What I Think About When I Think About Running


Post-Morning Run in Bélesta, France

“The thoughts that occur  to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.” – Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

By Brian Spencer

When I think about all the long runs I’ve taken during the past six odd years since I’ve become a serious runner, I think about the people and places who’ve shaped the experience. I think about the music that has gotten me through a long eight-mile stretch through the streets of North Brooklyn, or through a tedious one-hour session on a treadmill in Bangkok. I think about my personal life and about my work life. I think about everything and I think about nothing in particular.

I think about an ill-advised midnight run on New Year’s Eve in New York’s Central Park with a friend and my then-girlfriend, huffing and puffing through a scant four-mile route after stuffing ourselves silly with mounds of heavy pasta and glasses of cheap wine at a crappy Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. I think about motoring into the final stretch of my second Central Park half-marathon a few years later and fighting back tears of exhaustion and accomplishment as I crossed the finish line and looked up at the race clock. I don’t remember what the exact time there read, but I do remember that my final official time was 1:37, an average of 7:40 minutes per mile over 13.1 miles, the fastest time I’ve run to date and a time I thought unattainable. I certainly didn’t train for it.

I think about waking before dawn in the small French  Pyrénées-Orientales village of Bélesta (population: 200) and running down through its deserted streets and into the black, star-lit countryside on a narrow, two-lane road that twisted and turned through vineyards and past old farmhouses. I think about a pair of guard dogs, unaccustomed to a steady drumbeat of footsteps skirting past their home at that ungodly hour, barreling down on me from their owner’s front lawn with terrifying speed and palpable bloodlust in their war-cry barking; I think about what might have happened had I not accelerated from “groggy jog” to “sprinting like my life depended on it” for at least a half mile. The only things I can remember thinking at the time were “holyshitholyshitholyfuckingshitrunbrianrunholyshit” and, on the way back when the same thing happened again, whether or not I had it in me to defeat two dogs in hand-to-paw combat, if necessary. Thankfully I didn’t have to find out.

I think about big ideas for articles I want to write, and I think about big ideas for articles I want to write that I haven’t followed up on. I wipe the sweat off my face with my sweaty shirt and think to myself that I’m going to get cracking on Big Idea tomorrow; sometimes I do, and more often than not, well, I don’t. I think about it’s time to stop letting the enormity of the task worm its way into my worries and doubts and to just get on with it. I think it’s time to get on with it and do it because I can do it and do it well– and I’m trying to. I really am trying to.

I think about whether or not my running shorts are too short.

I mean, they’re really comfortable and airy, much moreso than the old style of shorts I used to wear, and many other runners wear even shorter shorts; some even — gasp — wear spandex (gross). Still, sometimes when I pass other runners or people strolling in the park I get the sense that they’re pointedly trying to not look at my short shorts. They’re not that short, promise — not pervert exhibitionist short — but they don’t catch even a whiff of my knees and I’m fairly tall, 6’3 and all legs. Maybe I shouldn’t think about it.

I think about Deftones’ Diamond Eyes, one of those albums that for reasons you can’t quite explain just strikes a chord, comes along at the right time in your life, resonates. I think about when I moved back to Bangkok for six months in 2011, and all the times I listened to this album start to finish, from the deliberate, controlled crunch of the self-titled opener to the closing post-hardore cover of Drive Like Jehu’s “Caress”, while pushing through 60 – to 80-minute runs on a treadmill in our fancy condo’s fitness center. I think about when I was 18 years old and saw the Deftones live at the classic basement Detroit venue The Shelter. (Handsome opened, but you’ve probably never heard of them, which is a shame.) I think about all those countless concerts I went to in Detroit during high school and college in the mid- to late-90s, my after-school education in so much of the music that continues to be the soundtrack of my life. I think about, if I’m old because I still often listen to bands like Ween, and Clutch, and Deftones, Quicksand, Fugazi, Pantera, Bad Religion, Nirvana, Kyuss, Sonic Youth, well, I guess I’m old then.

