So let’s talk about how running outside involves the physical existence of other people, because, when I started, being in public during a run presented a big obstacle.
In a memoir by Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (which was an inspiration for this blog), the author speaks fondly of those whom he encountered while running and writes that, “without all of you, I never would have kept on running.” He is a thoughtful, gracious man.
Here’s a fun fact about me: I’m a socially graceless and awkward introvert. With that in mind, I would like to adapt Murakami’s words for my own experience: to everyone I have encountered on all of my runs, without all of you, running would have been a lot easier from the get go. How? Well, two ways.
First, just the physical presence of others on a public trail makes running difficult. My route runs along the north branch of the Chicago River, alongside a park with playgrounds, basketball courts, and even a pool. Here are some of the fun obstacles I can encounter on any given day:
1. Children playing catch across the trail, despite having fifty yards of empty park sitting next to them. Will they stop throwing for two seconds to let you pass? No. No they will not.
2. Running groups that, though I applaud them for their dedication to exercise, haven’t quite grasped the concept of running in a line. Their formation, resembling an oncoming stampede, usually forces me into the bushes as they speak loudly of how pretty everything looks and how quiet the trail is.
3. The weavers, who keep you guessing as you approach them on the trail, since they stray from left to right like a drunken sailor on a wet deck in a bad storm.
So yeah, this sounds kind of (really) petty, and of course it speaks largely to my own insecurities. It also leads into my next point. The second way that others can affect your run is purely by watching you go. When I first started, and even a little bit now, my runs were a shameful act, and I reacted to seeing others as a teenager would react to being caught masturbating: I was angry that they were witnessing something so private and, from my perspective, wrong.
It’s hard to unpack why I thought it was wrong at the beginning. In my case, given my years of inactivity and, well, high school in general, exercise seemed unattainable, something that just came easily to others. So, I felt like I was an impostor when I tried to exercise, and I felt like everyone who saw me could immediately recognize that. This impostor syndrome can plague anyone who is just starting a new job or hobby, but I've found that it was solved for me with one realization.
No one cares. Seriously. No one is thinking about you for more than two seconds after they see you pass, either positively or negatively. Moreover, the universe doesn't care. Thinking of yourself as an impostor attributes WAY too much importance to what you’re doing as far as other people go. An impostor is someone who is a mob boss’s daughter and infiltrates a wealthy family posing as a nanny to kidnap their youngest child for ransom, but then she falls in love with both the child and the brave single father who raises a family while still pioneering new brain surgery techniques. The decisions that person made? Definitely important to other people, especially when the impostor stands up to her mob boss dad to defend the child, but in doing so reveals to the doctor who she is and loses everything. Don’t worry! They get back together in the end when the mob boss develops a brain tumor and the only one who can save her is the doctor, who does because he loves the man's daughter and the movie fades to black as Coldplay’s Fix You plays over the credits.
Anyway. What you’re doing when you run is only for you. You’re not an impostor, because as soon as you take one step, you’re a runner. I know it sounds harsh to say no one cares, but for me it is empowering to truly understand that the universe doesn't have to care one way or the other for me to run. I earned the title of runner for myself with every stitch and gasped breath. So while some runners, like Murakami, might take energy from others during a run, I think distance running is actually tailor-made for us awkward introverts who like to avoid others, because even on a busy trail in the public eye, running keeps you alone. It allows you to express a determination that no one has. Sure, other people run, but they aren't you, and they didn't decide to be you and still run. What you're doing is all yours.