I didn’t have a good idea about what to write about this week, so I decided to share a story with you instead of whatever it is I usually do. I’m not sure what you’ll make of it but we’re going to call it ~*~*WEB EXCLUSIVE CONTENT~*~*, ok?
I feel as though I should stress that although I am a runner, this is absolutely not how I feel about running. I love it, most of the time. I do a lot of my initial composition of the things I write while I’m out on runs, and it helps me work through a lot of stress and things on my mind.
I did have one day a few years ago, though, where the run wasn’t going very well and I thought about quitting, and I got quite self-critical about it. That created the idea that led to this story, which has sloshed around in my imagination ever since. I’m not sure there’s quite enough to it to make more out of it than I did here, but perhaps you’ll enjoy it.
This is a fairly rough draft, so I’ll be especially interested to know what you think.
I have been running for around seven years now, I guess. I haven’t really taken the time to figure it out with precision. I can tell you that I have been Serious about my running for exactly 5 years, 8 months and six days. You’ll understand the distinction in a minute.
I run at least once a week, usually more. I have done races ranging from ‘fun runs’ up to a marathon, last fall. Whatever race is next, though, I do its distance many times over beforehand. I run in the rain, even though it’s miserable. I really hate running in the cold, but I still do it, year ’round. Whenever I take a vacation, I have to find somewhere to get my runs in. It’s a complete non-starter if I can’t.
Of course people ask why I run, especially if they see me coming in soaking wet after finishing a run when the skies opened up, or shivering my way out the door in January. I usually make something up, mumble something about a runner’s high or it helping me think or worrying about my cholesterol. I never give them the real answer.
I am going to give it to you, today.
The real, honest to God reason that I started running was just to do with a vague idea of being ‘out of shape’. For a long time I had an equally vague idea that I was ‘in shape’, because I walked most places that I went rather than driving or taking a bus. Then I got invited to a game of pick-up basketball and discovered that no, in fact, I was in absolutely horrendous, embarrassingly bad condition. I’m not old, and so I felt very strongly that Something Must Be Done. But I hate gyms, I’m not really good at most sports, and so I decided on running.
I could do it myself. I could do it whenever there was time. I could do it basically anywhere. Compared to a lot of fitness activities, it would cost me very little.
Cost me very little.
I had no idea.
I did not enjoy my first few runs. It was difficult, more difficult than I expected. My ankles and knees and hips and lungs all hurt and I mostly got discouraged about how short a distance I could cover before starting to get tired. I not only thought about quitting, in fact on one particularly unpleasant day – scorching hot, incredibly humid, the sort of day that sucks the energy out of you just for breathing – I decided that I was going to quit. Running was awful. I hated it. I wasn’t even going to finish this circuit around the park in my neighbourhood. I was going to stop, I was going to buy a lemonade from the guy with the little beverage cart by the fountain, and I was going to walk home.
That was the first time. I heard, incredibly clearly, a voice that I knew was inside my head. The sound of the voice was like a piece of spoiled food accidentally bitten into: vile, penetrative, and impossible to get rid of. Whatever it belonged to hated me, hated the park, the guy selling the lemonade, all of it. This is what it said. I will never forget.
If you stop now, before you get back to your house, two people will die.
I ignored it, or tried to. My brain had done strange things to me when it was exhausted before, making me see things, or not see things. This was just another, and obviously silly. I stopped running, started walking like a normal person, and although I skipped the lemonade, I started walking home.
You think I’m lying, but I will always be honest with you. And if you don’t start running again, NOW, two people will die before you can get back to your house.
I had reached the corner of my street when a car driving past swerved to miss a squirrel in the road, and drove straight into a lamp post instead. The teenage driver had only got his license recently, and had been speeding. As a result, both he and his passenger died on impact.
I was out running again the next day.
The voice was with me, as it always is, now.
I told you. You had a chance, but you wanted to quit. Today you’re going to run further than you’ve ever run before, or someone in your family will get cancer.
I didn’t call its bluff a second time. That afternoon, for the first time, I ran five kilometers. I spent the evening icing my knees and bandaging my feet and listening to a loathsome little laugh, rasping like a knife being sharpened, somewhere in my mind.
As the summer went on the distances got longer, the runs more frequent. The voice threatened me with death and disaster every time I thought of stopping. I swear I never tried to shirk its demands again, although once I slipped. I didn’t mean it.
I was running along the river, where it gets very hilly. There is one particularly long hill that the people in my running group (I had started going to one of these, to help keep up with the voice’s growing demands) called Suicide, referring to the wisdom of running up it. Of course, I ran up it all the time. That day I had already done 10 kilometers before the voice directed me there. I got most of the way up, legs screaming and lungs feeling as though they were being squeezed by talons, and I started to waver.
IF YOU STOP NOW THERE WILL BE SOMEONE DEAD BY THE TIME YOU GET TO THE TOP
I didn’t mean to stop. I stepped on a flattened coffee cup and was too surprised and tired to keep my balance as the cardboard slipped out from under my foot. I fell, painfully, on one knee, got myself together and staggered up to the top of Suicide. There is a crosswalk, there, leading to the museum. The light always seems to take a very long time to change; no-one knows why. A young man in a suit had gotten impatient waiting and stepped out into the street, checking a text message as he did so. The driver of a bottled water truck had no chance to stop in time.
Your fault, your fault, your fault
There was a kind of repugnant delight in the voice, then. I think it enjoys making me do what it wants, it likes it when I am hurt and still have to keep running, but I knew that day that it likes it more when I fail. Whatever the voice belongs to delights in suffering and, somehow, it gets to cause more when I don’t do as it asks.
That fall I did my first half-marathon. It was a bright, sunny day with lots of happy onlookers with funny signs and music playing at most of the refreshment stations. Most of the runners in the finish area were proud of themselves, proud to have finished their first half or to have made the time they wanted or to have recovered from the illness their doctors said would kill them.
I was only relieved that the voice wouldn’t be able to cause the jetliner crash it had described to me in loving detail, all through the long summer.
Gradually it has continued to increase the distance I run, and how often. I did the marathon and people congratulated me for doing something off ‘the bucket list’. I congratulated myself, a little, for preventing a gas explosion under an apartment building. Some of the people in my running group got to talking about what was next, and one mentioned an ultra-marathon.
A horrible little chuckle slithered through my mind.
I knew then that it would never let me stop.
Stop? Stop? You’re the most fun I’ve had in ages, of course you mustn’t stop
So I run, at least once a week, no matter what the weather is or how blistered my feet may be and even when the doctor ordered me off the roads for at least six weeks to rest my IT band. It was explained to me that if I did that, an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria would kill one patient every day at the children’s hospital, until I started running again. So I ran all that time, every stride feeling like a knife in my knee, and tried to feel good about it.
Eventually it stopped hurting.
So now you know why I run. There are only two alternatives, one that I can’t live with, and the other – as hard as these past years have been, I am not ready for that. So I run. And I run. And I run. And I suppose the honest thing to do, the next time someone asks why, would be to tell the truth.
I can’t stop.
Also, ****COVER REVEAL**** — I am very excited to share the (very nearly) final version of the cover for The King in Darkness with you. Renaissance has been working very hard on the design and I think it has come out very well.
Also also, I now I have a Facebook page as well, if you’d like to follow me there. I’ll post updates on all my writerly activities there and try to pile on other interesting content for you. It is kind of a work in progress and your ideas are more than welcome.
Come on over to https://www.facebook.com/EvanMayWriter !