Saturday, June 8, 2013

Becoming the runner I never knew I always was

First theory: "I've always been a runner, I just didn't call it running."

I'm a skater. By which I mean, of course, that I ride a skateboard, but also more than just that. Lots of people ride skateboards who aren't skaters--a distinction for the most part lost on the general public, much to my former consternation. Look, they would say, that person is riding a skateboard, you should be friends. Ugh.

I used to waste a lot of energy trying to explain the difference between a skater and someone who rides a skateboard, or at least scoffing at people who couldn't grasp it intuitively. I would get worked up and bothered, as if their failure to recognize a conceptual distinction were a challenge to the reality of the identity I had so painstakingly carved out, so lovingly cultivated, so meticulously practiced, and cemented into being with so much blood, and sweat, and just-one-more-kickflip-until-I-catch-one-just-right. Because that's the thing about being a skater--it's not something you just do, like building a birdhouse or playing Tiddlywinks, it's what you are. It decides almost everything about you: your clothing and hair (this is not an invitation for those who have known me to remind everyone of the 80s, or the 90s for that matter), friendships, politics, attitude towards rollerblading and football, taste in music, and what you do--or think about doing--with every spare second of time you have. When you're a skater, the world is your skate-spot.

But if I had to try to draw the distinction, I'd ground it in one simple idea; the person who merely rides a skateboard does so for the sake of some specific purpose, such as getting from A to B. This goal exists, and its fulfillment is only subsequently expedited by the skateboard. That's not skating. Skating serves no pre-determined purpose, has no proper goal or measure of perfection, and so is an act of the simplest kind of freedom. One skates in order to skate. In order to re-organize the body and its movements around acts that fulfill themselves only in their perfectly self-contained execution. Skating makes the world disappear, not by obliterating or ignoring it, but by drawing the world up into itself, completely and without remainder.

I'm a skater. As a 39-year-old professor-dork, I'll still occasionally make the mistake of blurting that out to my 19-year-old students when I see that they skate, or even just ride a skateboard. I don't so much say it as I impose it upon my poor, unwitting victims, who invariably return a look that bespeaks confusion, embarrassment, pity, and perhaps a touch of failure to grasp the distinction between a skater and someone who rides a skateboard. Because that's the thing: if a skater is someone who rides a skateboard, then clearly I am not a skater.

For reasons not worth getting into here, I don't even have a skateboard anymore. I don't skate. But that might be the first time I've been able to bring myself to say those words in the last 25 years, and even then, only through the refracted semi-anonymity of blogging. To say those words aloud, to feel them in my mouth--that thought still gives me chills. But (and this is the point), I'm still a skater.

So what does all this have to do with running? Nothing (but again, that's the point). Skateboarding has nothing to do with running, in a positive sense of the word "nothing." It belongs to being a skater not to be a runner. The reasons for this are many, and mostly fairly juvenile, but let's just say that skating is kind of an anti-sport. Forget what you've seen on the X-Games, competition has nothing to do with skateboarding. Accordingly, neither does any sort of training. To skate better, you skate more; you certainly don't lift weights, ride a bike, go snowboarding, and you definitely do not run. I worked in the skateboarding industry (I know, it sounds ridiculous, but there is one) for 3 years, and in that time I heard of exactly one professional skateboarder who ran. He was not applauded for it, but mocked. Why would you run when you could be skating instead? Running is about "fitness;" it is exercise. Nobody runs because they want to, only because they have to. Why would you run?

I started running because I had to. Three years into a job that kept me behind a desk for the better part of my waking hours, I felt my body coming undone and knew that I was approaching the point of no return: get back in shape now, or resign myself to a life of lugging around a tired, aching, recalcitrant body that would never again move of it's own accord, but only because instructed to do so by some higher exigency. I started running not in order to run, but in order to regain the hope of doing other things: hiking, playing soccer, maybe even getting back on the skateboard.

But then something totally unexpected happened. It definitely did not happen right away. It took work, and it snuck up on me when I wasn't looking, but it happened. I loved to run. For its own sake. First it felt good to have run. But then it felt good to be running. I loved running the way I loved skateboarding; I was a runner, not just somebody who runs.

So how did running come to fill the space that had been left when skateboarding suddenly stopped fitting into my life? Simple: it was the right shape.

(Photos are missing, and will be until I'm back on a real computer in a few days. Sorry.)

The parallel, obviously, is not perfect. But pushing on a skateboard is arguably closer to the motion of running than any other form of human-powered locomotion. Sure, you're only using the same leg over and over to do the pushing, but that just makes it like running on one leg. Ever seen one of those dogs with wheels for back legs? Yes, their back legs are wheels, but their front legs are running just like any other dog. That's skateboarding.

Granted, pushing is a pretty small part of skateboarding. Advancing past the point of mastering the push is one of those basic things that marks the difference between the skateboarder and somebody who just rides a skateboard. Pushing is a small part of skating, but in the way that having a running engine is a small part of driving a car. The feeling of pushing down the street is, I would guess, the initial thrill that draws anyone into skateboarding, and that continues to sustain them as long as anything does. Style counts in skateboarding, and the surest measure of style is the simplest: the push.

So what makes for a good push? It flows. It meets the ground at just the right point so that it offers no resistance, engaging the pavement just as the foot begins its backward, explosive draw. Everything surges forward, the upper body almost perfectly still, channeling the energy of churning legs. A good push, in other words, the one that looks good, feels good, and drives you forward, has all the same elements as good running form. Do either one right, and moving is nearly effortless, drawing as much energy back from the momentum it creates as it expends to create it. Isn't that what running feels like on the good days? The struggle is not to push yourself up the hill, but to keep your feet under you as your body floats steadily upward, guided only by the direction of your eyes. At least that's how it feels.

And so maybe that's how it happened. That's at least what it felt like, for me, to become desperately hooked on running. The problem is, that's not quite the whole story. The story became whole the day I ran off the road and onto a trail--the Dipsea trail.


  1. You describe skateboarding (and running) like it is art.

  2. And you describe me like I'm a writer! Thanks.