Sometimes I cry during my runs. Of course, I generally set out around 4:00am so other people are rarely around to bear witness to this. In the summer, the tears mingle with my sweat anyways, offering little clue as to what happened. In the winter, there is often the unfortunate side effect of my lashes freezing together. When that happens, I cup my eyes gently in my palms (red, wool, 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics edition mittens; hole in the lining of the left thumb) and wait for the ice to thaw.
The tears come unbidden, not correlated to my level of physical effort. They aren’t even the result of sadness, really – just pure release. Running makes me feel human and vital, alert yet calm. It’s often the only time of the day that I can breathe freely, and I crave the respite from my jangling thoughts. There’s the shot of endorphins, sure, but it also eases the tightness in my chest and the numbness across my face. It lets me escape, however briefly, from myself. That’s one reason why I choose the pre-dawn run. Away from the noise, the lightness, the too-brightness, I don’t have to be seen. I should wear a blinking light or a reflective vest. I know I should. And sometimes, when the snow is particularly thick or the rain especially heavy, I do. But it changes things. It takes away a part of the magic for me. It’s a special thing, to feel like a person defined by nothing other than the rhythm of your breath and the sound of your feet. I have the rest of the day to be a body.
This has been my routine for so long, it requires virtually no conscious effort in the morning. Wake up, make breakfast, get dressed, lock the door. Peanut butter sandwich on toast, English Breakfast tea. Tights, socks, shoes. Cold? Balaclava, toque. Mittens. Another pair of socks. Another pair of mittens. I always put in earbuds but I only remember to turn on the music half the time. The other half of the time my own personal noise is enough. And then I’m out. Locking the door, quietly, and edging down the stairs and the drive, skirting the ice or the puddles. Watching for skunks or raccoons or, on some occasions, bears. Turning around a couple of seconds later and coming back to check that the door is locked; it is. It always is, except for the time that I don’t check. So I do, every day, and now that too is part of my routine.
I suppose some people prefer light to dark – daylight to nighttime, summer to winter. Hot to cold. These people exist, clearly – this time of year seems to be full of articles about reaping the rewards of having endured long winter evenings – but I am not one of them. In the summer I wake up earlier so that my runs remain pre-dawn. Too many sunny days in a row leave me drained; too bright, too hot, too loud. Too happy? July is a crowd of people shouting at me to have a good time. The days seem unfairly long and light. By November, though, I can begin to catch my breath. It’s cooler then as well, which helps, but it’s the clouds that I love. Everything that was hardened in the summer sun is undone a bit, brushed softer by a bruise-coloured wash. The morning darkness has a different texture too, and a different taste. Running in November is spicy, like rotting leaves and wet cement and damp clothes.
This year I was by the ocean. Sometimes the fog was so thick that it was like running through clouds. There were no street lamps there, but the moisture in the air gave off its own light, it seemed. Glowing from within. The houses by the shore tend to leave a single candle burning behind each window, so that I felt like a ship being guided by so many tiny lighthouses as I slipped by. I remember those runs now, when I’m struggling.
There are days when I can’t move, the sadness inside me is so heavy. I can barely flutter my fingers or open my eyes, let alone engage with the outside world. I can’t imagine changing my clothes, or taking a shower, but I will always run. Moving through the strange darkness between late, late night and early morning, I am hidden and safe. I float through the empty streets and it feels like a dream. I have nothing to hide anymore, not out there, so the tears run out. Some days, that is the only time I leave the house.
Other times, I don’t sleep at all during the night. The world is just too full of things to do and plans to be made and places to go and of course, of course they must all be done now, right now, immediately. On those days I run as well, and I soothe the frantic, jittering, shaking in my body and my mind.
Still though, running can’t do it all. I used to think that I just wasn’t trying hard enough, that there was some magic distance I could unlock where my thoughts and emotions would snap smoothly back into place. The fact of it is, I will never outrun the riptide pull of my deepest lows, or the free-fall terror of my highest highs. And that’s ok. Other things exist – medication, therapy etc. – to deal with being bipolar. Because yes, the way I experience the world has a name. And while it doesn’t define me, I can draw comfort from knowing that I am not alone.
But running is restorative in its own way. It gives me a reason to get up on the days when simply being alive sets my teeth on edge and, on the days when I feel too alive; painfully, scorchingly, frantically alive, it gives me something solid to hold on to. At both extremes the run is not about pace or distance. In fact, I practice forcing myself to move easy. Being healthy enough to always be able to sink deep into a sweet run means too much to risk trashing my body over the long term in exchange for temporary mental reprieve. I’m not perfect, but I am trying. Every day, one step at a time. And when I’m in the depths of an ultramarathon, hours in and hours left to go, I know I can keep going. Because running is strenuous, running is challenging, but it’s not hard. Fighting with your own mind is hard. Feeling useless, being disgusted with yourself, that’s hard. Hearing voices is hard. Just existing can be hard. But running – that’s a choice. Every stride is a gift, proof that I am alive.
Jacqueline, you are a poet. Thank you for your story and your insight, and for speaking about mental health.
Thank you for this post. You are an inspiration.