Striding out into a desolate world as the sun begins to rise, the noiseless, blissfully unpeopled streets feel like a protected space, a blank canvas unsullied by individual or collective manmade splatters. Nothing else matters other than this heart-thumping stretch of time where the only discernible impact on the ground beneath my feet and the clean air that surrounds me is the careful, conscious movements I make.
As I pick up the pace, landing with a firm intention but a soft footfall, I focus on my form, allowing my steps and my subconscious to lead the way. Where am I even going? Nowhere, anywhere, only here. The point isn’t to head in any particular direction, it’s to extend and linger in these moments that unfold in parallel with the break of dawn.
That’s where the magic is.
The whole physical and psychological process becomes one. My mind-space expands outwards, and I become embroiled in two concurrent thought trances — the one that pays attention to the world around me and the one that processes the reflections they inspire.
Ideas fall in like meteorites, as though the act of propelling myself forwards has set in motion a cerebral motor that will only get going once my feet do. In this zone of sheer physical and mental release, I am exalted. I run, therefore I pay attention, and thus I am a writer.
Running is where I feel, think and become the better version of myself.
It isn’t immediately comfortable, it doesn’t always feel natural, but it’s a strain I welcome and endure because as the momentum builds, the realisation sets in that all I need to do is keep going and the flow will come.
It’s where there is no agenda other than the space and time around me, where my instinct for solitude can be realised unencumbered by the social or digital pressure to connect. Everything extraneous to the moment is cast off, like the physical separation of a space shuttle as it undocks and then bit by bit, is released from the components it no longer needs as it heads for orbit, the ideal of infinite space unhindered by the gravitational pull of Earthly matters.
As a writer, running is an essential part of my life and my creative process. To run, as to write, requires a deliberate intention, dedication, determination, consistency, patience, practice, endurance, strength and continuity.
At every stage of both running and writing, you must continually shrug off the negative voice in your head that tells you to stop, that taunts you with the question of “why bother?”, that doubting narrator and the physical anguish that would have you fall and fail were it not for the irrepressible urgency you feel about the absolute fact that you must go on.
Many have written about the symbiotic relationship between physical exertion and mental release. My personal favourite among them is ‘What I Talk About When I Talk about Running’, by the novelist Haruki Murakami, where he chronicles how the progression of his vocation has been matched by his development as a runner, specifically during his preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon.
Murakami took up running in 1982, aged 33, after selling his jazz bar to take up writing full time. The sedentary nature of his newfound calling, coupled with the spaces opened up in a day freed of routine, sent him looking for an alternative way to expend his energy. He’s been running seriously — every day, 36 miles a week, at the time the book was published in 2008 — ever since.
He identifies as “a writer and a runner”, because he could not be one without being the other.
The entire book is peppered with magnificent lines, artfully composed to convey the magical, literal and philosophical highs brought on by running and consequentially, by writing. Towards the beginning of the book, Murakami goes so far as to say it is a book of “life lessons”. Here is one that for me, resonates on so many levels:
“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as well. I believe most runners would agree.”
Murakami is clearly alert to some of the misconceptions about runners and running. Indeed I’ve encountered some myself. The host of a yoga retreat once asked me why I felt the need to start my day doing something which, to her mind, was an aggressive activity, when I could find tranquillity and composure in stillness “on the mat” instead.
It’s a common misunderstanding among those who don’t run to assume that it is an unbearable ordeal that pounds the body in a way that might seem wholly merciless. And in a way, it is. But to anyone who sees, and better still goes running past that point of discomfort, there is an experiential and sensory realisation of an altogether different kind of tranquillity and composure.
In fact, running and yoga are not all that dissimilar in terms of the discipline involved and the way in which both activities harmonise the mind and the body by exerting a gentle force to achieve momentum and also stillness. They are simply different approaches to achieving a balance between two seemingly opposite albeit complementary forces.
Yoga, like running, is about unifying all elements of being into a state of Oneness.
Rhythmic breathing while running improves one’s efficiency, just as “ujjayi breathing” in yoga brings a tempo to one’s asanas with each inhale and exhale.
In ‘Light on Life’, a seminal book on the role that yoga plays in the perennial quest to find harmony between one’s individual humanity and the space we occupy, BKS Iyengar, one of the first yogis to demystify and introduce yoga to the Western world, says: “Energy needs to flow, or its source withers.”
And later asserts that: “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.”
Running, rather like yoga, is a life-affirming way of consciously and deliberately extending and expanding into the world around you, from the ground beneath to the sky above. Each step, every movement, enables you to reach out into the world while also decluttering the mindspace.
For me, the act of running, and the parallel act of writing, contains within it the pursuit of an ideal, which is to reach a state of effortless momentum.
The reality is that both running and writing, and to a similar extent, “going to the mat” when you’d rather do anything but, are often preceded by an inordinate amount of purposeful albeit self-indulgent procrastination. If you’re not careful you can slip into a wormhole of anticipation and fantasy, the moment that you ought to have seized to get out and on with it will have slipped by.
But once you have acted on the decision to get out and on, you must generate the motion, stick with it, keep going and maintain the pace. With every step will come a fleeting thought that threatens to distract you from focusing on form, but you must brush it away, inhale new air and exhale the blizzard of internal chatter.
Yes, the strain invariably and unavoidably begins to make itself known as you feel the aches begin in your feet, your hands, your head, your knees and your heart. To keep going requires a sheer force of will not to succumb to the baser instinct to give up when things get hard.
Running into that pain, just like writing through the angst and the equivalent subtext of futility in both regards, brings you face to face with the inherent nature of reality, which is to suffer and endure.
There are no highs without lows, there is no reward without effort, there is no feeling of release unless you know experience the tension. There is no Yin without Yang.
Murakami, echoing one aspect of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist philosophy, puts it thus: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
If you respond with stoicism, then the pain is not just a necessary evil, a means to an end, it’s part of the whole. You cannot expect to make progress without feeling the impact on your joints, the physicality of the experience necessitates a sensational response. It’s the universal law of cause and effect in action.
Throughout, running and writing are about creating and perpetuating your own vitality, through gradual and gathering movement. Even after the toughest of runs, the hardest of days at my desk (hair pulled, pen chewed, hill sprints conducted through gritted teeth and sweat in the eyes) I am never anything but glad that I stuck with it.
“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.” — Murakami
Eventually, after minutes, days, weeks, months then years spent perfecting your technique and indeed your devotion to it, running can indeed become effortless action. You become attuned to the world as it is, observing the day as it unfolds without internal or external interruption.
Finding this sweet spot takes time, but when you do, you find yourself in that magic place — in the midst of the flow.