A few years back, I was given the sack by my partner of many years and replaced, perhaps, I wouldn’t know, by some young abomination whose hobbies included home-wrecking and the purchase of ugly tattoos. It’s a timeworn story whose details are entirely predictable. My responses to this everyday tragedy were also predictable – wailing, refusing to bathe, being fingered by a stranger behind a church wheelie bin – and not what we’d call benign. Bar one. I began, in desperation, distance running, a practice, unlike most of those others, I am yet to quit.
Distance running is, of course, a formalised activity. Around 80,000 Sydneysiders signed up to run, or walk or wheel, this month’s City2Surf. Go west to The Bay Run trail one early morning, and count hundreds in compression pants, dozens of them in headlamps. Try a turn at Tamarama and be outpaced by a hard-bodied fitness model who has just given birth to twins and is pushing them in a front-suspension stroller that cost more than your car. Stop by Centennial Park and try to calculate the cost and the area of all that high-performance fabric.
These are regarded as folks whose hobby is moderate endurance. As people who are, more or less, sane. But the thing about distance running, unlike most other recognized types of exercise, is that it can never outrun its true origin, which is in utter human panic.
There are plenty of trademarked physical activities that are, of course, bonkers. CrossFit appears to me like Stockholm Syndrome with air squats, and SoulCycle as just the sort of disco the Manson Family would open. But these are forms of crowd insanity; they are inherently social. Distance running, however, has little to do with civilisation. It is the attempt to flee the organised human world.
This is not, by the way, a claim for running’s superiority. Actually, I consider it an affliction. Six months after my dumping, I had run so much I found myself at a marathon starting line. Four hours and 40 minutes later (note: very ordinary) I had one hand on my right knee ligament, to which I was convinced someone had set fire, and another inside my mouth in the attempt to deliver a life-saving banana directly to the gut. Three months and ten trips to the physio later, I signed up to a half-marathon and would have made okay pace for my age range were it not for a bout at the 10K mark of runner’s diarrhoea. Which is a real thing. Look it up. Or, don’t, and just make sure that you never put your trainers on without first knowing where the bogs are.
I’ve run the unofficial city route down to Woolloomooloo preferred by lunchtime obsessives. I’ve seen the pain on their faces. It’s not just poo pain, but the exertion of outrunning this world. No matter how completely you dress up your running in 2XU pants, Ultra Boost trainers or hydration packs, you can’t fool me. Running is not sane, and it is certainly not social, even if runs like the City2Surf are viewed as civic events. It is a manifestation of the will to find a time before human history. It is the id bolting. It is the desperate attempt to be completely alone.
When you look at the South Coogee stairs, you might first see people of uncommon discipline committed to their quads. Move closer. Close enough, perhaps, to catch the madness in their eyes. Even the enviably beautiful – and there are many on those steps – forget their beauty. Beauty is for other people. Running is only for the self. The self, we like to imagine, that came before compression tights and organised races and running apps and other people.
When we are running, we are running away from you.