At some point in my late twenties, I decided that I ought to be exercising. And since a lot of people I knew were runners—and since most of the successful, good-looking people I knew were runners—it seemed like I ought to be running. There were other reasons to do it, sure. I’d heard these same people talk about the pleasure of running, the ecstasy of running, the way running, once you hit your proverbial stride, became meditative. But, as I say, all the runners I knew were in excellent shape and I wanted to be in excellent shape, too. (I’m vain, reader.) So, I bought myself some fleet-looking sneakers and a set of warm leggings and told myself, “Now, you are a runner.”
At first, things seemed to be going well. For months, I mustered the will to wake up at 5am, bundle up, and stumble out into the dark winter streets. I’d see other runners—often in small packs, wearing headlamps and ear warmers—and we’d nod to each other, soberly, and I’d feel anointed. Or, it’s probably more accurate to say that I felt a bit smug about the whole thing: Here I was, up at an hour most people weren’t even conscious of, edging my body closer to its inborn perfection. One morning I ran past a colleague who was walking his mastiff, and later at work he said to me, “I didn’t know you were a runner. Good for you! You’ve got to be really dedicated to be up at that hour.” He might as well have called me a golden god.
But here’s the thing: I hated running. And I don’t mean I found it unpleasant, like watching a bad or boring movie. I mean I hated it. Every mile, every block, every single damn step. As best I can describe it, it felt like a wrestling match between me and my body. A constant argument, an unremitting resistance: My body didn’t want to do it. (Could you blame a body?) Running felt to me like throwing myself against a wall.
Worst of all, I didn’t ever experience any of those vaunted emotional benefits that other runners talked about. Did I once experience the runner’s high? (Unless one experiences this high as an acute pain in one’s knee, I didn’t.) Did I come anywhere near the experience of running as meditation practice? No. I experienced none of these things. And once I understood that I wouldn’t experience any of these things my will fell away and I stopped waking up in the predawn hours and finally stopped running altogether. I was disappointed and relieved and for a few years didn’t exercise much at all.
But slowly I’ve discovered other ways of being active and enjoying the world through my body. I love walking, for instance—especially, at night in my neighborhood, when it’s quiet and I can think without distraction. And a few years ago I picked up squash. It’s fast and difficult and exhausting and it rewards your willingness to push yourself. It’s also, I’ve discovered, meditative in its way. On the court, in the middle of a match, I forget myself, my opponent, my worries, my deadlines. It’s like being on a vacation from myself; it’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing egoless bliss.
I’m a failed runner, but it’s been a lucky failure.