What if we don’t know where the line is? What if there’s no clock?
I’ve been thinking about running long distances. About why I want to, about why anyone does.
It’s partly because it’s winter and I’m missing the freedom of being able to disappear on long runs like I can in summer. But mostly it’s because I read a truly beautiful essay by Devin Kelly last weekend about the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 mile race.
It’s the longest footrace in the world. Runners have 52 days to cover 3100 miles by running repeatedly round a block in Queens, New York, a lap of approximately half a mile. The competitors run round and round from 6am to midnight every day whilst NYC life goes on around them.
The Why is a question worth asking.
Devin Kelly’s essay is about endurance and the gratitude that is evoked when people are locked in struggle. For him, the race became a symbol of the ordinary endurance of people all over the world, facing our own challenges, great and small. The runners toeing the line every morning at 6am were us, just getting up and getting on with it, whatever our context.
Some of the writing was so beautiful it made me want to cry.
His name was Vasu: 54 years old, the foreman of a lumber company in Russia. He had run this race eight times before. That day, and each day after that I saw him, he wore a makeshift crop top printed with the race’s name, and his legs moved with the same powerful tenderness of an elephant’s. You could tell they respected the ground they landed upon. The first time I saw him, he also saw me, and his eyes — which are so blue that they leave an ache in the back of your throat — briefly met mine before they dropped back to the ground. He put his hand to his heart and nodded my way, and for a second I could not breathe at all. I felt unquestionably in the presence of someone whose capacity for gentleness far exceeded mine, and I stood there — alone, slightly cold, leaning against a soccer field’s chain link fence — wondering if I should change my life.
- Devin Kelly, Children in the Garden: On Life at a 3,100-Mile Race
The essay made me think about distance running, but more so about the idea of ordinary endurance.
I thought about my mum, and my partner, and about many people I have appreciated but never known how to express it. In these people I’ve failed to celebrate (and often failed to recognise) astounding feats of ordinary endurance that I find easy to celebrate in strangers. And I don’t know if this is a problem with me, or just a human one.
It’s easy to recognise endurance when we’re cheering someone over a line and the clock above their head registers conclusive proof of their achievement for all to see. It says, in giant LCD digits, this is what I have done.
But what if we don’t know where the line is? What if there’s no clock?
What about the silent endurance of mothers and sons and brothers and daughters and husbands and widows and nurses and counsellors and farmers and teachers and old people and people who are simply alone?
What about them?
What about the people who just keep going, slow and insistent, like an incoming tide.
I thought about work. I thought about all the kids in all my classes over 14 years of teaching - those I’ve known well and those I haven’t - and about the unspoken struggles they faced and will continue to face throughout their lives. I thought about how I might have recognised that and how it would have been impossible to.
A lot of teaching is invisible endurance. Sometimes the sheer scale of emotion in a classroom can be palpable and overwhelming. Often you are face to face with humanity in a way that makes you feel far less secure about your own.
As a teacher you deal with a material where the only consistency is inconsistency. Your daily currency is flawed, volatile, and largely mysterious. It’s dangerous but innocent; ignorant yet open. It’s hard to be objective every day. It’s hard to know you’re saying the right things, or at least avoiding the wrong ones. After all, you are also this flawed material.
Some days I’ve felt so exposed that I might as well be laid out on a mortician's table under strip lights with 30 teenagers poking around and passing judgement. Then they go home and invite their parents to do the same, based on their decrees. (There’s no requirement to actually meet you, of course).
Running is a tool to combat this. Running is not mysterious. The process is simple and entirely within your control. The feedback is instantaneous, often visceral. And it’s yours alone.
I run when I feel under pressure, or I want to escape. I run to work through problems as if worrying a loose tooth. I run because I struggle to slow my mind down any other way.
Sometimes this feels selfish, like I’m literally running away. But often when I go to think of myself I end up thinking of others. At these times I might come home, dripping onto the kitchen floor, tired but lighter. And I might touch a little boy’s head as he scuttles past, or kiss Melanie on the cheek, and she will ask what’s that for? And it will be the product of hours of thinking and gratitude, and I won’t know what to say about that, or how I might begin to sum it up.
All I know is that the openness I feel in these moments, even if it only manifests in the slightest of gestures, is something that’s a product of running. An appreciation and willingness to communicate that I struggle with at other times.
Given time and space I’ve always felt able to put feelings into words on paper, but this doesn’t often translate to speech or help me in day to day life. Sometimes I’m paralysed when it comes to expressing everyday emotions. I don’t say what I think, because spoken words seem insufficient somehow, or dangerous. They’re too throwaway, too easy to say without consideration or revision. No sooner have they been spoken than they’re gone, regretted or misremembered.
Life so often seems careless like this. We fly through without due care. We cast fleeting glances at things that deserve more. We make snap decisions about whether things are worth our time. Our attention is commodified and objectified. We revere productivity, efficiency, speed.
Move fast and break things goes the Silicon Valley mantra. But what we break is ourselves.
We lionise winners of epic races, conquerors of mountains, the first, the fastest, the strongest…because these frantic and impossible feats are a metaphor for the unsustainable way we’re trying to live.
We rarely slow down.
So we miss details. We don’t savour moments. We fail to appreciate the beauty of the ordinary. The nobility of consistency. Sustained, quiet effort. Heartfelt work.
You focus the energy of your compassion on a few single beings, and you ask them questions you might never ask someone else in the world outside. What do you need? Are you hungry? Do you want to walk? Do you need to sit down? Perhaps you realize — as I have, writing this — that these questions could be asked of anyone in the world. Anyone right now. Maybe there is someone next to you while you are reading this. What do they need? Have you asked them? I haven’t asked anyone such a question today. I should have, I know. I should right now.
- Devin Kelly, Children in the Garden: On Life at a 3,100-Mile Race
Maybe people take on extreme races because the race provides a framework, giving form and shape to the ordinary endurances of daily life. Maybe we need arbitrary lines to feel like there’s an end.
In endurance running we can celebrate and be celebrated for what we do every day. These races come to symbolise our daily struggles, and they are put into a context that we can understand, in some way control, and that others can see. More importantly: they are something we can finish. And when we do, we can allow ourselves to be proud and praised for it.