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EVOLUTIONARY SYSTEMS AND THE RUNNING POETICS OF OBLIVION

Stepping into the blackness of darkness.

Words by Patrick Gregory
Photography by Brett Rothmeyer

 

Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for a time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

 

The streetlights are reflected in the icy puddles of the parking lot as I make my way through the frosty morning toward Harvard’s indoor track. The most steadfast of stars, tarnished among the city lights, remain visible in the early morning’s ink-black firmament. The rind of the moon that had hung in the sky during my drive has disappeared into the heavens as the hint of day begins to melt into the navy night; the faint white blaze creates an almost luminous band of pale orange that stretches out across the horizon. Sun is imminent. I exhale deeply and watch my breath dissipate in the morning air. The fowl roosting in the football stadium’s coliseum archways begin to make their quotidian salutations to daybreak.

I reach the door and enter the indoor track. Crossing the threshold brings with it all the comforts of shelter that evolution has predisposed me to enjoy. I am greeted with a rumbling accumulation of footsteps, as syndicates already well into their early morning workouts glide smoothly by in waves of animated color. 

I have always struggled with the hardcore mentality of training through inclement weather, so indoor track speaks to me as the most pragmatic of the athletic seasons: good weather all the time. In order to fully develop and articulate such a praxis, I jog my entire warm up indoors with my training partner Louis. Fortunately, his beliefs about indoor track season align with mine; and he too prefers uncountable loops around a 200-meter track to the frigid winter temperatures of the world outside. We go steadily, easily, and obviously clockwise during our warmup. We guess that this will offset the unbalancing effects of running counterclockwise on the banked track for the principle parts of our morning. Our creaking bones yawn and pop as they wake up and our muscles loosen and let go of sleep as we circulate laps and blood.

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Louis and I have separate interval workouts today. Our coach Randy will be holding the stopwatch and providing emotional reassurance as we navigate our low points; but other than that, we’ll both set out to complete the day’s work alone. I always have some trepidation about the days when I know I will be on my own through a hard speed workout. I’ll be working right near my fine line for much of the day, and I have to be careful not to overstep the subtle boundary between appropriately difficult and too hard. The workout is low in volume as it is, so pushing the envelope and not being able to finish what I started would be hard to justify. 

I go about my business methodically, measuring my effort over the course of a workout that will total almost twice the volume of my goal race, while running at or faster than goal race pace. I take a moment to appreciate the glory of the life-giving sun as it rises in the east and paints the track in lambent bands of gold. My beating heart hammers away in my ears and juxtaposes the scintillant specks of dust hanging on the illuminated air. A gentle reminder issues from the wake of the fluid morning sunshine: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The work doesn’t seem to be coming easily. Every interval takes a calculated focus and a brief pep-talk: little private whispers of encouragement from my mind to my body, my own special little tricks. For a second I am surprised that the speed of the short intervals—what I’ve always believed to be my strong suit—feels so awkward and out of step for me now on legs accustomed to higher mileage than I’ve ever sustained before. That capacity for astonishment stays with me through the mincing steps I jog between my 400-meter and 200-meter repetitions. I decide to take it as simply a good thing—my capacity for astonishment at the inscrutability of my own body—because it authorizes the fact that, despite all the time I’ve spent with myself, I can never fully understand my mind because my mind is all I can use to try to understand it with. I can still surprise myself, in ways both granular and grand. And running is almost always the vehicle that allows me to arrive at these small revelations, to scrape away a little bit of my superficial excesses, my preconceptions, the way I’d like to believe I am what I am, to strike at whatever that real and elusive thing underneath might be.

While I am cooling down, I look out the window and think about whatever winter apocalypse mother nature will herald unto Boston over the coming days: today the sun shines but there is a swirling wind, and perhaps tomorrow will bring driving rain or sleet and an endless expanse of billowing gray clouds to weigh heavily upon my brooding mind. With the uproar of that aeolian wind just out of reach beyond the glass window panes, I circle once more the tiny indoor track. The elements of winter are strangely and profoundly far away from me. Paradoxically, I feel like I’ve been gone from the harshness of the world for a shockingly long time, despite the morning’s nausea-inducing speed session. The amenities that come from being indoors take up more presence in my mind now than the painful discomforts of the running that I just finished with. I am protected in this dome of everlasting running, at least for a couple hours, for two mornings a week. Dealing with the elements, the cold that penetrates deep into the bones, will take some time to get used to. For now, I could run around inside forever if it weren’t for the imposition of that strange and distant world beyond.

Tracksmith Valentines Meet 44 Of 52

Two weeks later, I walk down the long cinderblock hallway that leads to the indoor track at Boston University. It is in that pallid hallway that I begin to reckon with the radical significance of what lies ahead. The goal race, which for months has been a distant abstraction that contoured the very movements of my days, suddenly becomes tantamount to everything that is life itself. It holds an authority over my waking actions that transcends my ignorance of its ultimate meaning or purpose. Whether the race is in fact the principle that fulfills the purpose of my life or simply an agent of something meaningful that rests beyond my comprehension, the fact of its existence as such is enough for me to approach it as the realest thing I can experience, where I can be most alive, exploring most deeply the nuances of my primordial self.

