Let’s start with anxiety, a name whose vibration makes me cringe: it begins with a deep tremor in the chest cut short by a glottal stop, which then explodes into an electric shock, and ends in a condescending cry. The sound of it is ominous, the way Pavlov’s bell must have sounded to his dogs: a harbinger of an alteration in the fabric of things.
It arrives akin to an unexpected guest. It sneaks up on you, which makes it even more odious; it rains on your parade, it precipitates things, it makes you lose patience. You might be on your friend’s couch, watching a movie, enjoying yourself, and then feel a sense of impending doom creeping on you. Anxiety is the ominous lump in the armpit of reality.
Around you, everything turns to paper, and you’re afraid of touching things because you fear they might be props. They are props, true, but in a narrative that is not meant to deceive. You stop distinguishing colors and textures as if they no longer interest you. When people speak, their words do not register. Their sound expands to monstrous proportions, alter beyond recognition.
So you begin to go through a list of things that are supposed to help you.
Name five things you can see: the faces of my fellow commuters early in the morning, moving to the rhythm of their broken dreams. The train is packed, and although the air conditioning is on, hot air sticks to the back of my throat as if I’m hiding under the covers. My heart is racing, and my breath feels uneven, struggling to catch up. My chest is collapsing in on itself.
Focus on your breathing, feel the air going up your nostrils, become aware of the swirl it makes at the back of your throat.
I imagine myself fainting, their worried faces looking down on me, asking me whether I had had anything to eat and I make a list, ashamed of this quasi-confession. A banana, yogurt, cereals. They disapprove of it, they nod at each other akin to priests who have seen immorality unfurl. What else can you see? The guy in front of me is wearing one of those orange vests, and he hasn’t shaved in two days, and I bet he doesn’t worry about fainting. I see him coming in through the door. ‘Honey, I’m home!’ [canned laughter and applause] There’s a backpack on the luggage rack above the guy; it reminds me of childhood and vomiting on road trips.
I feel like throwing up, light beams hanging down from the ceiling like icicles. We’re almost there, I tell myself, just one more stop and everything will be excellent. Something else I see and don’t see: the outline of your face against the pillow in the moonlight coming through the window.
Do I count from one to five or the other way around?
Name four things you can touch: there’s the blue handle on the door of the toilet, the one that looks thick and sturdy as if it’s made to be used as a weapon in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The god in the machine at the end of a movie. That guy’s ass doesn’t count because I can’t touch it. When you’re panicking humor can be refreshing. The red handle of the emergency brake. ‘Abuse will be punished.’ I’m going to faint now, please pull the red handle and call an ambulance, my mother will rush from work when she hears the news that her son suffered a stroke on the morning train on his way to university. Are these enough or do I need more? Your beard, the one I’m touching while we kiss and I moan because there’s not much else to do.
Name three things you can hear: the woman next to me is complaining about something on the phone. ‘He’s an idiot,’ she says bluntly, ‘I don’t know what else to tell him.’
At what point in my life did I get scared of trains and people on trains?
Come on, we’ll get there in no time. This isn’t helping, please stop, I just want to get off this darn train. I’m a horse running down the train tracks. I lose count. I hear the valves of the air conditioning opening and closing above me. I’m inside the belly of a whale traveling underground.
Reality is made of video strips working in unison. I can see where the pieces meet. If I cram my fingers into them, I could open a portal to a new dimension, one where I’m happy and do not need to worry.
Name two things you can smell: I don’t know; I can’t do this, please stop. I want to express my hesitation but that “err” sound people make feels like a loss of control, like falling down in a dream. I can smell your sweat, the softener on your clothes.
And, finally, name one thing you can taste: the salty flavor of your tongue as it explores my mouth.
Moments later, I’m out of the train, the world around me loud, then silent and loud again like the back of a zebra, and I forget it ever came.
You see, I tell myself, it wasn’t that bad after all.
During my outdoor runs, there are moments when I become achingly aware of the weight of the world, and I begin to realize I’m stuck in a body that is, ultimately, inscrutable. This bundle of flesh and bones I carry around with me, which obstinately demands things and is open to temptation and addiction, will never fully reveal itself to me, which is akin to having a bag full of stuff I will never be able to know or use to their full potential.
The exertion of intense physical exercise also reveals how capricious the body can be. Every moment now it might throw a tantrum, object vehemently to something I want to do. My joints might give up at one point, but I can’t possibly know when. And that’s just the first item on a long list of likely ailments. I might develop some tumor, somewhere, and that will feel like an unexpected invasion and a betrayal on the part of the medical establishment. I might lose my hair at one point in the future, but there is no way to know when that will happen. My teeth will decay no matter what pro-expert toothpaste or mouthwash I use, or how many times I make an appointment with my dentist.
Every gesture meant to appease these tantrums or counteract these objections is a form of loitering in the neighborhood of old age, and each of those gestures is somewhat an acknowledgment of defeat. Small physical alterations compound like coins in a piggy bank. A crease here, a wrinkle there, a cluster of Fordyce spots on my upper lip. They all accrue like a crowd at a concert.
Albeit I’m confronted daily with approximations of how this mass of flesh will act in the future, the people around me serving as reminders of how the body develops a palate for autophagy, that reality never truly registers with me. I’m young, I might think, I have my whole life ahead of me. I can still develop healthy habits. There will come a time when a salad for dinner, and not a plate of pasta or a pizza, will seem like the natural choice at the end of a fatiguing day. I only need to get a grip on myself and eat mindfully, like all those highly successful people one encounters in self-help books.
