Although I can’t say I’m particularly fast, I can fairly claim that I am a runner. It is part of who I am because it’s a habit, of sorts – one I’ve kept for many years. It became ingrained as a habit because my dad is a runner. That is, he used to be a runner. Almost twenty years ago I competed in my first official 5k with him. I subsequently accompanied him to these races on a semi-monthly basis into my early teens before school sports and other extracurriculars took my time and attention. He competed for the state title awarded by the local runners club – earning points each time he placed.
We would wake up before dawn, and I would eat toast with honey (cereal is not an appropriate pre-race fuel – the milk will ruin you). Then we would load into Dad’s red, ‘95 Dodge truck and journey into the early morning fog. We were silent together like paratroopers before a jump. Most races began at eight in the morning, but we always arrived at least an hour early – plenty of time to unload extra weight, get our bearings, and go through stretching rituals.
Time was in slow-motion in the minutes before the gun. Our senses were heightened by the imminence. Standing behind the starting line anticipation swelled in our muscles. We would shake out our limbs like noodles in order to cope. Then with a pop all the tension exploded back into real time and we switched to pure, adrenaline-fulled instinct for three point two miles. Not much thinking – just moving.
I was initiated into the competitive running world, however, long before I ran my first 5k in the big leagues. The local running club in Hot Springs held an annual one-miler called the Spa Squirt. Dad ran it with me the first time – I was three years old. I competed every year I was eligible (12 and under) and earned second place overall in my final race.
Even when I failed to place in our races, I still had a special sense of pride because Dad usually won. And he walked the entire way. He racewalked, that is. He had been a decent runner in the ‘70s and 80’s, but continual beating on the pavement caused Achilles tendon trouble and forced a complete overhaul in his means of movement. His athletically-induced existential crisis led him to the local racewalking guru – a silver-haired man in his seventies who trained him in The Way. Dad was transformed from a lackluster runner into one of the fastest racewalkers in the state. This late-blooming talent also led him to the [senior] Olympics several times where he earned a few metals.
Racewalking is an overlooked and misunderstood sport. The old ladies in white sneakers chugging through the mall are not racewalking – for the record. It is far more difficult than the lay person might assume. It takes more concentration, focus, and control than mere running. Most runners, I contend, don’t have the patience to racewalk.
If runners run like the wind, then walkers walk like the river. Racewalkers work with the track – unlike runners who push against it. Smooth is the operative term. At any given point in the act of racewalking one foot must be planted on the ground and that leg must be extended, not bent, at the knee during contact (failure to observe these rules will lead to disqualification). Energy is generated from the hips, which sway fiercely-but-fluidly back and forth with the cadence of the feet, and from the arms, which swirl subtly at the side of a tightened torso. Eyes are fixed firmly forward with head erect. The feet must be quick because the stride is naturally shortened. It produces a hushed patter – a quiet tapping. The sound is like the act: almost imperceptible – easily missed.
Once Dad attempted to impart the gift of racewalking to me. The training didn’t last long. I made it one lap around the track and quit. I was probably too immature to put in the hard work of mastering such an unglamorous skill. It held no value in the currency that most middle schoolers trade in. I’m sure he was disappointed, but the racewalking was mostly his own, not necessarily a commodified thing passed on to future generations through which he could live vicariously after he reached his prime.
What Dad successfully imparted to me, implicitly I think, was the gift of his presence in the midst of this embodied, physical activity. He walked with me running. Cutting straight through my history is his narrow frame gliding across the road – his face dripping with sweat and concentration. Sometimes he would pass me during a race. As I lumbered along, straining with every pound of foot to pavement, he would suddenly appear at my side. The words he spoke to me in those moments are lost now. But his with-ness continues to linger.
When I don’t know what else to do, I run. I do this in spite of the fact that I don’t actually enjoy running and never have. Running hurts. I can’t help but to enter into the cathartic ritual. It comes out of me like a reflex – an expression of something at my core. As I run I participate in what I was discipled into. I am living out of the immanence.