I warm up with a group of fellow milers whose camaraderie and company has been pulling me along for much longer than the twenty minutes of pre-race jogging: a group of men who likewise run like people invested with a purpose whose origins are antecedent to their existence. This communal soul of runners creates a mutual understanding that couches our existence within each other’s, and though each of us remains discrete unto ourselves, I cannot help but relax in the company of these mirrored souls. As the blood begins to flow, and the race begins to loom inevitably, I think, too, of my coach, my training partners and teammates, and my family, many of whom are wishing me luck at trackside. Their voices saturate their words with hopefulness and goodwill, which works to ease my fretful mind.  

But when it comes to that most critical moment, I know, again, that I will have to go alone into that empty void—whether truly and completely alone or with the help of God, I’m not sure. I put on my spikes, my singlet, and complete the final acts of ritual necessity that deliver me safely to the starting line; a storm contained only by a pre-race checklist: a prayer, a moment of silence, and sixteen deep breaths. I toe the line and the world closes in around me. 

I face down that duplicitous albatross that I have willfully taken up for myself—whether it be a blessing or a curse, it is an ancillary disciple to the rise of the darkness. I know that it is the manner in which one carries out their most burdensome task that determines the fullness of their lived experience. Whether the experience fills you up or leaves you empty depends entirely on how much of yourself you surrender over to its demands. I realize that I must suspend my better judgment, so I talk loudly in my head to drown out my very rational doubts; and I wait with longing for the release of cortisol and adrenaline that will jumpstart my nervous system and allow the evolutionary fight or flight impulse to take over my mind and usurp the sinewy power of my body. 

I am willing to risk everything for the mere possibility of achieving a dream that whispers to me when nothing else does. I am certain that I am held together not by the familiar movement of diurnal reality that flows predictably and easily through the hazy tunnels of my days; I am held together by the magnificent cascading of my dreams. My unconscious explorations take me to archaic landscapes, barren plains, and distant mountains traversed by my looming ancestors of yore during their own distant and magnificent migrations. What I am is an artifact of these salient concatenations of epochs, a palimpsestic assemblage of ancient nomadic phantoms. I revel in the beauty of this arbitrary chain of events that has hurled me unthinkably and improbably into the present moment of human history. The race before me engages the basest emotion of those old journeys across remote continents: fear of the unknown.

Tracksmith Valentines Meet 48 Of 52
Tracksmith Valentines Meet 47 Of 52

By racing, we confront the chance to actualize the very dream that furnishes us with a purpose. The goal of the race is to cover ground for a certain distance quicker than ever before. The principle strategy for doing so is singular—it is daunting, it can be terrifying, and it takes courage to countenance. But it is at least simple. The gun will go off, you will start the race, and you will give your body just exactly as much as it can handle at each and every stage for as long as you can physically continue to dig into yourself and produce the goods. You are prepared and willing to step into that blackness of darkness that is the absolute unknown, a little corner of hell that you’ve never quite descended into before. One foot deeper into the inferno you go. When we find ourselves plunging into the darkest of our depths to overcome the physical barriers that God or genetics have placed in front of us, we ultimately shed light on parts of our spirit that have, until the moment we were forced to smoke them out of their darkest corners, laid dormant, waiting to be summoned into spectacular use. The plan is to completely empty ourselves over the course of one mile or three-thousand or five-thousand meters; and hopefully when we dip our bucket into the proverbial well for one last drop in a moment of panic-stricken and fully mortal desperation, we find what we’re looking for within ourselves. 

When it’s over, we collapse back into the arms of our loving and loyal friends, who have never ceased believing in our quest, who hold us up in our losses and beam at us in our victories, and who have given themselves over to the same toil that makes us feel most alive. Whether or not we’ve accomplished our goals, our hearts bloom in our breasts and flood with thankfulness for those who act as our crutches when we are weak and need support. 

The time? Four minutes, zero point nine seconds. It’s not until I step into the darkness, that I discover there’s always more blackness beneath. I step away knowing that there is always more work to be done. I jog my cool down and try to quickly forget about the obliterating pain that comes from where I’ve just been. The path forward is fixed with a purpose, and I am driven forward as if on iron rails. I start to look forward to the next day’s training run, to getting back on the horse, back into the comfortable groove of mechanistic preparation, hardening myself beyond comprehension for my next foray into the unsounded gorges toward which I unerringly rush.

Patrick competes for Hare AC. Running's richest rewards are to be found in racing. Become a member today.

Tracksmith Valentines Meet 50 Of 52