On Un-Becoming a Runner

Over the last few months, I have become less and less a runner. None of this was an act of will or a decision. Things have conspired -- family, body, job. I know this is true because when I go for a run now there is an absence of fluidity. The identity is not natural; it's artificial.

The causes of this change are not so relevant, and understanding them would bring little understanding to the fact of change itself. This is the thing about change: in the raw core of its newness its origins can't be traced. Things do come into this world out of nothing, putting the lie to the the logic of causality. The philosopher decrees: ex nihilo fit nihil. And yet -- each morning novelty covers the grass of the world like fresh dew.

Some changes, of course, run deeper than others, and we use the language of identity to talk about those deep changes. We say: I am this, as if the words am, is are, be were incantations that take a moment in time and lock it up in a case. John Dewey, following folks like Nietzsche, Hume, and Heraclitus, took the metaphysical view that what is most fundamental about the world is in fact its precariousness and fragility. The Real falls apart. This is what is most natural and basic in the world. What takes effort and thought and coordinated intelligence is the holding of this precariousness together, through rhythm and harmony when it is working well, through strain and routine when we have to. Identity, being real, is no different.

A fully functioning identity in a precarious world is not an essence of the Aristotelian sort. It is not held together the way a mathematical equation or analytic proposition is constructed. What we talk about as identity is held together the way in which all things in a changing world hold together: through the rhythms and flows of life, the harmonies that are constructed through action, and the stresses and strains that are the mark of more difficult effort.

So, to say now that I am less and less a runner, is to say that the rhythms and harmonies and even stresses and strains that held this identity together are unraveling. It takes much searching and many false starts to find the beat. In part this is because every rhythm needs to be rewritten in order to remain vital. Identities can die through staleness -- unlinked from vital forces, harmonies become mere repetitions.

Since this is a running blog, it's sort of odd to blog about un-becoming a runner, but really I think this happens to all runners at various times in their lives. It already happened to me once in my mid-20s. When I was in the full blush of my running identity, I looked back on that time that was lost to running and couldn't recognize that person. Who could get up every day, for days on end, and not go for a run? What did I do to keep myself sane? It was literally hard to imagine myself.

But now, just months into my un-becoming, I look back on the runner that I was and I cannot imagine the amount of energy that I poured into my training, how deeply I depended on the run or two a day, the races I anticipated, the feelings of strength and power, the honed and sharpened body. Who was that person? I see him now, in the bodies of others, in the lean streaks floating like animals around the track. He is not me.

Is it to the good? It's hard to say. It's good like the summer is good: the end of one season and the beginning of another. As I write I find myself trying to avoid a nostalgic tone and find a medium between two false extremes. The one extreme would say that identifying as a runner is a pretty trivial identification, and it's better to find deeper identification in deeper streams: fatherhood, career, etc. The other extreme treats dis-identification as a runner as a betrayal. As if I were born to be a runner, and as if losing this identity is a failure to follow out a script that has already been written.

I've believed both of those extremes, sometimes simultaneously. To identify as a runner means to happen more often than not on the idea that you were truly born to run, to feel like it is your destiny. And it also means that you have doubted whether all that time spent headed in asphalt circles amounted to much more than selfishness.

Neither of these thoughts capture what has happened with me. This change came sideways, not through the extremes. It strikes me that this is what happens most often. We rarely win an argument with ourselves about what we should be. Instead, we just change the subject. What was important, shimmering, and vital now seems ordinary. What was unseen, gray, and banal is now full of color, wild, and beckoning.

To live is to change; the logic of life is not a logic of identity.


  1. Beautiful, like seeing and appreciating an old home. We've all been there.

  2. Excellent, Jeff.

  3. I love this.

    "We rarely win an argument with ourselves about what we should be. Instead, we just change the subject."

    Well said.

  4. thanks for jotting this down. timely piece for me who has such drastic change as fatherhood looming large on the horizon (with excitement!) and feels this threat to the development of his running i.d. (which I never really wanted/took seriously but have found myself moving towards over the past couple years).

  5. Muy bien Jef, me siento también identificado,a vida es cambio, y el que mejor sobrevive o vive es quien se adapta a estos cambios, yo estaba acostumbrado a remar, correr, jugar hockey y ahora ya no hay tiempo para ello, pero como padre y espeso me siento mas feliz que como atleta, porque ahora mi familia es mi nuevo equipo y la paternidad mi nuevo deporte. Saludos!.

  6. Excellent, Jeff.

    It's not the same, of course (it's better, if you ask me) but have you considered becoming a Walker? Walking's definitely more physically and emotionally sustainable, as time goes by, and far more easily coordinated with the demands of an academic career... even an administrative academic career, though I've observed that too many administrators seem chained to their desks. A brisk twenty minutes around (say) Peabody Campus in the middle of a busy working day might be just the change a harried academician might need!

    Good luck, and happy trails.


  7. Jeff, this one hit home. The past two years have been a period of "Un-becoming-a-runner" for me. My creative impulses have been leading me elsewhere, and though I'm still running, it's been a struggle to keep it going. It’s cosmically funny that I've been missing runs because I've been staying up all night creating a comic strip about running. I’d rather be drawing and writing than running. If my lifespan is average, I have about twenty years left, and in this final stretch, the awareness of life being completely spontaneous in the moment as never been stronger. It's our brains that take these events and categorize them with time stamps. Some of these categories become identity--the "I am a runner" one has taken up a lot of my mental life. It is the result of strong creative impulses in what I call "the medium of life.” But now running is more like brushing my teeth; it’s an act that is done to make certain outcomes more probable. It invites healthier, less obese futures for sure, but it is my hope that strong creative impulses will return and the future will involve races and athletic achievement again. If I keep going, it is more probable. If I’m able to speak on my deathbed, I would like to say this: “Thanks, Muse, you sure made it interesting. Thanks for not respecting identity.” Great piece, Jeff.

  8. amazing post, jeff. your ability to connect your singular experience to the universal is a gift which i appreciate your sharing.


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