in and towards the next fix. Not the joy but the lovely wadded up memory of joy, like a dinner receipt that you left in your pants that got dried and compacted into a crackling dusty chunk.

No, the fix is nothing compared to the memory of the fix. I wasn't expecting the possibility of transcendence or meaning. All I needed was the vague recollection of a time when it was the realest thing. How did Q. Cassidy put it? It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond? Or am I remembering the good doctor when he was speaking about The Edge? I can't remember their phrasing but I can tell you quite precisely that my mileage over the last week was one hundred and six.

There are ways to rationalize this excess. It was only twelve hours, give or take, of running, which if you think about it is less time than most people, according to the statistics that I am making up right now, sit in front of the television set. Not to mention it could lead at some point down the road to a marathon run in less than two and one half hours. And the fact that spring demands the seeking out of a breeze or two on the face. But really what it is, all this running, what it really is, is an escape and an ascent into a space where none of the things that matter matter.

I know I've insinuated otherwise, and I apologize for the confusion. Running ain't meaningful. We do it because it doesn't mean shit. Just how the alcoholic drinks, as a mode of self-destruction. Running literally destroys the self, however briefly. Fear and loathing indeed. All you rounders take a whiff on me.

That running habit's mighty bad. I've got an easy 14 miler on the docket for tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Running as Prayer

"Prayer is religion in act; that is, prayer is real religion. ... Religion is nothing if it not be the vital act by which the entire mind seeks to save itself by clinging to the principle from which it draws its life. This act is prayer, by which term I understand no vain exercise of words, no mere repetition of certain sacred formulae, but the very movement itself of the soul, putting itself in a personal relation of contact with the mysterious power of which it feels the presence,--it may be even before it has the name by which to call it. Wherever this interior prayer is lacking, there is no religion; wherever, on the other hand, this prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines, we have living religion." --Auguste Sabathier (quoted from W. James' The Varieties of Religious Experience)

It is difficult and probably dangerous to speak positively of religion in the Bible belt during the war on terror (remember, we are at war? I keep forgetting that.) The word "religion" is equivocal in its meaning. Its reference can be to fundamentalism and dogmatism, to a certain historical tradition, to a cluster of texts, to a moral code, to a view about the after-life, to a set of social-political beliefs, to a community, to a set of ritualized practices, etc. and so forth. When I talk about religion, I open myself up to all of these possible equivocations. It is highly likely that I will be misread. This blog post will attempt to define religion in a certain way that is not meant to exclude the way in which you understand religion, but could also challenge it or offer an alternative to it.

Sabathier is right, I believe, when he says that real religion is prayer. It is in the moment of prayer that religion has its effects--the vital act through which the mind in moments of fear or despair seeks to quiet itself and to find a principle on which it can rest. As I was running this morning, it occurred to me that my runs are prayers, in every sense that Sabathier defines prayer. I recount an ordinary run from the other day as evidence of this.

I left the door in a state which is too common for me. A kind of bleary fatigue that is my reaction to stress. The world washed out and devoid of detail. The mind torpid and slow, retreating into vapid and recurrent ruminations. I know what to do in these situations. I kneel, lace my shoes, and stumble my way out the door. The force that moves me out is blind habit, perhaps not unlike the force that sends people to church on Sunday mornings.

There is nothing religious about the first mile. It is all ritual, and it is empty. I stared out at the road in front of me and it seemed long and stone-cold. My body/mind awkward and reticent. Is this how Christians feel when the church service starts up? Or when they repeat, once again, the Lord's Prayer? Everything seems alien and cold, yes, ritualistic and meaningless.

Something happens, though, most all of the time. Some days it happens sooner, but usually it takes two or three miles. My heavy mind opens and becomes light. The body relaxes and stops fighting itself. Life seems less like an enemy and more a source of meaning. Is this prayer? The putting of myself into relation with the mysterious power that gives me life? There are no better words that can describe the feeling: an intimate encounter with vitality and power. Simultaneously the body and the mind slough off their torpor and I am a beast and a philosopher, a body and a mind, a soul once more animated.

Life is hard: don't let the smiling masks fool you. None of us bargained for it. Its challenges find us bewildered, uncertain, and unprepared. Life was not created for us, and it is mostly indifferent. In the face of these facts, the function of religion--its only honest function--is to save the soul. The living soul is threatened by life, and we need religious practices to give us the strength to live. Prayer names the act of regenerating the soul, of making it friendly once more to life: "wherever ... prayer rises and stirs the soul, even in the absence of forms or of doctrines, we have living religion."

Running shares many qualities with other types of religious practice. It is regular and repetitious. It is an exploration of the limits of human capacity. It involves a community of friends. It seems strange and sometimes even life-denying to the uninitiated. Its greatest reveries are often produced in isolation and are incommunicable. Running involves meditation and invokes vague and inarticulate feelings. There are communities devoted to abstruse hermeneutics of the running experience, complete with sages, saints, and wise council. It even invokes a sense of duty and righteousness. We must earn our running through sacrifice. Finally, it is absurd. It begins where it ends, and it ends where it begins.

This absurdity appropriates the indifference of life for the purposes of life. As runners, we choose the absurd. We choose indifference. We choose difficulty. We choose the lonely road. This choosing revalues all of the difficulties that life presents, making them activities that infuse the soul with energy rather than powers that threaten to destroy it or wash it out. Running allows me to be an active soul. If the function of religion--its highest calling--is to save souls, and if prayer is the means through which the soul is saved, then ah that hour a day is religious practice, absolutely.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Yesterday's easy run went well. It won't be long until I'm running workouts. Until then, I'm living vicariously.

Oklahoma State Workout with the Cowboys - Episode #7 | April 11, 2009 on Flotrack

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Monday, March 1, 2010

The Monday 12

Today marks my first day back into training. The ankle is not totally healed, but it's good to go for easy running.

It's fitting that the first day back will be the standard Monday 12 with the boys. The Monday 12 is about as far from a workout as you can get. There's nothing intense about it. It's not a long run. It's not a tempo. It's not a workout. It's a jog with a couple friends.

But if there is a secret to my training, it's encapsulated by the values of Monday 12. The Monday 12 is all about sustainability. There is a tendency to overemphasize the value of the runs that push the envelope. Those long runs, those fast runs. The runs where you grit your teeth and dig for new capacities. These have a place in training, for sure.

But training, like life, is mostly made up of runs like the Monday 12. The runs that don't do anything special. They don't serve any particular purpose. They don't prove anything in particular. You can't brag about them to your friends or your neighbors. They're just the runs you do because you're a runner.

They say that the test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching. In the days of the online running log and blogs and facebook and all that, you can make yourself believe that someone is watching at every moment. And they pretty much are, even if it's just as a distraction from whatever it is they should be doing. This sense that we are being watched can make training itself into a kind of race--who's got the most miles? Who did the sickest workout?

The Monday 12 is an antidote to all of that visibility. It's a run that accomplishes nothing, means nothing in itself. It's ordinary. It's just what I do, what I am. And for that very reason, it's the secret to it all.

On Monday afternoon the runners get together, and they run.
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