It struck me this morning, watching my breath rise in wispy, ghostlike puffs as I was wrapped in a long-sleeved insulated shirt and a vibrant insulated hoodie (I call this color please-don’t-hit-me-with-your-car-orange), to say nothing of the track pants, thick gloves, and knit cap.
You have to be a little bit crazy to do this.
Even a casual runner like myself will have to deal with a lot in the pursuit of a bit of exercise. Here in Atlanta, that includes some truly punishing hills just about anywhere you try to go, not to mention wickedly schizophrenic weather (it was 72 degrees on Christmas day, and in the upcoming five days we’ll go from 20 degrees to 60 and back again if the weather outlets are to be believed). But wherever you do this running thing, many struggles are the same. If you run in the cities or the suburbs, there’s traffic to dodge. If you run in the country or on trails, you’ve got ticks and snakes and mosquitoes and spiderwebs to avoid.
Today it’s cold weather, and while I know that calling 22 degrees “cold” earns a snort and a snigger from some of you folks up north, it’s about as cold as the bones of this fragile Georgian can stand. I’ve got almost a dozen pieces of cold-weather gear for running, and none of it seems to put me in any sort of comfort zone. Fleece-lined gloves. Moisture-wicking hats. Shirts in all thicknesses and weights. I permutate the system, layer up, and try to adjust for the slightest fluctuation in temperature, wind, and precipitation, but it’s impossible to get it right. When I start out, the cold slices through all that and chills the bones, but once the engine gets running, suddenly I’m sweltering in all these layers and running around with the jacket undone, the sleeves rolled up, the gloves in a pocket.
And the summer. God.
When you’re a not-in-the-best-shape-of-your-life dude like me, there’s only so many layers of clothing you’re comfortable removing, even if you run in the wee hours of the morning. Then the temperature creeps up into the nineties and every step feels like stepping forward into warm Jello, the air positively gelatinous with humidity. The clothes smell of sweat even after coming through the wash. Even your feet perspire.
Then there are the injuries, and a runner without injuries is like a politician without a closet full of skeletons. The past two years, I’ve fought off nagging injuries in the calves, heels, and ankles of both feet. My wife gets horrible blisters and knee issues and, through running, discovered she actually had a broken bone in her spine (probably from gymnastics earlier in life, but unearthed by running).
Point is, running, as a whole, tends toward the unpleasant. For the most part, it isn’t a lot of fun.
Yet, pounding the pavement in the relative stillness of the early morning, watching those puffs of misty breath rise and scatter before my face, feeling the cold leaking into the soles of my feet, the tips of my fingers, the bulb of my nose, it hit me.
Despite all that the run sucked (and it did suck: I was slower than I’ve been in weeks, I felt short of breath, and my left heel was acting up again), I was still undeniably enjoying myself. I was glad I’d hauled myself out of bed, despite not having to work today. The run felt right, like an old Def Leppard t-shirt from high school or your memory-foam pillow at the end of a particularly long day.
I guess it’s not surprising that I’ve embraced such a masochistic form of exercise: you have to be maybe more than a little bit crazy to decide in your thirties that you want to be a writer, and start committing hours every day toward what most people think of as a pipe dream. Putting down your words and thoughts and the bizarre worlds that exist in your mind for others to see. Thinking about stories and narratives and conflicts and subplots when you could just as easily veg out and watch a House marathon on the weekends (man, I miss that show). Choosing that mental torture when I could just as easily not seems as indicative as anything that there’s something wrong with me.
Running and writing, two great forms of torture that taste great together!
Is this a universal truth — that the things you love cause you pain and discomfort like this? Frankly, it’s kind of bullshit. I wish I enjoyed other forms of exercise, or even better, that I didn’t care about exercise at all, but I just can’t. Nothing else floats my boat. And writing … well, maybe all this will come to nothing, but I decided two years ago that not trying was no longer acceptable, so come hell or hot Atlanta summers (which are practically synonymous, but whatever), I’m going to keep going.
We must be crazy to choose this running life, this writing life.
But upon further reflection, we’d be even crazier not to.