A Deeply Agnostic Ritual

Running, a source of balance and meaning.

I run in the evening, sometimes at night. 

Often, during a long and brutal run, I wonder if I actually like it. I ask myself why I do it. I know very well why I started running. I just never expected it to become such a big part of who I am. Running long distances is a constant negotiation with pain, with routine, with laziness, with a schedule that includes far more pleasurable alternatives. It’s not unusual to finish a race with blood where wet cloth rubs against your skin or with blackened and inevitably broken nails where your shoes – no matter how well-fitting – rub against your toes thousands of times at 14 km/hour. Writer Haruki Murakami, himself a runner, puts it squarely: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  

And still, I run. I’ve been running regularly for nearly 10 years now. When I started, my dad had just survived a serious heart attack but his life had already gone into overtime. When my tests for cholesterol levels, which usually came out normal, revealed a chronic condition, it was serious enough to alarm every nutritionist and doctor on the American campus where I was studying. I was confronted with a major choice: either take pills or take a risky and uncertain gamble that entailed a complete lifestyle change. At that time, I smoked a pack and a half a day, sat in front of a computer for 12 hours, slept four or five hours a night, and the little time I had left was divided between going to the library, drawing up reports, and going to college parties. I was thin, but totally out of shape. My diet was reasonable for a healthy 28-year-old, but not for me. 

As a kid, I practiced sports. For years, I had swum lap after lap in the pool with my polo team, coached by a guy who seemed untainted by ‘80s communist Romania. He looked like someone straight out of an American action movie and had an MZ motorcycle he sometimes let the guys borrow. I continued exercising all throughout high school but running, which I found boring and painful, was one routine I did not care for. Ten years later, after finishing university in Bucharest and moving to Boston, after thousands of packs of usually strong and filterless cigarettes, hours spent with girls in bars and coffee shops or with volunteers and advisers in campaign offices or co-workers on the halls of public institutions, my genes and lifestyle had caught up with me. 

I made a deal with my American doctor and nutritionist: no drugs, but a strict diet and daily exercise. There’s nothing special about this decision and still, I’m not quick to recommend it to anyone. In theory, there’s no better place to start exercising again than on a sports-obsessed and duly equipped American campus. For a few weeks, I oscillated between continuous, and largely imaginary, hunger and constant muscle pains. My muscles ached with cramps, my joints hurt, my lungs fought against every gasp of air I inhaled after a few stadium laps. And still, in just two months, I was as addicted to running as I had been to cigarettes. I had found my perfect drug.

Becoming a runner took me by surprise. The moment I put on my running shoes quickly became the most exciting moment of my day. (I know now how horribly ill-suited those shoes were.) Few people’s running is perfectly neutral dynamically. Modern life makes our legs adopt incorrect and imbalanced movements. That’s no tragedy as long as you have someone to tell you what kind of running shoes you need. I ran in light, neutral shoes, when in fact I needed more support and more control. My knees, shins, tendons, and ligaments were paying a serious price for each kilometer I ran. Fortunately, I was so out of shape that for a long time I wasn’t able to run the distance and at the speed that would put me in any serious danger. However, that did nothing to prevent the pain.  

Three years after I started running, I returned to Europe, to Brussels, to work in diplomacy. That’s when I ran my first competition: a 20-km race I signed up for, I don’t know why. Maybe I was trying to shine some reason on my obsession with running, or at least find a plausible excuse for investing in a pair of shoes that cost three times more than regular shoes. For the past eight years, I’ve been buying my gear from a store in Brussels, on Rue de Luxembourg, and not because this is another ritual but because they’re good at what they do. Even if I can order everything online, I always go back there because the employees are professional runners. Ahead of any big race in Belgium, the store serves as a coaching center, a psychologist’s couch, a source of inspiration.

When you run, you document your progress so you can evolve. In Brussels, I became stricter with my data records. At first, I had a long printout on my wall with days, hours and kilometers. It had corrections in red and green, exclamation points for delays, and notes for promising feats. (Tuesday, March 8, 8 km Parc de Cinquantenaire, average heart rate 135 per minute. Wednesday, March 9, Bois de la Cambre, 12 km at 80 percent of target speed, bad because I risk injury.) Then I transferred my schedule to my laptop and my PalmPilot, but the most important spot was in my office at the embassy, hidden behind the door. On days when work kept me tied to my chair, I’d often glance at the running table and the “20 KM of Brussels 2005” poster, which made me think of the pair of Brooks Adrenaline I had in my gym bag in the locker room.

Today I can analyze years of training sessions, competitions, and routes, all registered in the virtual memory of a Facebook application developed by a young American runner. Voomaxer is a diary of sweat, the chronicle of an obsession I still can’t fully explain. All I know is that it stopped being a medical requirement a long time ago, and has become a state of being, an expectation, and a lifestyle.

