Tag Archives: running

A Year Without Treadmills

My 2020 round of running started in Portland, Oregon. While visiting my brother there, we set off into the city on a long run, moving from his residential locale to the iron and glass of downtown. In the intervening zone, we passed an oil change center, a destitute mall, tents on sidewalks, graffiti under a bridge. The grit of the dreary Pacific Northwest muted by clouds and the threat of rain. We hit the river and crossed Steel Bridge, feet pinging on the grated metal. I looked down and saw the river flickering through the tiny openings.

We meandered through the city. Up the gondola to the hospital where he works, then down the hill on winding roads to a farmer’s market. We greedily ate some food cart tamales that smoked in the chilly air, then hit a donut shop.

“You should sell a running food tour of Portland!” I joked as we made our way back to the river. His beard framed a grin. Then over the Hawthorne bridge–the bridges curvature making the ascent seem protracted as we dodged bikers and runners. The suspension bridge stretched time. Eventually we were descending. And then back to his house. 21 kilometers in the books.

At some point, I decided to give up treadmills (or the “dreadmill” as runners jokingly call it). Maybe it was my two years in Shanghai that burned me out on them–countless hours spent pounding away on the spinning mat while an air filter whirred next to me. Hiding out from toxic air. Watching episodes of old HBO shows that I had missed while I sprinted. I watched all of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire. Eventually the treadmill mat formed a hole big enough for me to slip my running shoe through.

On that fraternal morning run through Portland, I decided to avoid the treadmill for the year. It would be a challenge. Each kilometer would be earned by a step on soil or concrete or gravel or tree root. From Oregon I went to Hawaii for a few days before journeying back to Jeju. Runs up to Diamond Head Crater and Ala Moana Park. Grinning through the rain showers that would come and go a few times in one run. The thrill of exploration, pushing it just one more kilometer, one more kilometer, before I decided to turn around and make my way back.

There is a different feeling when mapping out a new route in a strange land. The body is attuned to elevation, turns in the road, intersections, noises, and weather. The brain processes a million stimuli as the body cruises. This is rewarded with the awe of new sights. Topping Diamond Head Crater or coming around a bend to stunning views of a jagged coastline. There is something about the novelty that pushes the body. The mind converts new stimuli into running fuel. Discovery.

Upon arrival in Jeju after vacation, my running regimen resumed. Approximately 80km a week on the farm roads around my apartment. Early morning slogs through chilly morning air. Post work 5k’s to blow off steam. At this point, after seven years of running these roads, every turn could be anticipated. Every distance had been mapped. The trees and cracks in the pavement all familiar. I began each weekday morning with some light yoga and a 10km loop, snapping a photo of the sunrise each time from my favorite spot. The weekends were reserved for longer runs and surf sessions. Sundays were a chance to run my favorite Jeju trail to check in with horses that hang out on a nearby oreum.

During my runs, I’ll put on music or an audiobook. I’ve worked my way through a small library of books on my runs over the years. Recently I’ve noticed a strange effect. Vivid scenes from these books will come back to me mid-run. I’ll spot a stone wall or a familiar bend in the road and it will trigger a memory from one of these listening sessions. They are always incredibly random scenes that spring from the depths of memory: one of the jester scenes from Hartley and Hewson’s reworking of Hamlet or one of the heated debates about colonialism from Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Books that were listened to and buried five years ago are brought into vivid forefront from a stone wall, a tree, a farmer’s barn.

I wonder how much of our memory is tied to place. What is the biological function of this? This year has been a forced exploration of the stationary, but it has bolstered my memory. These repetitive runs reinforce the stories that I listen to, and ask me to revisit them. Connecting to an oral tradition with moving feet and headphones. As I run, I hang memories from the trees and hide them in rock crevices to be discovered later. This is done without realizing it. Memory becomes blended with the local landscape. A library hiding out in the orchards.

On my bucket list is the dream of running across the entirety of the USA, coast to coast. The romantic idea of plodding along day after day toward the other edge of the country. It looks poetic from a distance, tracing a mental line.

The running app that I use spits out my year end totals in December. This year I ran 3,858 kilometers with 65,161 meters in elevation gain. That’s nine Everests. That’s enough distance to get me from Cali to North Carolina, ocean to ocean.

But this year most of my miles were spent on loops, exploring the familiar. No outward discovery, only an inward one. And that type of discovery is more arduous and slow to come by. Repeated scenes and turns in the road might be growth or stagnancy. It takes time to decipher which.

I’ve stumbled upon a certain genre of YouTube video in my watching algorithm lately. It’s thru-hikers who condense their journey into an hour of footage. It seems like these videos have certain conventions: the thrill of the journey’s beginning, a few moments of desperation, the finding of quiet on the trail, friends met along the way, the thrill of finishing. Classic hero’s journey stuff. Each video always ends with some maudlin reflection about humankind’s relationship to nature and tries to eke out an epiphany. The journey definitely had value, but it’s clear that it’s near-impossible to put into words. These videos try though. It’s fascinating to me.