Singapore West Coast Park

Ships in the harbour off Singapore’s West Coast Park

I think about the furnace of humidity I run through in Singapore’s West Coast Park after a blustery November rain shower. Pink and purple flower petals blown onto a path that winds through prelapsarian greenery that sometimes smells like green peppers on a burned pizza. The whirring and beeping of the harbour shipping yards. Tiny flies sticking to my face and flying into my mouth and the corners of my eyes. Singaporeans casting fishing lines and flying kites and kicking soccer balls. Rats and squawking birds and croaking frogs stirring and scrambling deeper into the brush as I pound past them on a raised wooden platform that juts through the park’s overgrown marsh garden. I think about when on one recent run a large tree branch fell to the ground about three seconds before I would have been in  that spot, and what kind of impact that branch would have had on me if my pace had been three seconds faster that day. Would I have had a bad headache? Been knocked out? Been killed? I’d rather not think about it, but since then I’m constantly looking up while running along that particular stretch.

I think about petty, pointless jealousies of writers whose work I don’t like or respect but who are lapping me professionally, and of writers who I know are better than me and probably always will be. I think, don’t think that way. Be happy for them and their successes, work harder to create more of your own, and relish the considerable number of wins you’ve had. Remember that others probably feel the same way about you and you wish they didn’t. I’m only human, though. Sometimes I think about petty jealousies when I run.

I think about the scenic eight-mile loop that runs through metro Detroit’s Kensington Metropark, near where I attended middle school and high school. It’s one of my favorite running routes in the world and one I always revisit when I’m home with family, whether dead of winter or dead of summer. It’s not just the familiar scents of Michigan forestry in spring, or the blazing reds and oranges and yellows and browns of the leaves changing during a Michigan fall, or the way light catches and sparkles on Kent Lake during the waning afternoon hours of a postcard-perfect summer day. It’s also the memories of middle-school bike rides around the same loop with middle-school friends I’ve long since lost touch with. Memories of my parents and my grandma taking me to the park’s petting farm and on nature walks when I was younger.  Of  chasing joints with a forty of Icehouse on the frisbee golf course and making out with some girl on a park bench in high school. I think about all these things when I run at Kensington, scanning the woods for deer, passing ponds covered in ice or covered in lilly pads and algae, feeling alive.

I think about the countless times I’ve run “my route” through North Brooklyn. I’d start near BQE Wine & Liquors — by the way one of the best wine and liquor stores I’ve ever been to in terms of value and selection — go down McGuiness Boulevard to Driggs, then make my way through the heart of Greenpoint, past tempting Polish bakeries, stinky hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints, hipster restaurants and cafes, anonymous delis, and the best brunch and lobster spot around.


Running through Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Eventually, I’d leave Greenpoint and move into Williamsburg along the now firmly gentrified and developed waterfront. As I’d pass what’s now East River State Park, sometimes I’d think about  how when I first moved to Williamsburg, in 2003, that land was fenced off and unused, but that there were parts of the fence you could squeeze under and holes cut in the fence you could slip through. An old friend and I would walk down to that untouched waterfront to enjoy those dazzling views of Manhattan and put back a few beers. One time we were ticketed for being down there with an open container, but at least they didn’t find our pot.

When I was feeling it, or just feeling guilty about the previous night’s overindulgence, I’d extend my seven-mile route into an eight-mile route and detour onto the Williamsburg Bridge. I’d think about all the times I’d biked over that bridge on my way to work and on my way back from work in my mid- to late-twenties, before I decided I couldn’t do the office thing anymore. I’d think about all the times I biked over that bridge with my best friend and girlfriend, now my wife. I’d think, I can’t wait until the downhill part of the bridge because my knees and lungs are screaming stop.

Now, when I think about that bridge when I run in Singapore, one of the first things I think about is my last day in Brooklyn, when I pulled my unassuming cat from her favorite window perch in our pre-war Williamsburg apartment, stuffed her into her carrier, and closed the door on 11 years in New York City (minus one and change in Bangkok). That late-July day we piled into a taxi and headed to the Newark airport, via the Williamsburg Bridge, for the long flight to Singapore and to start our new life.

These are just a few of the things I think about when I think about running.

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