Soon, I might tell myself ominously.
There’s so much potential for improvement hidden somewhere in the depths of my being. Lying dormant, waiting to be aroused, somewhere just behind the sternum, where anxieties cleave black holes that gnaw at my breath. Running reveals all this and more, it is the friction of change. Constructive abrasion. Then, I wake up one morning and notice that my skin sags in certain places or that a vein has decided to break free and blossom beneath the surface of the skin stretching between the talus and the calcaneus. My face, the bathroom mirror tells me in a passive-aggressive manner, has developed a rudimental form of memory, a frown permanently etched on my forehead, crow’s feet from all that squinting and smiling.
That’s all fine, the song goes, all those little imperfections unveil who you are. The secret is not to let rancor seep in, or see these symptoms of time passing as a form of treachery. Accept them, wear them with pride the way you (ought to) wear your heart, on your sleeve, and the others will unwittingly accept them as well. Besides, most of them can be hidden underneath a shirt: clothing flattens irregular forms, standardizes them, generates recognizable categories for us to inhabit. Tapered, slim, skinny, regular, loose, large, extra-large, and other variations. Clothes are the low-cost version of suburbia and area codes. They’re forms of creativity with sutures and hemlines, textured interfaces.
Some of those bodily imperfections will only be revealed in intimacy, which is always a form of exchange. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Meaningful intimacy requires time, which, to me at least, is not necessarily a whim, or a form of procrastination that betrays prudeness or bashfulness, but rather a ritual of preparation akin to tantric practices. Time precedes acceptance; it builds desire. In the flight or fight economy, the time we grant each other is the less aggressive form of the latter. “There’s no such thing as perfect,” a talking fish tells Courage, the pink dog from Cartoon Network’s Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, “you’re beautiful as you are Courage. With all your imperfections, you can do anything you want to do!”
“Anxiety is a bully. And like most bullies, the more you let it shove you around, the pushier it gets. […] Fundamentally, you can beat anxiety, like any bully, by standing up to it.” (Rhena Branch & Rob Willson, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a professional runner, nor do I strive to become one. To be frank, everything I know about running is the result of a continuing trial-and-error thing that’s been going on for quite a while. I do read articles and books about running, and occasionally watch some of those YouTube videos, but I’ve never had someone coach me, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Long-distance running is one of those activities you go to on your own; you discover something with each step you take. I learn something new about running, and about how far I can push my body, every time I put on my trainers and press start on my workout app, and I don’t imagine this is going to end anytime soon.
And that’s okay.
Perhaps what I like most about running is its offer of mindful solitude. You are alone, yet always in the presence of something that isn’t usually there: the terror of an imaginary finish line you see yourself crossing, which also feels like controllable anxiety. Your sense of fatigue suddenly becomes urgent in a way that may be unknown to you. It will try to convince you to stop by telling you, repeatedly, that you’re a loser and there’s no sense in persevering. You’ll steadily worry about the future of your run, and obsess over how much there’s still to do. Each mistake, however insignificant, will feel like a proof of your inherent inability to perform such an activity. Or finish what you started. You’ll stumble, slip, hit obstacles, cuss, spit, blow your nose, sweat like a pig, get angry at those who see you coming but refuse to get out of your way. All these trivial things will occupy your mind, and that’s okay because you’ll still be running, and all of them will feel like the ground you’ve covered: flat, and already behind you.
Running turns time into space, which becomes meaty, viscous, dense. Doing the same track repeatedly enforces this transformation. You pick milestones that soon morph into markers of progress. The circularity mitigates whatever anxieties you might have. You revisit places that felt differently. I often look at the distances I’ve covered (I use Runtastic for every run) and see them as anxiety-trial-runs. I’m running with the fear of not being able to finish. Eyes turned inwardly, I see my failed relationships and count all those instances in which I felt unlovable and alone. And they all come and go because running forces you to move away, literally, from everything. You don’t tiptoe around your fears, you face them, head-on, which is what anxiety doesn’t want you to do.
It wants you on your knees, begging for mercy, pining for relief.
Running suggests solitude, one that is free of rancor. I don’t need other people to be able to do it, and no special equipment is required except for a good pair of running shoes. I’ve tried doing it with others, but then I inevitably start comparing myself to them, and I fall out of step, I falter, lose my breath. Soon enough, it feels as if I’m failing them, denying the satisfaction of some elusive expectations they might have of me.
When I run alone, everything becomes porous, space is suddenly welcoming, distances expand, and contract, they become markers of success, not generators of exhaustion. My body carves its way through all this, uncovering layers, refuting hypotheses, and creating new ones. Air becomes functional once more, achingly so, as my lungs struggle for breath.
To be frank, I might have a slight aversion towards running with others because it feels as if I’m working against a threshold, and this might discourage me from putting on my trainers and going for a run in the first place. I did try it in the past, and the feeling is exquisite, especially when you all get to reap the benefits of a good workout, but I also feel like I need to entertain the other person, which can be a drag. Talking while running feels wastefully extravagant, akin to talking on the phone with a person who is in the next room.
The sounds of exertion: panting, hitting the ground, grunting, the accelerating heartbeat; they outline a vocabulary that commands attention. It is the lexicon of now-ness, reality’s firm grip on wandering thoughts. The mind might branch out; it is the rhythmic breath that brings it back to the ground, rooting it into the realities of the body. The side stitches, the numbing pain in the thighs, the thirst, they all claim dominion over your attention. Running doesn’t let you obsess over your thoughts, however dark they may be.