It makes me wonder what purpose a thru-hike or a run across the USA would serve. One of the most insightful comments made in one of the YouTube videos was in a candid moment in which a delirious hiker addressed the camera on the verge of tears. It was late in his journey on the Appalachian Trail and he starts talking about the trail speaking to him. “I’ve realized that I don’t confront things in the moment as much as I should. You know what? I’m going to be better about that.” It was a simple but sincere observation. The journey hadn’t given him special overarching insight, but had provided perspective on what he needed to work on in the real world. He had arrived at a starting place.

3,858 kilometers in 2020. I wonder if this distance would have served a different inner-purpose if spread across the entirety of my home country. I think there is something to be said for making the time for such a sole pursuit. Maybe there will be a day for that. In the mean time, I keep plodding along through the orange orchards, tilling connections to my home soil.

One of my last runs of 2020 was in mid-blizzard. Jeju snows differently than most places. It comes in waves of wind and white-out, punctuated occasionally by gaps of blue sky framed by tangerine clouds. I ventured out into the sideways snow, intending to do a 10km run at most. But as I got to a fork in the road I went left, extending the run. I knew that this was committing to at least 14km. And then at another turn-off I went left again, extending to a half marathon. I felt wild taking slugs from my water bottle, stomping my feet into snow-drifts. When the wind and snow kicked in hard I whooped and hollered, letting the Jeju wind rip the sound from my lips and disperse it across the orchards. Despite the familiar trail I thought for a moment that, “This was discovery. It might even beat Hawaii. It sure as hell beats a treadmill.”

each footstep’s handshake

greeting new and old terrain

body over land

Recommended reading (both are read by the author on Audible)

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran

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4 on the Fourth

On any other 4th of July I’d be waking up in Maine in my childhood home. The hum of the fan. The noises of family emanating from the floorboards. The smell of bacon and fresh coffee drifting from the kitchen. NPR on a low drone.

I’d wake up and eat a light breakfast and then head into town with my family where people would be gathering for the 4 on the fourth–a small town race that attracts a surprising number of people. In recent years it’s always been a clear sunny day. Red white and blue mixed with sun and azure sky. Main street is lined with people and vendors. The rotary club selling hotdogs and running a race for rubber ducks. Lawn chairs perched on grass in preparation for the parade. The town’s generations coming together to check in with each other.

The start line crowds with swarms of people by the grocery store. People stand on faded tar that crumbles at the edges and gives way to sand. Locals, tourists, kids from the surrounding camps scattered around the lakes and woods. The race organizer, a Korean War veteran, would stand on a stage and introduce the race and remind us that all proceeds go to the local library. The town is waking up now. People stretch. The national anthem plays. There’s a gunshot. The crowd funnels off down the road to snake around the four mile course, meandering past old downtown houses, through streets lined with oak and pine trees, and along the lake before a final sprint down main street to the finish line. Classic rock blares on the loud speakers: Thunder Road, Purple Haze, Sweet Home Alabama, Fortunate Son, Go Your Own Way. Songs played so many times that, for better or worse, they’ve lost their meaning.

At the finish line volunteers cleave giant chunks of watermelon for race finishers next to kiddy pools full of iced water and Gatorade. People snap photos. Light-hearted celebration is in the air.

But this 4th of July is different. This time I wake up in Seoul. The 8am streets are quiet as I lace up my shoes and walk down the stairs. My feet pad along the pavement finding their way to the Han River. Some early risers drift around seeming a little lost. At the river, a few bikers whiz by on the path.

I hit play on Born in the USA. The snare hits in my headphones. I start my GPS watch for my private race and sprint and sprint and push my muscles until a dull painful churn sets in. The first few miles feel great. I’m cruising and confident. People float by. The river glides to my left. I hit the turnaround and know that I can’t keep the pace. At around mile 3, it happens. My legs become heavier and I ease back the pace. I’m bleeding time and willpower won’t propel me any faster. In the real race, I’d be coming into a corral lined with revelers. I’d be pushing it to shave off a few extra seconds in full sprint. I’d be feeding on the energy of the crowd. This time I lackadaisically come to a stop when my watch reads 6.44km. I walk it off, listening to the deeper tracks on Born in the USA: Glory Days, Dancing in the Dark, and My Hometown. Later I’ll send in my time to the race organizer.

I revisit the river in the evening for a sunset stroll. Crowds of people donning masks. People caring for each other through public display. Everyone in it together.

This summer I miss my country. I miss the 4th of July in my memory that I don’t think I’ll get back to. I spend some time at night listening to classic rock songs and pondering the country that has revealed its flaws so openly and naively since the last time I saw it. These songs are a tradition of the holiday for me. These anthems of progress and protest that have dulled and rusted before being stored away in the safety of white small town America.

