I started running quite late in life. I was 35 and living in Portland. After a series of work mishaps and visa issues, I became unemployed.
My living quarters consisted of an ill-lit single room, furnished with a writing desk, bed, and a closet. During the day, I sat in coffee shops and applied to jobs. At night, I checked my bank account to see if I could make rent the next month.
It was late afternoon and the sky was overcast that Sunday. Music bursting in my ears, I launched myself with great speed out of the house. I struggled for breath a mile later. Still, I plowed past a Dairy Queen and a coffee shop with pretty flowers in windows. I circled a large reservoir at the bottom of Mount Tabor park. Then I ran back home.
My run had been a short one, slightly more than 2.5 miles. My form was probably incorrect and pacing terrible. But I was sweaty and thrilled with the effort. The day’s depression and anxiety was replaced with a sense of possibility. I felt as light and quick as the wind. I was invincible. (Or so I thought).
I ran several distances in different parts of the city that summer, steadily increasing my mileage from the initial 2.5 miles to nine miles. Each run provided misplaced hope and sustenance through an endless parade of dull and frustrating days. Six months later, still jobless, I moved to the Bay Area.
Over the next eight years, my priorities shifted from finding employment to survival. My life realigned its axes. Eventually, it crumbled to pieces. I became penniless and homeless, moving cities and residences. Relationships and friendships drifted away in a morass of misunderstandings and unexplained silences.
The background beat to these changes was the rhythm of my feet pounding the pavement. I ran through cities. In Berkeley, I ran through the streets towards the soccer field on top of a hill. I made loops circling Lake Merritt in Oakland.
In 2014, I exchanged the golden sunsets of California for the harsh glint off New York’s glass and steel structures. I moved rapidly through cramped apartments, bedrooms, and living spaces there. And so it was that I navigated the food carts and traffic of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights one month and was running in Brooklyn’s Maria Hernandez Park the next. A pit stop in Flushing later, I was back in Brooklyn in less than two months, running through verdant Prospect Park.
When permanent accommodation proved elusive in New York, I moved Upstate to find better and bigger places. That was not to be. But the running continued. In Catskills, I ran to the nearest grocery store five miles away. Beacon did not have a cheap gym. So I ran to one in Newburgh, a distance of eight miles back and forth.
In hindsight, all those miles seem like the absurd wanderings of a madman. But they represent elemental progress in a life that has mostly been on pause for the last eleven years (or possibly longer). Quite often, those miles are the only thing that makes sense in life’s nonsense. The tiredness and ache at the end of a long run is tangible and real unlike the mind’s conjurings of fantasies, recriminations, and depression.
Running is also freedom; an unshackling, not from life’s responsibilities but from their cluttered manifestations: that overflowing inbox of unread emails, the incomplete piece of writing, and the unending list of tasks. It is an escape from the theater and the role, a grammatically incorrect punctuation – possibly a comma – inserted into life’s run-on sentences before that final full stop.
Mostly it is hard work, though. Sometimes, there is a reward when the mind reaches a “zone”, a meditative and blissful solitary state after the initial spill of endorphins gives way to the calming effect of serotonin. In that flow, everything around – the trees, wind, traffic, and people – move in perfect harmony with the natural and instinctive movement of feet.
But it has become more difficult to achieve that state with age. In a short span of eight years, my earlier invincible self has been replaced by one susceptible to injuries. The other day, I twisted my ankle in a futile attempt to speed up a hill. Ever so often, the knees turn to jelly after a long run. It takes longer to reach a comfortable pace. I am frequently short of breath and slower than I used to be. The mind wanders away and often, from the beauty of immediate surroundings to the chaos and disorder left behind.
These days, each run begins with doubt. But the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is an advance. Eventually, the hesitation vanishes. The physical movement forward is complemented by the mental achievement of having completed another run, another distance, however small.