"I couldn't see anybody, and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realising that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world … no matter what anybody else tried to tell me."
― Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
As the day warms, I am lacing up my shoes for a two-hour run.
In an alternate universe, a parallel me is starting to write a novel that has a theme of belonging. In both realities, I am aware that I am the only resident.
A writer is often an outlier, socially speaking; an observer and documenter rather than a participant. Even authors who excel at the social aspect of their job (and there is one) will admit that when they are sitting in front of a half-finished subplot wondering how they are ever going to get untangled from it, there isn’t much advantage to being a pleasant dinner companion or a social media maven.
I am a long distance runner who has never experienced loneliness. Last summer when I was slogging up a mountain in Iceland, up to my shins in slush with sleet whipping into my face, I didn’t look around for someone to share the experience with. It was mine – for better or worse – and I wanted it all to myself.
My memoir, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella, was aimed at a particular target audience and within the parameters I had set for myself it was more successful than I had ever dreamed it would be. These were the parameters: I wanted whoever read it to enjoy it. Word got back to me that many did.
But that is not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I loved the simple individuality of the process.
To me, the purest joy and greatest challenge was the writing itself: to write clearly but lyrically; to find new ways of saying things that have been said a million million times; to put thoughts in order logically but fantastically; to communicate symbolically and be believed viscerally.
To do this, I had to choose critically which advice I would accept from teachers, editors, and peers, because every word in my book is in held in place by my imagination and craft, not theirs. My Acknowledgements section is as a full and as heartfelt as any author’s, but ultimately I was the one who sat alone at my keyboard for years, conceiving, writing, revising. I do not write by committee.
(I have yet to experience the traditional author’s nightmare of having absolutely no one show up to one of my readings. This must be the literary manifestation of loneliness.)
Nor do I run as part of a team. Unless I decide to join the local Wednesday Afternoon Walking and Conversation Group – which I am not currently contemplating – a major characteristic of running for me is that it is a solitary, non-social activity.
So, if I cherish my solitude so much, why go into an organized running event at all? That’s a question I’ve asked myself increasingly in past years. For one thing, I like the challenge of an unfamiliar course planned and laid out by someone else; these always seem to be a bit less forgiving than the paths I choose for myself. But lately I’ve left behind races like Ironman and big-city marathons in favour of low-profile trail races – same great distances and support with much less noise.
For me, a running event is still an individual process that takes place in the company of several hundred others who are also locked in private negotiation with their own limitations and dreams. I am in company, but every step I take is mine alone.
I have always found purity – a “realness” as Sillitoe writes – in the fulfillment of a personal goal: in working to prepare for it; in stretching to achieve it; in doing what I told myself I was going to do. Pushing myself to go farther today than I did yesterday reminds me of the struggle to align words and thoughts. When I edit my writing I want the revision to be an improvement on what was on the page before; occasionally it is. Crossing a finish line is akin to the feeling of polishing a sentence that finally says exactly what you want it to – the certitude that there is no more work to be done.
Running and writing: two things that bring me joy.
Two things I do alone.
PS: This will be my penultimate post in Lyricycle. After ten years, I find that my focus and direction have moved beyond the scope of this blog. After all, there are only so many ways I can describe moving myself across the planet under my own power (a phrase I imagine I’ve used about a dozen times in the last decade). I am developing a new website, and I’ll leave a link to it on this page when it is operational.