There are a few things that I’ve been doing with reliable consistency for years that I don’t foresee ever ending: art, documenting and running.
The art has been a part of my life for long enough that I barely need to separate it from my existence anymore. As long as I’m around, I’ll be doodling on something, even if it’s the whitewashed walls of whatever old folks’ home or loony bin I wind up occupying.
The documenting has been around almost as long. Give me a pencil and I’ll write an essay. Give me a phone and I’ll send a message. Give me a computer and I’ll type a blog. Give me a camera and I’ll pluck moments from every experience and tuck them away for later.
Then there’s the running. I ran a bit as a kid, but I don’t think that really counts. Of my own volition, I’ve been running for almost 13 years. When I began, I knew exactly why I was doing it. But then it became habit and routine and personal conquest and although I may not have completely forgotten the original reason why I started, it didn’t seem as important.
After a recent string of running-related injuries and a relentless bullheadedness that drove me to not only keep going, but push harder, I revisited the catalyst that began my 13-year habit. And I vaguely realized that I wasn’t being thoroughly honest when I explained to people that I run so much because I’m training for something.
I mean, sure, I am working toward a mileage goal. But that’s not why I run.
A few years ago I was introduced to a sometimes-raunchy, often-hilarious comic strip writer/artist named The Oatmeal. Amid his comics rife with poop, penises and killer cats, he has a remarkable comic explaining why he runs long distance. In the 6-part strip, he describes the Blerch: an obese fairy cartoon that is the manifestation of his regrets, fears and unwanted responsibilities. The Blerch chases The Oatmeal as he runs, but as long as The Oatmeal keeps running, he’s always ahead of The Blerch.
The Oatmeal realizes, sadly, that one day The Blerch will catch up with him.
When I asked myself not too long ago why I was running so much and pushing myself so hard, I remembered The Oatmeal’s comic and it occurred to me that I’m running from my own demons as much as anyone else, including The Oatmeal.
But my demons aren’t a fat childhood or a junk food addiction.
I’m running from a cluster of fears and anxieties that stem from a single source—a specific event that shaped my life. And I’m running really hard, with the music turned way up and my tunnel vision maxed out.
Almost 13 years ago I started running for my health because quite suddenly I became ill and I wanted to turn things around. But complications arose and I struggled to maintain the ability to run. The doctor I was seeing—a pompous, asinine neurologist who will remain nameless (Cough! Cough! John Flamini)—told me to stop running. He had other recommendations for me, including one that would have almost certainly led to my death, if not extended hospitalization.
But, in keeping with my bullheadedness, I gave him the proverbial middle finger and pushed through the complications that threatened to leave me inactive and potentially crippled. That was 13 years ago, when a single mile was more challenging for me than 10 miles is now.
And the reason why I didn’t stop is because the ease of giving up and giving in (doctor’s orders) was overcome by the paralyzing fear of my own mortality.
There is a chasm at the end of my life and it was supposed to be so far ahead of me that I couldn’t even see the hint of a shadow. And then it abruptly opened up in front of me. So I did the only sane thing I could; I turned around and ran.
I’m not running from The Blerch. I’m running from the chasm and I’m putting as much distance as possible between me and it. I’m stronger, smarter, leaner and healthier than I was when I was 21 and I have 13 years of giving Flamini the middle finger to thank for that.
Like The Oatmeal, I know I can’t run forever. I can’t perpetually improve and I can’t demand endless feats from my body. That’s logic. But it doesn’t change the crushing guilt I feel when I skip workouts or erase the certainty that there will be extreme consequences for my laziness.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m too hard on myself and I overreact. But the truth is that I never escaped that paralyzing fear of my own mortality and that is exactly what precipitated my plunge in the first place. So I can hardly stop now.
And don’t mistake my fear of mortality for a fear of death. I would consider death a penultimate fear. What crushes me is what I escaped over a decade ago—paralysis. I’m terrified of becoming obsolete from illness, disease and senility. The easiest way for me to console that fear is to validate my worth through independence and physical capability.
I painted this as a reminder that death isn’t my fear
And so I run and run and run.
And while the tone of all this might seem depressing or macabre, don’t forget that I’m winning. Being afraid of the helplessness that comes with physical deterioration and advanced age isn’t novel. I’d guess that most people are afraid of their own mortality and everyone chooses to address it however works best for them. I chose to be active.
For 13 years I’ve been in pristine health and I’ve been improving. I’ve been flipping off Flamini and anyone else who’s told me to stop. I’ve rallied against my anxieties of dependence and injury and found an outlet that provides relief, improvement and catharsis.
And that is why I run.
But the shorter, simpler answer is because I can.