Running shouldn’t feel like a social activity. I dread the awkward silence, and I’m embarrassed by the fact that I sweat more than the average person. Really, at the end of a 10k, I’m drenched in sweat, my pants stick to my crotch and thighs, and at times it might seem as if I peed myself. Long runs also make my nipples bleed when I wear the wrong kind of t-shirt, and to some that might resemble gratuitous violence. Then there’s the question of tights, which, to the uninformed onlooker, might seem a form of excess, or a way of showing off.
When I’m running with somebody else, I can’t listen to music, and that is sometimes discouraging. Music is, after all, a form of companionship for the lonely. Some runners out there, namely the serious ones, say they don’t need music while running because it distracts them from the pleasure of the exercise. They listen to the beat of their footsteps, birds singing, the wind in the trees and all that. But when the beat drops in that Beyoncé song, my whole body goes fuck yeah I’m gonna crush this motherfucker, and I become a single lady at least for the duration of that song.
When Spotify introduced its running playlists, with music that matches your tempo, I was ecstatic because running suddenly felt like dancing, another activity that is both solitary and blatantly visible.
Sometimes, though, I pause the music and listen to the thrum of my heart the way medical students listen to sound recordings to train their ear for the broken beat, to distinguish the healthy from the defective. The sound of it is meaty, internal, and slightly detached, akin to the speech of an alien race, or the muffled slosh of wet ground. The echo of my footsteps early on a Sunday morning when there’s no one around is somewhat reassuring. Yes, I’m alone in this, but I’m digging my way out of this solitude the way a mole finds its way through the dirt. I’m moving to make that isolation sustainable, to make a living in this economy of the loner.
Running is the sullen travel companion. It’s always there, watching you, following you, yet it never attempts to lure you. It never says, ‘I told you so.’ At first glance, it seems unapproachable, disagreeable even, and it will reveal its secrets only if you strike up a conversation with it. From the outside, runners often remind me of Hopper’s Nighthawks, present but removed, always with their back at you, their sweaty faces a blur, their bodies emotion made flesh, eyes locked on some internal struggle that is invisible to us mortal onlookers. Somewhere deep inside them, hidden dialogue occurs: they’re silently bargaining with their bodies, the ground beneath their feet, the road, the trail, the air, the light. Then they’re gone akin to a saintly apparition.
‘Don’t mind me, just passing through.’
Humans evolved to become endurance runners, giving up speed for distance. Dogs can run fast, but they have to stop to cool down after a while, and they do that by sticking their tongues out. We can keep going because our bodies can thermoregulate through sweat and breathing, and in terms of energy consumption, running can be cheaper than walking. We ride the momentum, our legs acting as springs propelling us upward and forward, we jump and fall to the ground, working with gravity the way chemists mix substances to obtain something new.
Don’t mind me, just passing through.
“I’d observed pigs on treadmills for hundreds of hours and had never thought about this. So Dennis and I started talking about how, when these pigs ran, their heads bobbed every which way and how running humans are really adept at stabilizing their heads. We realized that there were special features in the human neck that enable us to keep our heads still. That gives us an evolutionary advantage because it helps us avoid falls and injuries. And this seemed like evidence of natural selection in our ability to run, an important factor in how we became hunters rather than just foragers and got access to richer foods, which fueled the evolution of our big brains.” (Daniel Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body)
I began running on a treadmill at the gym about five years ago at the extreme end of a homemade (that is, punishing) weight-loss program that verged on becoming an eating disorder. Most likely, it was that, or it was a dangerous combination of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, sheer madness, and a disregard for my body’s needs. I had reduced my calorie intake to the point where a cup of milk for breakfast and steamed broccoli for lunch felt as if I had indulged myself and needed to be punished by not eating anything else for the rest of the day. In time, the punishment began to feel reasonable, a form of atonement for all those years of gluttony. It felt like adulthood, a way to assume responsibility for how I looked.
I downloaded cooking apps on my iPad and saved tens of recipes. They were all for later, I would reassure myself. I watched videos of other people preparing food with the fascination one develops for a fetish. I couldn’t see their faces, but the way their hands moved while mixing ingredients betrayed a joy that was becoming increasingly extrinsic (and toxic) to me. Do these people know, I often wondered, how much harm food can inflict? Are they aware of how hard it is to shed the guilt that comes with it? I convinced myself that cooking was akin to treading on dangerous ground because through it, I would revert to my old habits of eating mindlessly. There was no way back at that point. I had closed all the doors behind me, measured my life in units, made hunger my friend.
I worked out at home twice a day, lifting weights and doing indoor cycling. Every day, I had to do more. Bigger weights, more reps, lengthier virtual tracks. I counted calories in my head obsessively and looked at cakes on Instagram before I went to bed to feel less hungry. Those who starved themselves became heroes who had the weight of Shakesperian characters. Soon, I would promise myself, all of this would be over, and I will have a slice of that chocolate cake. Just one more day of this. But then the next day, the vicious cycle began anew: I ate, felt guilty, and punished myself.
One apple for breakfast, salad for lunch, sunflower seeds for dinner. I felt my stomach expand and thought of myself as pathetic. I watched action-packed movies to waste time and keep my mind off food. Just keeping my back straight was exhausting. My legs went numb whenever I stood in one position for too long. Lively conversations, and even laughing, made me lightheaded. My grandparents warned my parents that something was off, and my dad kept asking me whether I wasn’t hungry. Looking at the food on the table suddenly felt like yearning for an expensive object I could not afford.
