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  • Scott F. Parker

Running, Metaphor, and the Self

At one level, running is a means for getting from here to there. But this simple, physical observation gets complicated as soon as we notice that the person who arrives over there isn’t the same person who departed from here. It may be difficult to appreciate this transformation when the run is a short sprint to catch the bus or a leisurely jog around the neighborhood, so consider how some runners approach a first marathon. It becomes for them an occasion on which to throw themselves into uncertainty. The territory they are exploring is new, their success unassured. These runners—sure that, succeed or fail, the experience will change them—make explicit two truths that are otherwise implicit: that the self is not a stable thing and that when we talk about running we talk about metaphor.

And when we talk not about running to the corner or a few miles or even about 26.2 miles but about running across the United States, the psychological implications become obvious: whoever Rickey Gates is in South Carolina, he will be someone else when he reaches California. Five months and 3,700 miles ensure as much. Gates’s journey is both the means of his transformation and a metaphor for it.

I had questions for Cross Country. Who is Gates? A professional trail runner, it turned out. One possibly in the twilight of his career who, having broken up with his girlfriend, feels directionless in life. Why does he want to run across the country? To find some metaphorical direction and to gain a better understanding of his country, which has just inaugurated a self-confessed con artist and generally odious human being as its president. Who does he want to become? He doesn’t know. How could he? A person cannot imagine himself as another self for the simple reason that when he becomes another self he will no longer be the prior self. To become is to cease being. Change is assured but no one who changes.

To live is to be perpetually falling off the cliff of existence—or to be always running across the country.

What happens along the way? According to Gates:

Oftentimes, we don’t have the capacity to recognize our own personal growth or decomposition—it’s a realization that’s reserved for reunions, weddings, and funerals. Occasionally, though, it’s drastic. The flu, followed by dehydration, long miles, and rising temperatures, chiseled away at the last of my fat and into my muscle. In a culvert, beneath the Loneliest Road in America, the abyss was staring back at me.

That abyss, Nietzsche’s abyss, waits there for any of us who dares face it. And those who do, Gates shows us, will by the encounter be revealed to themselves. Where they thought they always had been they will find instead the universe, the cold, dark, enchanted universe, its light ricocheting back and forth as between two mirrors facing and summoning again an infinite something out of nothing.

It can look like that: “The stars began to appear, and then the Milky Way, and then one, two, three shooting stars. In the darkness, it was nearly impossible to see the far end of that maddening stretch of road, so instead I focused on the few faint feet that I could see just ahead of me.”

On the long journey toward becoming yourself, you begin where you are and you never go anywhere else.

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