by Khaled Allen
Photograph by Anna Pusack
My workout yesterday was supposed to be break from running. It was a strength set of handstand pushups, single-arm pullup progressions, and deck squats, but I wasn’t feeling much like exercising, much less doing such high intensity gymnastics. I was in one of those moods where you wonder what is the point of all this training and hard work. As someone who has worked as a personal trainer, that is a rare mindset for me, and not one I’m well equipped to handle. The only moderately active thing I felt like doing was a long, slow run. I didn’t want to think of it as training. I just wanted to cover ground, and I ended up covering a lot more than I thought I could.
I headed out of my house for a nice relaxing jog around the block. However, instead of turning around to head home, I decided to just keep going. After another missed turn, I made up my mind to try running two towns over to my girlfriend’s house. I had always wanted to run there, just to see if I could. As a backpacker, I love to look back over a range of mountains that I have just traversed on my own two feet. I love the feeling of freedom that gives me. I have always felt that cars force us to compartmentalize trips; you can only go where the asphalt is, and after a certain distance, the only way to get somewhere is in a vehicle. We tend to forget that there is ground connecting any two places we might want to go, and we are free to get ourselves wherever we might wish.
For most people, the prospect of running to get somewhere is ludicrous. You run to get in shape, to deal with stress, maybe for a race, but if you actually want to go somewhere you just drive. But I have always been fascinated by those who run to go places. History is full of examples of people who had to get somewhere fast and resorted to running. Pheidippides, the soldier who ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens, is probably the most famous example. Granted, he died after the run, but I always attributed that to possible injuries sustained in battle. The fact that he considered it realistic to run 26.2 miles after a battle suggests an entirely different way of thinking about distances and the human ability to cover them than the one we have today. I wanted to see what it was like to just go someplace, regardless of how far away it might be.
While I have never run to my girlfriend’s house, it isn’t a hugely daunting task. It takes me about 20 minutes to drive there on the highway, and I know a route along back roads, so I figured I would just keep moving until I got there. My optimist was tempered by two things: I had no idea how far it was (it could have been 6 miles or 20), and I didn’t give myself any way to back out. I wasn’t carrying a phone or my wallet, so if something went wrong, I couldn’t call for help. The other element that played into my gnawing anxiety was that there really was a point of no return, after which it would be easier to just push on, and I didn’t know where that point was, since I didn’t know how far or how long it would take me. It’s what makes an otherwise tame sport really interesting. Would I last the whole run, or would my knees and ankles give out? This wasn’t just a workout anymore; it was a challenge.
The further I went, the more I started to think I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was wearing my Merrell Trail Gloves, shoes I had never run more than a couple miles in at a time, and I was beginning to notice weird aches and pains in my feet, my shins, and my knees. If I just enjoyed the scenery and didn’t think too much about my form, the pains went away, so I tried to let me legs do their thing.
Things really started to get hairy when I actually did get lost. Trying to take a shortcut I remembered from looking at a map, I missed a turn and found myself at a dead end. Luckily, I ran into a burly guy walking a Chihuahua who helped me out and pointed me in the right direction. Unfazed, I picked up my speed to make up for lost time. When I made it to one of the major cross streets, I felt I had gotten through the hardest part and would be able to finish. Heading down this road, I let my legs stretch out, hoping to pass through quickly, but one thing I learned on this run is distances that seem short in a car may in fact be much longer on foot. This road in particular was straight, which made it go by very quickly in a vehicle. It turned out to be one of the most difficult and grueling parts of my spur-of-the-moment cross-country jog. Some of the hillier, more twisted roads, which seem long and tedious in a car, were a breeze to run through.
While I was out running—endlessly it seemed—I had the opportunity to speculate on the true meaning of cross-country. Normally when we run, we stay on a specific, usually circular, course which starts in one place and ends in the same location. Rarely do we run as a primary mode of transportation. And yet, the meaning of the sport’s name, cross-country running, implies that you are going someplace. The Tarahumara of Born to Run fame ran miles and miles just to get around. They didn’t run to get in shape; they were going somewhere. If they needed supplies from town, they ran there. For the first time in my running career, I was running somewhere, intent on some purpose besides simply finishing a race. Having a destination was empowering and helped me brush off my fatigue. I was going to see my girlfriend! True, it was only a casual visit, but it was still something productive.
Pretty soon, it started to get dark, and I worried that my mom would get home to find the house empty, my car parked outside, and no explanation for my absence. If she did, she would call my girlfriend, who would freak out since she didn’t know I was out running either. This whole outing was starting to seem like less and less of a good idea. The only thing I could do was go faster, but my legs were hurting and my joints were achy. I just kept running. That was all there was to do, after all. A simple, easy thing, which made it actually doable.
It quickly grew too dark for cars to see me, judging by how close they were driving past. Running down narrow, poorly kept roads in the dark of backwoods Connecticut, I was forced to jump off the road and pick my way through rocks and ditches whenever a car drove by. Finally, I turned on to the last street before my girlfriend’s house, leaned into the run, and raced through the last mile.
When I showed up at her door, breathless and sweaty, she took one look at me and knew exactly what I had done. Runners are a bit crazy after all. I called my mom to let her know where I was and it turned out she wasn’t even home yet, so I checked the time. I had started at 5:40pm, and now it was only 6:50pm. I was a shocked at how much ground I was able to cover in just an hour. I even contemplated making this a regular way to see my girlfriend. It was a brief contemplation. Maybe when I’m regularly running ultras.
So how far was it? I ended up running 9 miles, which is a long way for me since I rarely run more than 5 miles at a time. I did run the Philadelphia Marathon once, but I was moving so slowly it seemed more like shuffling. This night, I was really running, in the way Forrest Gump ran when he just took off down the road. When I run just to workout, I find my thoughts don’t always cooperate and I find myself contemplating how much happier I’d be sitting at home playing video games. Last night, though, the fact that I had a destination and a reason to get there before my family started to panic made the run something my mind could get behind. Instead of going through all that pain just for the sake of fitness, I was taking it on to accomplish something tangible.
Maybe running has become stale for you, as it had for me. Maybe your usual courses are starting to bore you. Perhaps the romance of covering ground on your own two feet has faded, because if you’re to be honest, you aren’t really covering ground. You’re just running in large, convoluted circles, going nowhere and getting back where you started. Maybe it’s time to get back to why humans started running in the first place: to get places fast.