Mind-Body Problems

Running exposes your body in a way that can make you feel very vulnerable. You’re out on the side of a road, barely covered by a few scraps of fabric. You are bared to the elements, the judgments of your solitary mind, the gaze of others. If you’re not running comfortably, you can feel disjointed and awkward, a cartoon skeleton crashing down the stairs, crazy to be out there at all.

But when my running’s going well, I don’t think about my body. Or, rather, I have the rare experience of seeming to inhabit my body fully. I’m unaware of a difference between what I think of as “me” and what I experience as “how I am.” There are moments—if I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a window, or my shadow stretching out ahead of me on the pavement—when I’m brought back to my usual alienated experience of my body—pale, duck-footed, heavy-limbed. But generally when I run, I am in my body, and I am my body, and we are trundling untroubled through the world.

But then I’m an able-bodied white man. I have almost never worried about running anywhere I pleased.

I mentioned in an earlier newsletter that I began running when Jennifer (girlfriend then, wife now) let me tag along with her on runs through our neighborhood in Boston. On one of those first awkward, slow runs we took together, we approached an intersection at the same time as a car coming down the cross street. The driver had no stop sign, but he hit the brakes when he saw us anyway, lurching to a stop to let us pass in front of him.

“That was friendly,” I chirped, waving.

“That wasn’t being friendly,” Jennifer said, disgusted by both the driver’s obviousness and my obliviousness. “That was wanting to get a better look.”

I passed the most important years of my adolescence living on what was then a very rural island in South Carolina. In those days I’d no sooner go for a run than feed myself to an alligator. Instead, my friends and I passed our teenaged afternoons playing music in sweat-hazed garages, knocking around in decrepit boats, and driving along the flat, empty roads of the sea islands. On those drives we would (very occasionally) see sporty types out riding bicycles or running in spandex, and we’d say, derisively, “oh, look: white people!” We thought we were laughing at the fact that they were making fools of themselves as only white people would, that black people were too dignified to parade around in public like day-glo Vienna sausages. It didn’t occur to me then that we saw these runners as the epitome of whiteness because only white runners could do it. It would have been simply impossible for a black person to go for a run along those roads. It would have been a death wish. That a white runner could safely, unselfconsciously run down those roads half-naked, looking like a fluorescent clown, was a dramatic demonstration of his protected status, an unaware but unambiguous flaunting of whiteness.

It can feel to me like I’m flaunting when I write here about my experience of running. I know that mine is as untroubled an experience of running as it is possible for a person’s to be. When I’m floating on a cushion of endorphins in a way that feels entirely like the magic of human biology, it’s easy for me to forget that I’m able to feel that way not simply because I’ve worked hard and gotten into shape, but also because the world lets me do it. Nobody interferes.

I’ve gone back and run or cycled on rural roads in the south as an adult. And sure, occasionally I’ve been yelled at or mocked. One time someone threw his Big Gulp at me. But I’ve never felt harassed in the way that I know Jennifer—and 84% of women surveyed by Runners World—have been. I’ve never been worried for my safety the way Garnette Cadogan describes in his essay on the dangers of walking while black. I don’t worry that the driver who throws a Mountain Dew slushee at me will be lying in wait for me at the next intersection. He’s not going to double back for another shot. He’s not going to trail me lasciviously, as someone did one day to Bryanna Gonderio-Petrie, or trail me suspiciously, as someone did one night to Ian Graber-Stiehl. I’m scared of dogs. I’m scared of careless drivers. But I’m never scared that my humanity will be ignored or discarded by someone who confronts me while I’m running.

And when I relax into the peaceful relationship that running lets me have with my body, I can do that in part because nobody else cares about my body: nobody wants it, nobody’s scared of it. I’m not Kiese Laymon trying to run himself into literal invisibility because he was so tired of his body being perceived as a threat. The relationship that Laymon’s running created with his body was destructive, deliberately so:

I just kept thinking, like, if I can just push my body and push my body and push my body, I could disappear. And at that point, you know, I’d had lots of run-ins with police. I was about to get kicked out of college. So I wanted to disappear, and I thought if I could just make my body smaller, like, I would be OK. Like, people wouldn’t see me as such a threat. And I kept that up for, like, 13 years ’til my body broke. (from an NPR interview about Heavy with Scott Simon)

I say this not simply to signal that I’m aware of the advantages I have, but also because my philosophical point of view on running is conditioned by my social experience of it. If I’m going to make claims about running and how it changes our understanding of our bodies and our minds, I have also to account for the position from which I’m making those claims and the limits that position entails. In this case, it’s the limit of living in a culture in which I’m granted the illusion (and almost the fact) of limitlessness.

In coming weeks, as I write more about running, the mind, and the body, I will be doing my best to keep that frame in mind. And if I don’t, I would welcome your reminders.

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