Grandma asked why I was doing that to myself. I told everyone I was doing it to get healthy, yet, secretly, I knew I wanted to be noticed for the right reasons. I wanted to be loved.
Hunger makes you increasingly aware of time. If there’s an organ in the body, or a pack of neurons in the brain, that unconsciously measure time in the background, hunger makes them work full-time. The longer I could go without food, the better I felt about myself. Throughout the day, I would have false starts: I painstakingly prepared the food, looked at it, had a bite, then served it to others. It wasn’t the food itself that I feared, it was how I would feel after I ate it that made me have second thoughts. I couldn’t bear the guilt of it because it was enervating.
Sought-for hunger makes reality acute. It engenders a yearning for sensations stronger than itself. I set objectives bigger than myself, made plans, went out with friends, worked for hours that seemed centuries. Throughout the day, keeping the mind busy by engaging in convoluted arguments became a top priority. I spent time in places where it was difficult to have access to food, and whenever I felt hungry, I reached for my cigarette pack. Coffee was a constant presence, it made me feel tight but shapeless, and it helped me muster forces that were becoming increasingly scarce and therefore, precious.
One more hour without food.
At the end of the day, I felt exhausted, and I blamed it on my lack of resolve. People I knew ate so little so why couldn’t I do the same? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about food? I watched others eat and experienced jealousy. Their ease with food felt like irony directed at me because I saw it as the ease of those who could do stuff I was only beginning to learn. At times, I felt superior because hunger gave me an extra load of lucidity. I wasn’t enjoying the food, I measured it, cut it into small pieces, adding the calories in my head.
I began to suspect eating was a competition of sorts, one in which the less you ate, the higher were your chances of winning. At parties, people were overly conscious of the things they ate. ‘No, I shouldn’t have that, I’m trying to lose weight. I only had a yogurt for lunch, and I feel fantastic.’ After major holidays such as Christmas, they went on diets, much akin to rituals of purification. They prepared for Easter lunch as if it was a battle. I distinctly recall a friend of mine posting a photo of him in running attire. The caption went along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of you, Easter lunch.’ Everything revolved around food and eating. Walking on a tightrope felt suddenly more accessible, and I resented all that. This is my life now, I would tell myself.
Meals were an alien race, their heads grotesque, their tongues moist.
I fell asleep the moment I put my head on the pillow and woke up in the morning in the same position I had gone to sleep. I touched myself to feel my ribs and hip bones jutting out. My mouth was often bone dry because I knew that drinking water would show on the scale. I weighed myself compulsively, and when the numbers went down, I took it to be a sign of success. Every lost pound was a small victory in the big war against my body.
More often than not, I remember waking up and thinking there was no more joy left in the world, and I should do my best to get used to that. The constant hunger devouring me was no longer a form of longing for the next meal I would have, but rather a sort of disappointment that my body was so needy, that it had given up on trying to survive on the meager amount of nutrients I was giving it. I looked forward to Christmas and Easter because those were the only times I would let myself have a proper meal. I binged, of course, and felt sorry for myself. Then I swallowed laxatives to free myself from the weight of my guilt.
“Running also poses problems for head stabilization. Unlike quadrupeds, humans have vertically oriented necks that are less able to counteract the greater tendency of the head to pitch forward at foot strike during running than walking. Such inertial accelerations would be reduced in Homo relative to Australopithecus and Pan by a combination of decreased facial length and occipital projection behind the foramen magnum. In addition, the radius of the posterior semicircular canal is significantly larger in Homo than in Pan or Australopithecus, presumably increasing the sensitivity of sensory perception to head pitching in the sagittal plane, which is potentially much greater during running than walking.” (Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel Lieberman, “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo”)
In his panegyric to running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami calls this heightened sense of body awareness “runner’s blues.” You start to have the feeling that all that hard work might never pay off, that there will come a time when your body will begin to break down, almost systematically, without asking for your permission.
Murakami experienced a version of it after finishing an ultramarathon (62 miles) in 1996. At one point, after completing about two-thirds of the race, he felt as if he had crossed a barrier beyond which his body transformed into a machine that no longer protested against pain and fatigue. His runs, he says, never felt the same afterward. It was as if something had switched inside him.
I’ve never done an ultramarathon or a marathon, but I can sympathize with what Murakami is saying. For weeks on end, a long run throughout which you push against the limits of your body can feel like a record that is hard to beat. Compared to a 27k race against yourself, which is the longest distance I’ve covered in a run at the time of writing this, a 7k can feel like child’s play. Long-distance running teaches you different forms of bargaining with your body, a kind of mental haggling you might never develop under different circumstances.
At times you think the only way forward is up. It doesn’t get easier, trainers often say, you only fight against it more efficiently. Muscles break and rebuild, they begin to remember how your race pace feels, your threshold pace, they engage in a concerted effort to help you get through that sprint. You get faster, your body starts using resources wisely, your breathing feels effortless, and all this gives you the sense that you’re in control of your body. You gain a deeper understanding of superiority, and you inevitably start judging those who might be sitting on their couch watching one more episode of that Netflix series.
Nothing can stop you now.