When I run, I record details: shadows on facades, a mother and her little girl holding a balloon, the recently trimmed tree that looks strange, as if it had just escaped torture. Routes are populated by a whole routine of people: the guy in the black spandex suit, who runs intensely, almost daily; the determined but disorderly girl; the old man who jogs slowly and persistently, four times a week; the girl with the long legs, in excellent shape, who keeps her elbows high. I come across runners everywhere in the world. We greet each other without knowing each other. We’re like a cult. Even so, it’s a solitary endeavor, it’s mine and it’s unique even if the repetitive nature of the movements and routes create a hypnotic rhythm and a dialectic of movement and breathing. While I run, I can talk to my dad, solve problems at the office, make plans with my wife Andra. It’s a deeply agnostic ritual. It’s my church. Which I suppose makes this text a sermon. 

When I read Murakami’s book on running, a bunch of things made me jump out of my seat excited about all the coincidences. His favorite route in Boston is the same as mine. I don’t think I’ve ever come across him, although we were there at the same time. You get close to a city when you run the length of it and I loved how Murakami described taking in the route: familiar faces, waiting for predictable sensations in one’s body at the different stages of a longer run, shadows that turn into seasons, and especially the weather. (I like to run before or after it rains.) In general, the routine of running does not rule out the element of surprise, but expects and glorifies it. I can’t help remembering a scene on a mountain plateau when, as I was running through tall bushes, some buzzing creatures – too big to pass for insects, yet too small to be birds – kept swooshing before my eyes. I thought they were some sort of giant bumblebees until two of them stopped mid-flight a few centimeters from me, following my movements like mini-helicopters and, for the first time in my life, I saw two perfect ash-gray hummingbirds that then disappeared in a flash.

When I go for a run in New York, I get out early in the morning, right off 37th Street, where the heliport is. That’s the start of a running track that closely follows the coast of the island, goes underneath the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, through the hospital district, passes by tennis courts, the fish market, Chinatown, then swerves toward Tribeca and the Financial District, and past Battery Park. That’s where I stop, look at the water, at tourists, commuters, police officers with their gear-loaded belts, National Guard soldiers who still guard the ruins of the World Trade Center. Then I turn back – 18 km in total. In New York, every 100-meter strip is different. Asphalt covered sidewalk full of black sticky globs of gum, concrete, track, wooden footbridge, sometimes splashed by waves stirred by ships crossing the East River, out-of-date cement, tar ballast, clay, earth and grass, sidewalk, concrete again, filled with cryptic markings in fluorescent spray paint left by utility and communications companies, humongous and heavy flame-cut steel plates covering potholes and works, cracked bitumen, concrete slabs with NYC metallic inserts, manhole covers. You get to know where you are just by looking at the ground.

Back when I lived in the States, I used to run after class, after going to the library, after work. Now my mornings are less busy, and nothing cures jetlag like a morning run, especially at sunrise, 3,000 meters up in the Colorado Mountains. I know exactly how the run will go. I need five minutes to build up a steady pace. I pass by wooden and redbrick houses, a shingle-roofed Texaco gas station, a small supermarket, a drugstore, a tiny Masonic temple, the ice-skating rink, a few bed-and-breakfasts. I smell moss, wood – cedar tree, I think – and a tinge of dust, although the air is very clean. Ten minutes into the run my lungs are floundering, I no longer control the pace and I’m panting so hard and gasping for breath, feeling unable to get enough oxygen. I’m already feeling as dry as tinder. I’m running through the trees, on ideal ground, a mixture of wood chips, earth and sawdust. After 20 minutes, my breathing sounds like a steam engine and I need to focus on breathing out.  I break into a sort of harrowing yawn that gulps up the air. Air that is now warmer, as the sun has risen above the peaks and is shedding light on the forest and the sprawling houses. A concrete bridge crosses a creek tumbling downhill; I stop for a second to look at the thousands of trembling aspens that give this place its name and that glaze the forest in silvery hues up to the red-gray rocks. 

I stop after about an hour and a half, as the small town awakens. I’m dehydrated and my lips feel like tree bark. I stretch for about five minutes, go into the hotel and up the elevator. In 10 minutes, I’ve showered, changed and I’m back downstairs for breakfast. It’s not even 8, but I have the feeling I got so much done already, and the day is perfect.

Maybe I like running in America so much because the smells, the textures, the colors, the sounds are familiar and make me feel younger. It’s been 10 years but all my senses tell me I’m the same. What have I been doing all these years? I’ve been running. Nothing around me has changed, so why should I? It’s not nostalgia for a place but for who I was in that place so many years ago. I don’t regret anything in particular, but running provides me with an alternative to answers I otherwise don’t have.

