Running from Love

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Knowing this, you hide in an isolated bathroom for a brief release. Are you running because you think you deserve better? Are you settling? You now have a reason to run; you now have the right to disappear. Was it when he called when he said he would? Was it when he held you the entire night, and you never felt so at peace? Maybe it was the way you thought about him endlessly, only to have his thoughts reciprocated? So much goodness, so much promise, so much happiness… to lose. How stupid you can be.

How silly and delirious you are to believe that such a wonderful man could ever love someone as damaged and complex as you. He will realize that you have nothing to offer him long term. You, are nothing. The easiest escape is often the most extreme: isolation.

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Confined in your apartment, you feel safe boxed in as you watch your phone illuminate from his texts and calls. You cease all contact. Eventually, the calls diminish, and you are left to vindicate yourself because he gives up. Good for you, you think, as you escaped another man just waiting to leave you.

How easy this is. In an effort to repair yourself, you create unachievable goals to work toward. The dirt roads of Faulk County are a fine place to run.

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So far from home, it would be senseless to stop and walk. Fence post to fence post, rhythm and motion, measurable progress — I need that. Running is better for me than church; better than counseling, pills, or meditation; better than diet plans or twelve-step meetings. Running keeps me literally on the straight and narrow. Nor do my parents, my sister, my nephews, or the rest of my family on the farm. I can hardly explain it myself, except to say that everyone has their hobbies, their obsessions, their drugs. Mine is running. On the best days my legs are instruments of worship, my feet fall in cadence with the Psalms, my breath is incense, and my thoughts have the clarity of prayer.

I am not religious, mind you. But in the final miles this morning I came upon a new mantra, in which I invoked whoever might be listening — Christ Jesus, Yahweh, Lucifer, Almighty Allah, the Patient Buddha, or the ice over the creek and the hawks in the sky. My mantra goes like this: Deliver me from injury and save me from fatigue. Guide me down the road. One step, then the next. It was self-indulgent. My whole family was together on the farm, yet I withdrew to be alone in what now seems a showy stunt of endurance. On the way, I thought more about why I run. This woman and I met as graduate students.

At the time I was cynical and anxious, overly concerned with whether my academic efforts would amount to anything. She was the opposite: confident, calm, modest, and hopeful. She had run competitively in college, and when we began dating, I decided I would be a runner, too. Back then we lived in southern Mississippi, where you can run outdoors year-round.

For a couple of months I trained alone, until I was strong enough to keep pace with her; then she and I fell into lockstep. Twice a week we ran with a club called the Pine Belt Pacers, and other mornings we ran alone through the neighborhoods or along the rails-to-trails path north of campus. We trained together for races — a 5 K , a 10 K , a half marathon, and then a full. She always beat me handily. At our first marathon, in Nashville, Tennessee, she ran so well she qualified for Boston. Already I was no longer running to impress her, but rather to stay alongside her.

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After we graduated, she took a position in Southern California, and I found work back home in South Dakota for the fall semester. A couple of months ago, in late December, as I was packing to drive to the West Coast to join her, she revealed her reservations about our future together. She now runs along the beaches and back bays of the Pacific Ocean, while I pound the dirt roads and asphalt trails just east of the Missouri River.

I still think about her often. Once she and I separated, I feared the worst for myself. Running with her had affected me. It had changed me physically and emotionally. It had shaped me into someone better. Years ago I smoked cigarettes, binged on alcohol, gobbled junk food, and loafed in dimly lit rooms. As it happened, the Lincoln Marathon in Nebraska was roughly four months out. I signed up and vowed to keep running. Running is not a metaphor. Once you start thinking, you start hurting. Many new runners quit too soon because they find it difficult to silence their inner doubts.

Though it sounds perverse, when I run now, I want to hurt. I began by running ten miles per week, then fifteen, then twenty. I copied eighteen weeks of daily workouts onto my wall calendar in big green marker. No thinking required, just doing. Now my weekly output hovers around fifty miles. Wait until later, and the obligation hangs over me like a term paper. Without my training program, I might otherwise stay in bed and hide from the world until noon.

Every morning before my classes begin I do an hour of jogging.

Brookings is a clean city with a polite, industrious population. There are campus lectures and sporting events and museums and cafes and community centers. Here are softball fields and city parks, homes for sale and rent, construction zones, new storefronts, historical markers. I notice smaller things, too: Landscaping. Traffic signs faded from years in the sun. Neighboring driveways flying flags for rival colleges. I scare away rabbits and squirrels, even in winter. Who paved these streets? Who was here before me, and who will be here after? You shed the cloak of observer and become a participant in the daily commerce of your place.

People are curious about you as well. Running on the treadmill is a process, however: driving to campus, finding a parking spot, getting changed, warming up, working out, cooling down, dawdling, futzing, and then finally driving home.

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It can consume an entire morning. One recent Saturday my parents came down to Brookings for an equestrian show on campus, though I suspect they were worried about me, and the equestrian show was just a pretext for checking up on me. Such guilt. All this running is meant to bolster my spirit, but again I had put myself first and snubbed my parents. When we met for lunch, I apologized and conceded that my training might border on obsessive. But, I argued, with the short winter days and all this snow and so much time indoors, running was how I stayed positive. Sometimes on the treadmill I sense an aura — a pillow of light shining from my chest, warm and luminous, sparking the air like static electricity.

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My parents got it. We ate burgers at a sports bar two blocks from my apartment, and, after we finished, I followed them to their car and hugged them and told them to drive safely.

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Ah, yes. When I got home, I read:. Tobias now had a third eye. The eye was in the middle of his forehead, and when he was doing his sets the eye would shine a beam of sharply focused particle energy toward a point. Most of the time the beam of energy turned inward. It charged his spine with positive electrical ions. When the eye was open, he felt like a bomb that had been cleverly converted into a multipurpose generator.

This character, Tobias, is overeducated but unemployable — a victim, he believes, of a poor economy and an unjust social hierarchy. He feeds his third eye with anger, and it transforms him into a hulking figure, a beast. In my memory this passage perfectly described my relationship with running, but upon rereading it, I felt differently. I feel only love.

For now, with what I know, there is no other release. I run to gain more energy, just as I love to be more deserving of love. Everything reminds you of the person now gone. The cheap stuff only leads to discomfort and injury. Start with shoes, the most important item. After a few months, buy some nice socks. A colorful headband. One sweat-wicking tank top.

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Still running? Polyester shorts with a tiny pocket to hold your house key.

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Then the big purchase: a sports watch with GPS tracking, which will free you up from needing your phone while you run. My friend snorted — quite rudely, I thought. It took some knee pain and lots of cracking sounds from my ankles before I accepted that, in running, as in all things, you get what you pay for. Most real running apparel, however, is not visually flattering. It hugs your body in odd ways and exposes too much flesh. Final note on apparel: I would like to register that I like wearing compression shorts in my daily life.

The less said about that, the better. With five weeks left before the Lincoln Marathon, I am worn out.