This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here.
Even during the fall, when it remains pitch black until nearly seven o’clock in the morning, I still prefer to run in the very early hours. Schedule doesn’t always permit it, but my most enjoyable runs are those when my feet are the first to touch the sidewalk for that day.
I’m entirely unaccompanied save for the occasional vehicle, but there is never any need to share the sidewalk. The roads I run alongside, which will be swimming with traffic by the time I return home to shower, eat breakfast and leave the house again, are at this time empty. If I wanted to jump on the road and run right down the middle or even zig-zag, I could do so without worry.
I crave open space when I run. Just as much, I crave the absence of sound. In the city, the former is incredibly rare, the latter is impossible. Even before the sun rises, I hear occasional signs of life, perhaps a plane overhead or a vehicle taking off in the distance that I cannot see. These early morning runs, when I can hear my own breath, are the closest I come to any such conditions.
The open space for me is a reminder of the folklore that’s been built around running, a folklore no doubt based on historical evidence, but one that through generations of oral history and re-interpretation is no longer just plain history but scripture who those who pound the pavement; a testament that simple motions of putting one foot in front of the other, breathing rythmically, and swinging our arms naturally at our sides are not just mere recreation, but the essence of our very nature. It’s the folklore of our ancestors running into wide open planes to hunt their prey, of tribes in the Copper Canyons who run hundreds of kilometres at a time not as a matter of competition but as rituals of friendship.
In these very early hours, I look forward and run as my body feels like running. With an empty stretch of sidewalk before me, I push myself to a gruelling pace or trot comfortably. All that matters is that there is an open space before me that I’m running into it.
I trust my body to do what’s right, however fast or slow and for however long it feels like doing it. There are no other runners or pedestrians to share the road with. I don’t worry that I’m moving too slow in comparison to someone else or that I have to hold back to not inconvenience others. My mind is on nothing in particular. I don’t think about running as a matter of fitness, recreation, or even training at this point.
I’m running because it is perfectly natural to run into that open space. This is when I’m happiest that I run.
Standing at the starting line of the Collingwood half-marathon, I was elated that I was going to have that open space. The field was small with just under 300 runners gathered. The Blue Mountains were at our backs in the distance. The course was arranged in a rectangular pattern without fancy twists and turns. Other than a brief jaunt through the main street, we would mostly run alongside rolling expanses of farmland.
With such a small field, it would be easy to spend all twenty-one kilometres with a comfortable cushion around me, free to move as I pleased. Perhaps this is why I didn’t feel a hint of nervousness. There was no hype or pre-race festivities. Just a few hundred people gathered on an open road whose name I didn’t know. I agreed to this race only a few days before on suggestion from a friend, so there was no time for overanalysis.
The gun went and I took off into the open space.
I had no idea precisely how fast I was going. I just went as my body commanded. I was in a wonderful rythm and from the beginning held no worry about whether my pace was right or wrong. There was only one pace-bunny in the race (1:55) and I was well ahead of him through the first ten kilometres. I continued to keep a wide gap ahead of him even after I stopped around the 12K mark to tie my right shoe.
It’s difficult to convey the sensation to someone who has never experienced it, but every runner who has been at it long enough will tell you about the moments when you are not conscious of “fast” or “slow” or how much distance you have still to cover. Your body drives you and to run is simply second nature. These moments are akin to “dancing like no one is watching.” Others do pass you and spectators do notice you. Perhaps they notice that you have a silly expression on your face, but this doesn’t register to you.
The pace bunny passed me around the 16K mark, the only significant hill in the race which we had to climb against a foreceful wind. Now my body was coming back to reality because those folkloric moments when you are chasing open spaces and touching that primordial ooze buried deep in your biological makeup cannot last for ever. You’re still human after all, wrapped in a body that has limits.
My core felt a bit strained and now I was conscious that I was moving a bit slower, though at a still decent pace after running what were certainly the fastest fifteen kilometers I’d ever run.
At 19K, the pace-bunny was still in my sights, but I began to tell myself that so long as I had him in my line of vision right until the finish, I would run a personal best even if he finished ahead of me. This was a sign that I was no longer running with joy and abandon and that I was just trying to talk myself to the finish.
It’s not so bad to feel this way. It meant that for 19K, I gave it all I had and would finish having “left it all on the course.” Feeling fresh with two kilometres remaining will only leave you questioning at the finish line how much better you could have done if you dug deeper. The fact that this fucking pace bunny just wouldn’t get any closer as I pushed and was suddenly my worst enemy would at least entitle me to say that I emptied the tank completely.
We were on a flat straightaway now with one kilometre remaining. I closed the distance, taking my place ahead of him again. “Almost there!” he shouted. “Thanks, that’s a PB,” I replied. “Well done,” he replied as I broke into my final sprint.
At the finish line I thanked him and shook his hand. Having him in my sights those last few kilometres kept me from complacency. I had a rabbit to chase, a prey which demanded my greatest strength and determination before it would be caught, one which allowed me to emerge from the struggle stronger and happier.
With my longest runs now topping thirty-five kilometres, I’ve gained a better sense of the many places running will take you. Those “open space” moments afford you clarity and a childish sense of play. They are an indication that you are strong and have come far, when your body is so efficient that you almost don’t feel it working. For sixteen kilometres in Collingwood, I was incredibly grateful to have journeyed to this place.
Then there are moments that ask you to go further, when you feel every ache and pain and the distance remaining won’t close. This is where our ancestors caught their prey and where we, the descendants, surpass our previous limitations and slay our demons and honour the artform they perfected to ensure our survival. It’s only by battling through that we emerge to find open spaces, where the joy of running grows greater each time we run toward them.
It’s this ebb and flow between love and strife that makes running all things to those who let it govern their lives, the omnipotent giver of love, joy, pain, disappointment, triumph, and growth, all of which can be experienced on a Saturday morning chasing open roads.