But then you wake up one morning and your left knee protests against even the most mundane of chores, such as taking a trip to the bathroom. The body can be an obstinate beast, it will take its time to show you the results of all that hard work. It will delay gratification. For months on end, even years, it will offer you only intimations of its internal battles: muscles will grow silently under your skin, fat will find its way out slowly, gradually, as if to test your patience. It’s akin to the promise of an afterlife free of distress or pain. It’s the delayed gratification that pushed Faust to make a deal with the devil.
Since running is such a holistic sport, because it requires both muscles and brains to work together, a glitch in either of those systems can prevent it from happening again. Even a minor injury can force you to stay on the bench for months on end. All the mental energy you otherwise would have put into running morphs into liquid admonition, which further fuels the runner’s blues.
When going for a run ceases to be a part of your physical and psychological routine getting back in the saddle can be an onerous task. In time, you’re left with a bitter aftertaste, the kind you feel when you’re nostalgic about old times. ‘I used to run,’ you think, ‘those were the good days!’ The miles stretched ahead of you like an invitation, and you accepted it, the way a thirsty man drinks the water coming from even the most insalubrious puddles. But then that empty stretch of road, ready to be yours, ceased to be so alluring.
In 2015, while I was staying in NYC and working on my Ph.D. thesis, I stopped running for more than three months because I hadn’t brought my running shoes with me. I had packed my stuff thinking that once I got to NY, I would unmistakably buy a pair and go on with my running routine. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be able to afford them once I paid rent and bought some food. It was incredibly frustrating to know that the only thing that was stopping me from covering those distances was a simple pair of shoes. Albeit there was a voice in my head telling me that if I really wanted to do it, nothing would stop me, not even the fact that I only had a pair of leather shoes with me, I still couldn’t do it.
A guy I had met on Tinder told me I could buy the shoes if I quit smoking, which I continued doing, passionately, despite the prohibitive price of cigarettes. It seemed as if I had made up my mind about not running, accepted it as a form of punishment. Buying a new pair of running shoes felt like a luxury that required a sacrifice I was unwilling to take.
To make up for the lack of exercise and burn those extra calories, I walked a lot around Central Park. I listened to audiobooks and podcasts. I paid excessive attention to what I ate. I became a vegetarian and made sure everyone knew it. But still, it felt as if I was robbed of something that I had claimed as mine. I envied the runners I saw doing their rounds in the park and imagined myself running alongside them, making up for all those miles I wasn’t covering.
If running often feels like lavish purposelessness, not doing it is akin to a refusal to participate in the world’s endeavor to change. It’s an admission of guilt and an acceptance of the consequences that stem from it. If there’s a god of running out there, you’re admitting to being a sinner.
Not running, even for brief periods, also invites doubt and constant worrying. I worry I might not be able to run again, or that my muscles will forget the moves, the amounts of fatigue they can tolerate, lower their threshold. Mentally, I imagine one of those life-bars that characters have in video games: you need to keep hitting something or collect tokens if you wish to progress. It makes you question your determination and ambitions if you happen to have any. You’re pathetic, you think, you always fall back on your old habits. Others can do it, but you can’t because you didn’t stretch enough, you skipped the warming up part, you didn’t listen to your trainer who told you that your body needs to recover after an intense training session.
Your anxiety returns, regal, its entourage of dark feelings in tow.
There’s the runner’s high as well, and though it is as elusive as the runner’s blues, it comes as quickly as it goes. This might be because we experience positive aspects of our lives as fleeting. Time flies when you’re having fun and seems static when you’re wallowing in pain. But I believe this is also because the runner’s high is ultimately an undefined state. You do not become suddenly aware of it and say to yourself ‘oh, there’s that runner’s high again, it’s a beautiful feeling, I will hold on to it for as long as I can.’ It comes, trust me, but it might come when you least expect it. You might be halfway through your run when it happens. You look up at the sky and whatever fatigue you might have been experiencing suddenly vanishes.
I get the goosebumps when it comes. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck go up in unison, and I feel as if I could go on for much longer. Yet, at times, I get those even when a song I like comes on during a run. So I never really know whether it actually is the coveted runner’s high. I also sometimes cry when it comes, which feels odd when you’re running because someone might see you. Tears well up in my eyes, and my vision gets blurry, and I feel like chocking. In those moments I cast my mind back to my failures, that is, to instances when my body failed me, to the times when I’ve been told that it isn’t good enough or it doesn’t correspond to the invisible standards of manhood.
“The scale in the bathroom sits partially on the bathmat. I move it to the hallway and set it on the wood for absolute accuracy. Zero. Give me zero. I was 92 yesterday.
“91. One o’clock. Some of that is urine weight.
“Soon, I will disappear into the wall.
“Soon, I will be light as gas.
“Just being awake burns calories. Just being awake brings me closer to you.
“To perfection.” (Sarah Gerard, Binary Star)
My earliest memory of body shame: my grandmother asking a mill worker to weigh me on a rusty scale they used for flour and wheat. I don’t recall what age I was, but I do remember staring at the ground when the man told grandma I was a small piglet.
They weighed us at school for statistical purposes. The PE teacher came in with a bathroom scale under one arm, the way one holds a ledger. One by one, we got up on that contraption and waited for it to settle, the numbers on it a truth one can’t deny.
The teacher wrote the figures on a sheet, and the students laughed. I was overweight once more, but the teacher approved because he, too, had a protruding belly and told everyone what a great kid I was and how much he would like to have me as his child.
Shame stays with you the way a scar does. I wear it in my bed every night I go to sleep, and it often wakes me up in the middle of the night. It’s akin to a subdued giggle, the inappropriate kind, the one that might occur at a funeral, or in class when you are little.
