25 October 2022

Of Love that is strong to suffer

...all the sin and sorrow of the world, is revealed as the comfort and confidence of man, whose own deepest experience is love that suffers, whose highest worship therefore must be of Love that is strong to suffer. -Julian of Norwich 

I don't know why I run. I know why I started running. I know why I've made various choices about running over my life, but why I actually do it? I don't know, and I particularly don't know around the twenty or twenty-second miles of the Abingdon Marathon, muddy and wet, when I start to write and try to distract myself with the things I will tell people about the race. I used to have a mantra, taken from Murakami, I run to find the void, but that's not something that comforts you late in a race. You aren't running to find the void, you're running because you'll feel shame if you drop out. You're running because you don't want to stop in front of the supporters, the ones saying things in a quiet voice, You're doing great, you're almost there, well done, the way you coax a child when they're throwing up in the middle of the night. 

Several people said to me before the race, Enjoy yourself, and I understood what that meant intellectually, but I didn't understand it in my body. Running is my hobby, but I don't think I'd say I enjoy it. I realised that after running for two and a half hours on Sunday — I was not, on any level, enjoying this experience. Surely there must be something else I could be doing: I turned this over in my mind, what would I rather be doing if it was purely about enjoyment, but things that I thought I might genuinely enjoy if I wasn't worried at all about public perception of me, were all some vice, embarrassing in one way or another, and having them as a hobby would require a lack of shame, something I'm particularly incapable of. No, I've always chosen my interests based on how they fed a perception of being socially desirable, determined, intelligent. In jr high school, for example, I liked classical music, but I'm not sure if I actually did like that music, or if I just liked how it made other people think I was whatever it was they thought I was.

Running has pulled me in because it fulfills my beta desire to be physically strong. It's given me a thing I never had when I was young: athletic success. I was never good at any sports, but I'm a pretty good runner, whatever that means. Being good at running, particularly to be good at long-distance running, is just the ability to do a straightforward thing over a long period of time. It's a sport that rewards persistence, bloody-mindedness. I follow marathon training plans like they are the gospel, like I believe them, like any deviation from them will lead to judgment. And indeed, when I ran the Great Welsh Marathon in the Spring, when I broke three hours and felt a sense of accomplishment that matched almost any sense of accomplishment I'd ever felt, it made some sense to me. You keep going and going and going and then, eventually, you succeed.

These last three months though, I have not been training well. I've been running what you call junk miles, not easy miles, not hard miles, but in the miserable middle miles, just barely testing your ability and never resting. For me, that's one hundred and forty beats of my heart per minute. I can run a fast marathon at one hundred and fifty-eight, those thirteen extra beats a minute are all the difference in the world, and if you don't train for it, you can't do it. Or rather you can do it, you are able to do it, your body is able to do it, but you can't do it. You can't make yourself do it and when you're slow, when you're losing time as you get into the last hour of running, you need to tell yourself a story with a reward. When the reward is just finishing, all you can do is finish. The reward becomes your family still being together, your marriage not having broken down yet, your career progressing, and your body having no major illnesses. That's enough, really, when you shuffle into the final six hundred meters, and willingly forget whatever pleasure you would have felt if you had run just eight and half minutes faster than you did. 

I will, of course, keep running and will run another marathon — on Monday I got news, sitting in my favourite pub eating breakfast, that the two hour fifty-nine minute, thirty-four-second marathon last April meant I could run the London Marathon next year, having qualified in what they condescendingly label Good for Age, but this describes me well, describes my whole life from when I was three onwards: I am good for my age. Whatever I thought on Sunday, less than 24 hours before, when I thought this was meaningless, why suffer, why do this of all the things I could do, all the vices, why get up every morning so early and run in the dark. Those questions were gone: who wants a religion they have to choose, a tweet I see quotes Hauerwaus as saying. I agree: I only had to choose it once and then I stopped choosing it. I don't want anything I have to choose, much less choose more than once. I want the plan to tell me what to do, I want it to work out when and where I will rest. I want people to praise me for the things I do. It doesn't need to make sense.