I am a machine - it is a new thing I tell myself when I run after reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by Haruki Marukami. In this novel I found pieces of me. On my morning runs today, while struggling up a hill, I thought to myself, My body is but a machine, as he so often told himself during races, and was pleasantly surprised to see how it worked and helped me power through that last mile up the hill and onward. Here now another part I enjoyed from his book: "Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren't involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sorts like the triathlon or marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get that feeling, through this process, of really being ALIVE - or at least a partial sense of it.Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself. If things go well, that is." This passage, and many more, allowed me to take a new approach to my training, and made me really think to myself: why am I training for this? Why am I running a half marathon? It's not exactly like my legs were screaming with joy at the thought. I have a bad left knee, my thighs are swelling from the amount of muscle gain, and I constantly feel dehydrated. And yet it was these very things - these feelings, thoughts, and hassles, these moments of soreness, late night pains or after-run stretches - that serve as a constant reminder: that I am alive. And there's no greater feeling or notion than knowing that one is alive.
My runs and views of the countryside are unlike any other. The farmlands and steady ups and downs of the hills are glorious and running downhill gives me life. The downhills are never-ending and my feet transform into the wheels of a car, rolling down, unstoppable. I am a machine, the thought echoes in my head, and I close my eyes for a second to enjoy the sunlight hitting my face, smiling with pursed lips to avoid un-welcomed visitors (AKA bugs) flying into my mouth. I feel as though I am flying, my arms spread out wide on either side of me - any onlookers or farmers or creatures peeping out from the bushes would certainly find me mad. All I hear is the steady thump of sneaker cracking against gravel, all I feel is my stomach dropping each time my toe collides with a loose rock or stone and my brain warns me to slow down... but I can't, I am too focused and happy and in love and I worry that if I stop I will lose all these feelings, they will merely fade away, and I will be left with daily frets and worries and thoughts that are pointless but consume me to no end. And yet it all goes away once the ground begins to slant and my body is lurched forward, headfirst into an oncoming world of green and yellow where none of these other things matter, it's just me and the wild (and the occasional tractor and farmer of course). These are the things I will miss - these mindless, joyful acts where I have no fear of falling or tripping or getting hurt, all that matters is that I keep moving forward, which is really how I should look at life and feel everyday, like my heart is pounding in my chest, like nothing can stop me.
By the time I reach the bottom of the hill my footsteps are no longer a roaring thunder in my ears, my heart a pounding frenzy I hadn't noticed until then, my feet and calves burning from the strain, a mix of sweat and perspiration, dead bugs scattered across my arms and legs and sticking to my neck and most likely my face, my breathing highly irregular in order to compromise with the shortness of breath. Beginning to swat at the flies creating an irritating buzz in my ears. They are happy to smell my sticky sweat, although I am not so happy to have them there. The road becomes straight, long hedges lining up on either side as I begin to walk and listen to the sounds of the world, their world, for it is not mine, and I acknowledge and respect that: crickets and cicadas chirping, the occasional bird calls or the hum of a tractor in the far distance. Just now an owl hoos in the dusk, for it is 8:53pm and the sky is purple or blue depending on how you look at it, the clouds outlined in a golden light, specks of blue sky peeking out along the edges, forcing you to look, bathing the ground and gravel road beneath my feet in an eerie blue-purple glow that is easy on the eyes compared to the midday sun that seems to scorch your eyeballs and leaves your skin a red, salty, dried out surface, no better than would a desert. Lizards rustle the overgrown undergrowth surrounding the gravel pathway, frightened by my presence, a disturbance in an otherwise peaceful world.
What I think about when I think about running is my childhood. Running through the Italian countryside reminds me of the long, hot, lazy summers spent in Greece, three months of nothing but salt, sand, and sea, laughing and conversing in nothing but Greek with my yiayia (grandmother) and cousins. Parents melted away from the equation, life in America no longer existed. It didn't matter anymore. I lost contact with the outside world, all thoughts melting away just as they did when I ran down those big hills and felt as though I was flying. It was just me in Gritsa, the small beach community where my family resided, listening to my aunts and uncles tell me stories of their own youth and feed me homemade sweets never before seen or heard of in the U.S. Playing sardines and hide-and-go-seek with my cousins at my aunt's three-story beach house garden, shrieking and running away in fear as cousin Kostas chased us around the house with a large stick hosting an even larger beetle at the tip until yiayia scolded him. Waking up in the morning to the sound of the produce truck driving slowly along the single dirt road connecting all the houses on that street, announcing through the microphone, "Peponia! Karpouzia! Fraoules!" "Cantaloupes! Watermelons! Strawberries!" My yiayia and thia (aunt) calling out from their balcony to wait as they descended the spiral staircase as quckly as possible to catch him before he drove away with all his goodies. Watermelon, its juice dribbling down my chin and leaving me sticky but refreshed, spitting out large black seeds and fearing that you'll swallow one because cousin Kostas jokes that a watermelon tree will begin to grow inside of your stomach. Yiayia cleaning the seeds out after some coaxing, digging into the sticky sweet with some tart feta. Feta and watermelon, a cool treat on a hot summer day, no taste so rewarding nor refreshing after a long day and endless hours spent in the scorching sun. Thia Mary's koulourakia, all buttered up and fluffy. The pride you felt when she poured you a small cup of Greek coffee to dip it in and enjoy the combined taste, for coffee symbolized adulthood, and adulthood symbolized responsibility, no greater honor could be bestowed. Ah! I can almost taste it on my tongue now as I type this.
What I think about when I think about running is my youth, because when you're young the whole world is at your fingertips. And I don't think there is any time where you feel more unstoppable or free, which is exactly how I feel when I run. Which is why I run. And why I think many others run as well.
"All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says." - Haruki Marukami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running