You push it down with your hands the way you push a muddy dog away from climbing into your lap. But still, it perseveres, doggedly, until you acknowledge it. Until you muster the force to wave it aside and see it for what it is: an inherited tool for self-harm.
“I want to be unique. I want to have a thigh gap.
“I want to see myself on television. I want other people to say they’ve seen me on television.
“When I’m on television, I want my body to look damn good.
“I want never to see the scale again.
“I need to be protected.
“I want to go whole days without looking in the mirror.
“I want not to own a mirror.
“I want to try on clothes at Macy’s, and see myself in three mirrors at one, and look good from every angle.
“I want them to stare at me.” (Sarah Gerard, Binary Star)
Running unveils your character the way it reveals your collarbones. It is the harbinger of your work ethic and, at least in my case, doing it regularly creates a discipline that seeps into all levels of my life. You start running, and you don’t give up. Despite the pain, despite the constant worrying, despite the heartbreak that threatens to open your chest. You run so as not to cry. Crying is for the weak. Boys don’t cry. It is that resilience to pain and discomfort that proves you can make it after all, even under other circumstances.
In 2017, while I was staying in Berlin and working on my Ph.D. thesis, I ran every day except for weekends. Being able to wake up early in the morning, while everybody else was still asleep, did not make me feel superior. Instead, it felt as if I was doing myself a favor, performing some act of kindness. Shopowners swept the sidewalks, washed them with water and soap, and all around me, there was the smell of fresh bread and freshly ground coffee. The runways of a former airport became my running ground. Every morning I would return to my room with the feeling that I had accomplished something already, and the day had only just begun.
Those days were also my most fertile in terms of writing and working on my thesis. Much like running, writing is about moving forward with each word. You do one more step, and then another until you get to the end. You write one word, and then another until you reach the end of the sentence, the paragraph, the page, the chapter, you get the picture. Both of them are chiefly about the accrual of units, and ultimately of meaning. Seeing those kilometers add up also gave me a confidence boost, each of them a small encouragement. The pages I wrote during those days also added up, and to my astonishment, by the end of that month, I had written just shy of seventy pages.
I also lost a lot of weight, I noticed it in the way my jeans sagged around my waist, and the way my parents looked at me when I returned home. I didn’t have the time to cook, so dinner was mostly crackers and blueberries. Though I felt as if I was overeating, the intense physical exercise and the grueling hours spent in the library drained me of all desire to expand physically.
For most of my life, I have been afraid of showing my body and did my best to cover it. Whenever I went to the seaside, which happened two or three times in my entire life, I would never take my shirt off, or, when I did, I would just close my eyes and pretend I was alone in the entire world. I turned the music up in my headphones so that I might not hear people comment on the inadequacy of my body.
I envied my brother’s ease with his body, a form of boyishness he carries to this day. He still has no qualms about taking his clothes off when the situation requires it. The same goes for all the men in my family, irrespective of their body size or shape. Men in the village where I grew up showed their bodies despite the overwhelming lack of abs or massive pecs. From the outside, they did not seem to question the adequacy of their bodies. None of the other people in the village seemed to do that. As long as you were a hardworking man, your body did not matter.
It was within this culture of acceptance that I grew up with the idea that I would be accepted by others no matter what. People made jokes about my weight, my man boobs, my round face, and head, but I recognized it as a form of communication, envy even. Everyone said I looked healthy, and I felt healthy. Those who had known my dad since his childhood told me that he had been chubby as well, but then he grew out of it. It was within this culture that I took my body artlessly.
Moving to the city during high school was emotionally traumatic. I got called names on the first day. A bunch of older kids laughed at me because I was wearing a leather vest and a short-sleeve shirt. I do realize now that it might have been a bit too much for early September when the sun was blazing hot, but I didn’t know better back then. I was the proverbial country boy moving to the big city. My response to all this name-calling went against that culture of acceptance. What did I do to them to deserve this? I hadn’t done anything to them, they didn’t even know me, but that was most likely their way of asserting their superiority, their place in the pecking order.
Years later, while reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, I came across an eerily familiar passage, one that strongly reminded me of my childhood. “The only good thing about being fat,” the Crapulent Major tells the narrator, “besides the eating, is that everyone loves a fat man. Yes? Yes! People love to laugh at fat men and pity them, too. When I applied at that gas station, I was sweating even though I had walked just a couple of blocks. People look at a fat man sweating and they feel sorry for him, even if they feel a little contempt, too.” Perhaps those older kids in the schoolyard pitied me, or maybe they didn’t, I’ll never know, yet, nowadays, whenever I see an overweight person on the street I feel a pang in my chest because I know the ordeal they have to experience every day. I am familiar with the stares and the looks, and the giggle of high-schoolers, the finger-pointing, and the acrid jokes.
Once, while I was getting home from the university by bus, a group of high school students started giggling and talking among themselves. At first, I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying, but then I began to realize that they were, in fact, talking about me. “Look at him,” I overheard one of them saying, “he looks as if he’s retarded. Just look at his face.” I did not raise my head to look at them because I was ashamed, and perhaps I should have confronted them, but I could see them out of the corner of my eye, their faces blurry and directed at me.