My work invariably makes me into a nomad. I have always lived with a ready packed suitcase. It’s a bit better now but my years of traveling are marked by routes throughout Europe. In Copenhagen, I put on my running shoes, go to the front desk and ask where people go jogging nearby. An hour later I’m back after a 10-12 km run through the neighborhood. Tivoli has four artificial lakes nearby, spread onto an area that forms a long rectangle. In Paris, there’s an “industrial” route, 10-15 km through the longest elevated park in Europe. The mixture of Hausmannian boulevards, 19th century buildings and ultra-contemporary architecture make it a very attractive route. In Berlin, I run on a route of about 10 km between Mitte and Prentzlauer Berg, passing by parks, lounges, galleries, vintage clothes shops, houses occupied illegally in the ’90s by squatting punks and anarchists, which are now pseudo-touristy sites for western kids. In London, the Kensington Gardens are right across from the Romanian Embassy. In Rome, there’s the Borghese Park. In Istanbul, there’s Gülhane when I’m a tourist and Macka when I’m there on business.

And of course, the Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels, with its perimeter of exactly 2,200 m, five laps – 11 km, 10 laps – 22 km, half a marathon. This is the starting point of my favorite race, 20 km of Brussels. I go online and see the results of each of the five editions I took part in, all at a difference of less than 10 minutes from one another, between one hour and 25 minutes and one hour and 35 minutes. As most long-distance runners, I discover my consistency and personal limits at once.

In Bucharest, there’s the treadmill.

I’ve recently moved back and I run three times a week, between 8 and 10 p.m., at the gym, after work, sometimes on weekends too. I try to take my running out in the parks but I have too little time and it’s complicated. I’m lazy and it bothers me that there are no running tracks, that people don’t get out of the way, that there’s smoking and I run through clouds of cigarette smoke, that there’s dust, that dog owners act as if the sidewalk were a litter box, that there are cars parked on the sidewalk, and stray dogs ready to shred your legs.

I run erratically and I see in my log how the distances are all messed up, schedules are never kept, and the pace is always high to try and make up for the lost distance. I’m not developing the harmonious curves of a regular season. They’re all crouched and crooked. There’s something of a survival attempt and a struggle between instinct and reason. More and more people start running here and I am fully aware that I should make the effort to take it outside. Nothing is more maddening than systematically running long distances on a treadmill. You can only document them in abstractions: km, duration, heart rate. Running without a route is disengaging and dull.

Like many runners, I keep a small treasure chest of material evidence of my voluntary suffering: race numbers, shoe tags to measure time, medals I got for races in several countries, maps of routes, old newspapers with pictures taken at races I was in, my first pair of New Balance, good for running but bad for me. I don’t put them on display, I don’t flaunt them, they’re not for other people to see.

However, as soon as I’m done with a workout, my app posts the distance and time on Facebook. It’s a sort of public commitment. I’ve added 10 km, 6 km, 8 km, 25 km – I create expectations for myself and others. I make a race with an audience out of every run. This makes exercising socially significant; it gives it a symbolic value that can be shared. It’s my manifesto for a dynamic, independent approach, a rebuff of the paralysis and getting stuck halfway through, a state one often gets caught in in Romania.  

There’s a quote by Aristotle on Voomaxer: “We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.” 

Maybe that’s why I run. To avoid mock-excellence and to negotiate with myself all the compromises required by life, my age, my job, my location. I have only one chance to balance them all – the long run. Running is my own private way of appreciating the long run. In an age of immediate gratification, instant communication, and lack of decency, running is a deeply personal experience, unshared but not excessively selfish. 

Each session is determined by what you’ve done in the previous one. I know there are many runners out there who want the routine of a single distance and of fixed time. Daily, at the same time, at the same pace, a sort of well-managed Zen. This is what satisfies them: the fact that nothing ever changes. Isn’t that what I’m looking for too? But when you have goals of time and distance you need to train on a curve and it’s a curve that widens in the long run. It’s still routine. You add kilometers as you subtract days. It’s a fair trade.  

As I was saying, I’m not cut out to be a long-distance runner. That’s easily apparent in Bucharest, where I find it hard to run. What I don’t have here is subtle confirmation: feeling like running as I do in other places where I have favorite routes. That goes for everything I do, not just running. My Bucharest is artificial. I want to reclaim it without giving up who I am. But for that I have to get off the treadmill. I don’t see why I couldn’t succeed: persistence is a runner’s best quality. And I run because I’m persistent. I do it automatically, it’s a reflex, it’s habit. I put on my shoes and run, I don’t ask myself why. 

Andrei Ţărnea is a career diplomat. Today, he is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Romania. He lives in Bucharest with his wife Andra.

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Vară, 2011

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