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Running on the road helps the writer sweat off his ennui and rediscover space. (Photo: Getty Images)
Running on the road helps the writer sweat off his ennui and rediscover space. (Photo: Getty Images)

Running at the speed of a serious conversation

Running has rescued me because I feel like I’m building immunity, sweating off my ennui, rediscovering space and looking at a fuller sky

The road dips, shoes scrape sidewalk, the sun squirms through the branches, trees stand at leaning attention. It’s just me most days yet I am never alone on my runs, I take a lot of people with me. Paromita Vohra, Ramachandra Guha, Madhavi Menon, Kapil Komireddi. They talk, I sweat and learn. Ideas are unravelled at 3 kmph or thereabouts.

Podcasts are made for me because I run at the speed of serious conversation. Slowly and thoughtfully. My inner Kipchoge will never expire, but at 57, even in our dreams we move grudgingly. Some days I think my shadow is going to tap me on my shoulder and say “get out of the way, pal" and take off.

Amit Varma’s enlightening The Seen And The Unseen is my companion and so is Simon Mundie’s Don’t Tell Me The Score. In the latter, I listen to athletes, like Gary Lineker, who says he almost never got nervous, which is a change from all the tales we hear of pressure obstructing clarity.

“I didn’t feel that kind of nervous-like, butterfly-thing in my stomach," he tells Mundie, “even in a penalty shoot-out.... Most human beings will never have this opportunity in life to show what they are made of." I listen and run and feel the first suggestions of tiredness. There’s a beauty to second winds, a sense of renewal and strength. “Become comfortable with being uncomfortable," says Eliud Kipchoge, that bloody lecturing loper.

Running while listening to great athletes is akin to getting a private shaming. Exhaustion might leaden your feet but how do you stop when Jonny Wilkinson, England’s rugby star, is rattling on about determination? One year he has a neck surgery which is so serious it will keep him out for 11 months, yet he can’t escape the voice within him which says: “You got to get back to what you were." So a day after the surgery he’s on his exercise bike. It’s the insecurity of the exceptional.

For 97 days I have been home alone in Singapore, reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s masterful Say Nothing, watching Bosch, contemplating whether anyone took a sporting slight as personally as basketball player Michael Jordan, sighing at my cooking, acknowledging how fortunate I am.

And I run.

In Singapore, running hasn’t been banned and it’s a blessing. Wet sidewalks, heated roads, and a silent shuffle through spring. To be outside is liberation.

In 97 days I have run roughly 65 times, which is more kilometres than I have logged in the past two years. I want to give myself a tin medal but it’s a non-essential item. If you are in your 50s, you probably have a malfunctioning body part and mine is an arthritic toe that hurts enough on some days for me to suggest amputation to my doctor.

He blanched and later I figured I should have brought along a photograph of Angus Crichton. The rugby player, after four procedures on his finger, said, “I’m going to have it cut in half because I’m just over it." He did. There are strange people out there, like Kipchoge, who actually smiles when he’s in pain. It makes me dislike him for a passing second.

Running doesn’t call me. I find its repetition uninteresting and not everybody loves the sport they pursue in the way we might think. The mad five-times Tour de France-winning cyclist, Jacques Anquetil, said: “Cycling is not my sport. I didn’t choose it; the bike chose me. I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It’s going to pay for it."

I am running because it’s the only “live" sport I have had for weeks, the only competition I know. Better enjoy this, I tell myself. Like when we were kids, to run is to feel alive.

In sport, anyway, we are all making do, aren’t we? Even serious athletes are returning to their beginnings, when they would entertain themselves with make-do equipment. As Pelé wrote in his book years ago, he would “stuff paper or rags into a sock" and tie it with string. Sometimes a new sock would be required and it would be casually taken from an “unattended clothesline".

The urge to play is powerful and the athletes’ need to express themselves is a compulsion. And so it’s amusing and yet also moving to watch videos of athletes training at home, the edge of a couch used as a pommel horse, the inside of a house used as a climbing wall, a bolster used as a judo partner. It reflects ingenuity, desperation, love and a fear of being left behind. When you can’t play, you remember what it means to you.

My runs are short, followed by a walk, almost always at around 4pm because I like the strong kiss of the sun. Wilkinson says he was at his best when he felt “effortless, light, connected" but I haven’t quite met this feeling. In the midst of a run, however, there’s sometimes a brief moment of flow, when you feel you can go on endlessly. It’s a beautiful, encouraging lie.

Running has rescued me for on the road I feel like I am building immunity, sweating off my ennui, rediscovering space, looking at a fuller sky. To be outside is to find a fellow human being in a somewhat desolate landscape, even if it’s the shirtless young stranger who waves and accelerates and unknowingly reminds me of how much I have slowed.

I will never run like this again because this virus will pass one day and I will go to work and gyms will open. This is a temporary re-routing of my life. I crave normality and yet I am grateful for the great privilege of my mostly shaded path. Today I will lace up old shoes and go again. There is no set number of minutes I will run but it is always my favourite time.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

Twitter - @rohitdbrijnath

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