When people ask me why I don’t want to teach English to high school students, I usually tell them I find it hard to connect with them, and that’s true, but only to a certain extent. I did practice teaching English to high school students and found it exhausting. They laughed at me and made snide comments about the sweater I was wearing, and one of them cupped his hands around his pecs to point out the volume of my chest. I just couldn’t maintain any authority over them, and there were times when I thought that I just wasn’t cut for teaching.
Going on road trips with my classmates in high school was as mentally grueling as waiting for a significant test result. I hid in the bathroom and behind curtains when I had to take off my shirt. While the others had no qualms about walking around naked and touching their genitals while the others watched, I went to the toilet just to change into my pajamas. Letting others see me brush my teeth made me feel ashamed. What if I wasn’t doing it well enough?
Albeit in the meantime, my body has gone through significant changes, and I have learned to work with it, I still carry that shame with me. Sleeping with other people is a tiring task, and most of the times I resort to old habits: I close my eyes and think I’m invisible, or that I’m somebody else. Knowing that I can’t be seen makes my body livable and desirable once more. My body, the empty signifier, malleable, and ready to acquire new meanings.
There was a point during my weight-loss period when people started noticing my eyes were blue. At the time, I did not pay attention to the remark because it sounded like the type of thing people said when they had some breath to spare. My friends and I were idling at the local library when a girl said my eyes were getting bluer. Truth is, they were not, yet I felt a shift in focus. I no longer was the chubby guy who complained about divine injustice and did nothing to counteract it, but someone who had blue eyes.
Then I suddenly started to show up on people’s radars. On dating sites, people became interested in what I was doing, the things I wrote. I suddenly had content. People wanted to know more and asked questions. I was inebriated with the sudden rush of attention and wallowed in it. They complimented me for my strong will and my ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles. And I played the part that was assigned to me in this narrative of success: yes, if there’s a will, there’s a way, yes, I changed the way I saw food, everything went smoothly. I swept the lonely hours spent thinking about food under the rug.
My thighs became something people envied. When I went on dates, they were the first thing at which guys looked. I welcomed their gaze the way one accepts a precious gift because, for the first time in my life, there was a part of my body I wasn’t ashamed of showing. When they touched my thighs, I flexed the muscles as if I were on a bodybuilding show.
It is not my intention to demonize anyone. I think we do know how superficial we are, and this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In the lexicon of relationships, be they sexual or amicable, being attractive inevitably refers to how the body works and presents itself to the world. The body is a portal, an interface that offers access to what is underneath, and it betrays your attitude towards the world. The body is the joke at the beginning of a serious talk, the smile that makes the audience relax and open their minds.
Physical changes inevitably reflect internal movements, but I cannot say for sure what comes first. I can recall, though, a moment or perhaps a series of moments in which my body began to feel different because the people around me felt different about it. And the more you perceive that the more you look for it because it empowers you. It’s akin to a snowball. As it rolls down the hill, it grows in size and gains momentum.
The runner’s high is often described as legendary, which, more often than not, paints the picture of a mythical creature observable only by the chosen few. It is therefore dubious, or handed-down from earlier generations of runners. Something to chase akin to precious prey, a replacement for what our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to track and hunt.
Research conducted in the 1980s showed that prolonged exercise caused endorphin levels to spike, and for a very long time, they were believed to be the cause of the runner’s high. But then researchers realized endorphins were too big to pass through the blood-brain barrier and had to reconsider.
Then, researchers noticed that besides endorphins a runner’s brain also releases endocannabinoids, a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical accountable for the feelings that smoking marijuana triggers. As opposed to endorphins, which are created by specialized neurons, endocannabinoids, particularly anandamide, can be produced by basically every living cell in the body, and are small enough to get through that barrier and reach the brain.
The much-desired mood is also a question of finding your sweet spot. Go too slow, and it might never show itself. Go too hard, and it might feel like you’re punishing yourself. Stressing your body and mind during a long run is good, but do it in a way that feels controllable. Interval training does it for me. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, and knowing that I can get some rest, be it by walking or doing a light jog, at the end of each interval makes everything seem so manageable. At moments I feel as if my body is going to give up, and that might make me feel anxious, or desperate, but then it’s time to take a break, and those feelings subside.
Perhaps that’s what makes running such a good antidote for anxiety and depression: you panic and start doubting your capacity, you bring yourself down, you suffer, but then you know that at the end of it, a conclusion that you can foresee and control, those feelings will dissipate. Becoming acquainted with the transitoriness of your emotions by going on these trial runs, is much akin to exposing your body to toxicity to build up defenses. If you can overcome the anxiety that comes every time you feel like lacing up those running shoes or the one that occurs when you feel like you just want to stop running, then you can certainly overcome anxiety in the trenches of daily life.
These feelings I have while running, be them positive or negative, are overwhelming and, more often than not, I feel like stopping. I start doubting my running form and technique, my breathing turns shallow, and my shoulders creep up, stealthily as if to shrug or to push up against some invisible force. Most of the times, it feels as if there’s no way out of this realization, that whatever I do to mitigate this sense of doom, whatever mind trick I might have up my sleeve, I will never be able to run fast enough to escape it. I’m like a bear in a trap. I can see the cause of my problem, the rusty teeth of the metal clamp pressing against my shin, but I do not know how to open it.
It doesn’t get easier, running coaches typically say, you just get used to it. Yeah, I think, and you’re so full of shit. Literally, shit is coming out of your mouth. I try and picture them, these coaches, with their protein-shakes in tow and their perfect faces and taut stomachs, and I get angry. When am I going to be like them? When am I going to achieve that ideal form? Is there a point where this won’t feel like work?
