Most evenings lately, after we get our son down for the night, my wife and I retire to the bed and bring up a running documentary on her laptop. These evenings, as the new reality dictates, follow long days involving the two of us trading off between childcare (he’s three) and trying to get some work done from home, and the best thing we’ve found to do with them is plop down and watch other people run around in the woods.
The quality of the documentaries is somewhat uneven, as they tend to be produced by runners experimenting with film as often as by filmmakers interested in running. But this hardly matters. Maybe it’s even part of the appeal. We aren’t cinephiles when we plop down, just two people who are tired and a little stressed and ready to be reminded what it’s like to have both energy and the freedom to expend it. These films do us good.
My working thesis is that it is the movement that matters. To watch human beings propel themselves through natural landscapes seems to allow a kind of bodily empathy to be aroused. We feel as if we are running with them. Supine in our bed, in our minds we are striding and climbing and turning and adjusting and going and going and going. It’s like a dream, even, one that produces a deep and primordial joy in us. Like a dream, but visceral and real to the core. We run vicariously as the films’ protagonists chase their arbitrary goals (set the record, complete the trail, summit the peak), knowing all along that the true purpose of running is only ever to be a body in motion through space. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.
When I open up the news app on my phone, it insists on showing me headlines about some person who ran some incredible distance in their backyard. It saddens me even to contemplate that this is what it’s come to. I have ignored each such story I’ve been presented with, yet day after day more of them appear. It’s enough to make me want to buy a treadmill.
I have been a lucky runner during the pandemic. I have run almost every day of lockdown without a mask. My town isn’t densely populated, our incidence rate is low, and when I do encounter someone else out and about there’s plenty of time to execute a distancing maneuver.
At home, it’s the three of us. I can’t remember the last time we met someone else in person. We hardly have anywhere to go. Days—no, weeks—have passed without me leaving the house for anything but my daily run. I can’t say I’ve come to count on running. That’s been true for too many years to count now as a revelation. But I might appreciate running more than ever. I don’t want to say running is keeping me sane (that’s better left for my wife to say), but it is keeping me something like steady. I put on my shoes and feel a sense of intrigue about the world. I start out from our house and feel the stress of the pandemic begin to lift. As my legs loosen, so do my tangled thoughts. Joy visits me. Some days, anyway, joy visits me. I run like the sun shines. My feet barely touch the ground. And when I’m done I am happy or tired or full of love for my wife and son and full of gratitude that we are all healthy. Or all of these at once.
And then my son wants to run across the backyard to the fence and back and suddenly that isn’t a sad thing to do but a beautiful thing, full of joy and meaning. We run and laugh and play so much these three things have become inseparable to me, synonyms in essence.
And at night, because I am happy and my body is tired in just the right way and our boy is asleep on the mat he has pulled alongside our bed, I signal to my wife that there’s a running documentary we haven’t seen yet. We plug in headphones and start the film and behold once again a human body fully alive in its environment doing what it was made to do. We watch those runners moving themselves over the land and we think none of this will be forever, none of it.