But there’s hope embedded in the dissembling. With an unraveling comes the chance to reconstruct. The small town dream of those 4th of July summer mornings was a facade that needed to crumble eventually. There’s a lot to untangle and it’s going to take discomfort and patience and letting go and new welcomings. Everything needs to be rescrutinized. A physical division has happened in a country that was split up to begin with, and eventually it will be time to start putting it back together in a reimagined form. New traditions replace the old.

Black Lives Matter Link Tree

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Loops

Most days I run the same 10km loop in my neighborhood. There are a few little landmarks throughout the run: there is a friendly dreadlocked dog who rolls around on his back while I scratch his head, a colorful barn door, a top of a tiny mountain, a view of Mt. Halla across fields, a horse near an old well hundreds of years old. Pretty damn idyllic. They’re all little check-ins that border on ritual.

Running for me began in Asheville, North Carolina. Broke and wanting to kick a post-college smoking habit, I started running a small loop up onto a ridge near my apartment at 59 Annandale. I had no idea what the limits of my body were, and no real clue about how to run. I was making about 4.50$ an hour plus tips at a downtown cafe that tried to recapture 1950’s nostalgia by making everyone wear suspenders. The real effect was to make everyone miserable. And so, the few customers I did have didn’t tend to tip well.

That’s all to say that buying running shoes was a big deal. I saved up for a few weeks, eating left over hush puppies, pasta with cheese, and popcorn until finally I could afford the shoes that I had decided to splurge on: the majestic Asics GT’s. I can still feel the luxury of my first real running shoe. It sprang my foot off of the ground and propelled me forward. Rocks didn’t infiltrate my cushy armor. I could fly.

And with my new shoes, I carved out a loop. The ridge was a grueling initial ascent, but once you got up there you could cruise for miles. Sometimes, to add mileage, I’d add smaller laps in the park. One night I added another and another until I got to 10. I got home and peeled off my socks to discover my first bloody toe. It didn’t hurt, and I had heard that this was a thing. “I must be a real runner now,” I thought to myself.

The loops only got bigger from there. I spent a winter in Maine tracking larger runs in my hometown on the backroads. Plodding away through snow and slush. The silent tapestry of a winter dirt road in Maine dotted with the sound of wood peckers, chickadees and the creak of iced branches.

I had a vague sense of distance, but all that I had to measure my runs was a cheap wristwatch. The runs went from 30 to 60 to 90 to 120 minutes. Eventually I figured out that I needed to start running with a water bottle. I didn’t eat anything on those early runs.

I learned as I went, notching my first marathon in Louisville, Kentucky after a spring spent running the 2 mile road through Cherokee Park and a nearby reservoir. And then that brought me to Korea where I started my first Jeju loops. That’s when I first laid the groundwork for the runs that I do today.

Recently there were a few years in China, running the flat neighborhoods of Pudong on good air days. I had an 8km run that took me down the long tree lined streets overlooking brown canals. Some weekends I’d travel with other runners from my school to the mountains of China in Moganshan or Wenzhou for races, one time even making a trip for a marathon on the Great Wall.

Pudong New Area, Shanghai

From time to time I, like every runner, get the question, “Why do you run?” I can never come up with an answer. Usually I shrug it off or say something like “Why not?” But it’s certainly something deeper than that. There’s a reason to go through the ritual of lacing up a battered pair of shoes and heading out on the same piece of road or trail each day.

As I’ve run over the course of time, I’ve noticed something. Like the landmarks of a single run, there are other landmarks scattered over time throughout experience. There are moments when the current experience lines up with the past and clarity snaps into view for a brief second. Maybe it’s the endorphins, a runner’s high, or just simply the unplugging effect that running has, but it’s something that feels real.

These landmarks might not be as concrete as a barn or a weirdly shaped tree. They are more like feelings. Either way, there is something recognizable in them. During a run, a simple image such as a bird erupting from an orange grove or a shimmer of leaves can lead to a sudden overflowing memory. Triggers for golden moments planted along the course. My mind goes to a place where it can connect the new and the old. I see a snapshot that I forgot and it lights me up for an instant.

Of course, this isn’t every run. Some runs are 5 AM slogs through sopping rain that leave me shivering at my doorstep, blowing on my fingers before I tap the entry code to my apartment. On other runs, the body is spent and my eyes want to close. The landscape is ignored and I spend the 10km staring at my watch as the kilometers add up. But part of me thinks that the terrible runs need to happen in order for the clearer moments to occur.

These small loops seem to add up to something bigger. They overlap in grand patterns beyond my understanding or comprehension. Running is humbling in this way, and there’s a mysticism there that keeps me coming back. Although the runs might feel mundane sometimes, they are worth it. The loops might be the same, but each run is different–imperceptibly altering chunks of time that meld the past and present, leading to something better.

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