Then, a moment later, I shake my arms, I take a deep breath, refocus on the distance I still need to cover, and the classes I still need to teach, and how I could explain, for the nth time, the present perfect. They’ll just feel it, I tell my students. The present perfect is almost instinctual. It’s a gut feeling. My mind goes bonkers, and the speed of my thoughts starts to match that of my feet. My heartbeat harmonizes with the cadence of my pace. Soon enough, I realize that nothing can stop me. I can still go for a while longer; I just need the patience to do it.
There’s this egotistical force wedged between the ground and the soles of my feet that pushes me forward. I don’t even have to think about it and, deep down, I know that if I stop, that drive to move forward will never forgive me, or it won’t show up next time I go for a run. So I listen to it. Lean into it. I am faster than my regrets, stronger than my failures, my anxieties, better than all those guys who rejected me.
Like all runners, I tend to be superstitious. To me, running is tied not just to physical rituals, such as preparing my running gear the night before and getting enough carbs into my system before a long run, but also to mental routines. For each workout, I prepare mentally. I think about how I’m going to feel at the beginning, or halfway through, or towards the end. I know that the first few minutes are going to be harsh, and a voice in my head is going to tell me I should give up because there’s no point in it anyway.
My imagination will run wild. It will throw at me images of hamsters playing on a running wheel, just to make things more exciting. From an evolutionary standpoint, I shouldn’t be running; I’m not chasing prey. I can just open the fridge, and the food I need will be there. Out of the blue, I’ll think about how cardio exercise is an occupation related to excess: there’s too much food lying around, and we’re always in search of ways to burn the extra calories. So we’re running, moving, heaving our bodies, chasing nothing but the fulfillment of the desire to make our bodies palatable to the coveting eyes of our peers.
Every run is a form of education in that sense. Each step is a small victory in the battle against whatever fears I might have, against self-doubt. They start creeping into my mind the moment I open the closet to put on my running gear, which gives off this weird smell even when they’re freshly washed. It’s a combination of burnt plastic and something feral. It makes me want to vomit. That self-doubt is still there even when I put on my running shoes. They’re not tight enough. They’re dirty. The insole feels a bit off, and I can’t seem to find the right position. My battery is low. Why am I doing this to myself when I could just sit and read something, finish that piece I was working on, mark some of those papers that are eyeing me from the pile?
But then I find myself running, the air around me welcoming.
Running is a form of training in emotional agility because it shows how transitory emotions can be. When you’re running, the only ultimate reality worth paying attention to is that of your body. Albeit you might worry about the future of your workout, the best way to deal with that anxiety is by focusing on what you can do to feel better right now: find a rhythm in your breath, relax your shoulders, control your cadence. Sooner than you know, the feeling is gone and you’re still moving, which you’ll always be doing, even when you feel like your life has ended.
There is a scene in the animated series Final Space (S01E08) that brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it. Desperate to close the breach in space that threatens to destroy the universe, Gary and his friends visit Bolo, a Titan trapped between dimensions. Once Gary enters Bolo’s mind palace, he is greeted by other versions of himself: there’s a Construction Hat Gary, an Eagle-Faced Gary, a Cookie-Headed Gary, and a Little Micro Gary. “In order to face what’s ahead,” Bolo’s voice says, “you need to face what’s inside of you.” And what Gary needs to face in that particular instance is the Amazing Mustache version of Gary, who tells the real Gary that he will never be able to get a thick, abundant, luscious mustache like that. “It’s true,” the real Gary says embarrassingly, “I’ve never been able to grow a mustache.”
Amazing Mustache Gary then begins to comb his mustache with his little mustache comb. “But you’ll never know the satisfaction of that,” he says and starts to laugh copiously as he flies above and vanishes. As his voice echoes and fades out, the real Gary begins to be engulfed by some sort of dark gooey thing that grows on him, slowly pulling him down. “Your anxiety is consuming you,” Bolo says, “you know you can’t succeed.” “Because I can’t grow a mustache?” “That’s exactly why,” the voice of Amazing Mustache Gary echoes again.
Of course, the mustache has nothing to do with closing a breach in space. It does have everything to do with how the protagonist feels about his capacity to perform that action. When you live a life in which you are being criticized every step of the way, even the most insignificant thing, such as your lack of facial hair, can become a nuisance and stop you from living a full, healthy, life. And yet, against all vicissitudes of fate, faulty plans, miscalculations, Gary tries to do it anyway, and sometimes he succeeds.
Gary is my hero because his lack of confidence reminds me of my own. More often than not, I’ve avoided doing things, such as talking to people who seemed intriguing, for the simple fact that I couldn’t muster the confidence to strike up a conversation. And I’ve always lived with the regret that stems from those missed opportunities. Just like Gary, my anxiety has consumed me and pushed me around. It still does. The other day I accompanied my boyfriend to have his sunglasses done and noticed that the name tag of the guy who served us said he was a writer. I wanted to ask him about that but then never did. And then we were out of the shop, and the world took us to other places, and I might never see the guy again.
And that’s that, and here’s the thing: you might not have a thick, abundant, luscious mustache, and you might not have the abs to show or the perfect hair, but you can try to be like Gary. You can do things against all the odds and still be successful, because trust me, the regret you’ll feel for not doing things is much worse than the embarrassment of rejection. If you don’t feel like running, go for a run anyway. If you don’t feel like talking, do it anyway.
I’ll go for a run now. Have a good one.