The Zen of Running and Writing
“Tim had been tending the sheep two kilometers from his cottage when [his great grandfather] arrived. Hearing his father’s whistle, fourteen-year-old Tim signaled his border collie, Millie, to herd the sheep to the adjoining field. He pulled his woolen cap down tight over his long red hair then set off at full speed, his wiry body weaving down the hill, leaping over rivulets, hurdling low stone fences, skirting thorny patches of yellow gorse, deftly dodging field patties left by their sheep and their few cows. Tim loved this part of the day, the running part, the part where the day’s chores were done and he was free, free to ramble up and down the hills, imagining that one afternoon a sea-borne breeze would lift him among the seagulls, soaring high above the green-gray tapestry of field, stone, and sea below him. He would dip and glide, alone and weightless.”
Above is a passage from the opening pages of On the Run, my recently completed novel about an Irish teenager who is forced to leave Ireland in 1983 and stay with relatives in Queens, N.Y., because his father has been wrongly arrested as an IRA terrorist at the Northern Ireland border. Tim experiences bullying, beatings, and loneliness at his new high school until a dedicated coach discovers his extraordinary speed and not only trains Tim to a championship caliber, but helps him grow in strength, courage, and self-esteem.
I was a runner from the time I was thirteen till my knees and back retired me as a Master’s runner at fifty-five. I was never a championship runner. But I loved to run. What I loved, and this has stayed with me all my life, was the aloneness and serenity that descended on me when I went through the ritual of dressing, warming up, then gradually lengthening my stride until I relaxed into a steady pace. At that moment, my mind would wander, relax, meditate, organize, create.
Running, for me, generated the meditative experience Andrew Marvell describes in his extraordinary poem, “The Garden.” Running offered me a communion between the spirit within and the animal without. Nothing compared to running a wooded trail, hearing the easy rhythm of my breathing, challenging the steep hills, feeling the quadriceps strain, then lengthening my stride on a flat, open grassy patch, imagining myself a horse running wild in nature: soaring over rolling hills, across meadows, mane and tail blown back by the wind, no saddle, no bridle, no fences.
Running took me away from the Ridgewood and Maspeth and Williamsburg of my youth, away from darkness, dirt, congestion, and confinement. It gave me control of my body and mind. It provided a clarity and coherence often lacking in every other aspect of my life. I enjoyed the process as much as the product, the training as much as the races. The workouts and the races were one and the same to me. At a workout or in a race I could “relocate.” My first coach wondered why I was so loose and casual before a race while other guys were agitated, even vomiting. This was where I needed to be: outdoors, on my own, in control. Once the starting gun went off for a race, I was lost in time and space. I noticed no people around me, heard no noise. Just the tempo of running feet and breathing, the gradual weakening, the burning lungs and tightening arms and legs in the final lap; the rigid straining of limbs and muscles to hold form through the final straightaway and through the finish line.
Whatever amount of self-esteem I achieved as a suspicious, private, pimply-faced teenager came more from running than anything else — more than parents, more than teachers, more than church.
I can’t run anymore. Even walking is becoming a chore. But writing is filling some of the space in my head and heart once filled by running. The empty page is the track or trail waiting for me. The fidgeting rituals — messing about my keyboard, checking emails, checking the Mets’ scores, or the latest political news — are me shedding my street clothes, getting on my shorts and sweats, lacing my Adidas. The tentative opening lines, usually rough and rejected, are like the first slow fifteen minutes of warming up – chasing the stiffness, and then…finding a rhythm, settling into that quiet place, quickening the pace, curious about where today’s “run” will take me.
As with all things, some days are better than others.
From Marvell’s “The Garden”
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade. ”