Frank H. Wu started running in 2015 and completed more than 75 half marathons in three years with a PR of 2:17. He is a run commuter in San Francisco, traveling 4.5 miles to his day job as a faculty member at University of California Hastings College of the Law. He blogs regularly, with more than 100 credits at HuffPo, and he also has published in the New York Times and Washington Post; his writing on photography appears at 35mmc and on movies at Film Inquiry.
I am an advocate of walking. I mean both the doing of the act and the contemplation of it. I am a run commuter primarily, a racer too, and a companion of the dog as she does her business. I also appreciate, and I would like to celebrate, the meandering, pointless walk, whether solo or with society, surrounded by nature or across the city. When I run commute to work, race a half marathon, or take out the dog, I have a purpose, and that makes all the difference — it is like watching a movie as a critic, taking notes in order to comment intelligently. Yet when I am enjoying an aimless prowl, with no destination despite the menace of the term, I can approach a satisfaction about life, if even a temporary respite from whatever otherwise demands attention, that is all the better for being vigorous, engaged with a world of sights, sounds, smells, even the touch of the sun and the wind, without being motivated otherwise. It would be a shame to lose that ability to be active and idle at once.
For all I care about the run commute, a central component of my identity since I took it up, I acknowledge its limits. The run commute has a definite beginning and a certain end. It is a break between the comfort of my home and the necessity of my office. During its course, I pass from relaxation in the exertion, to anticipation of earning my living, adding value as if moral worth could be crassly calculated, responding to others who would impose their wills, and in that transition I feel how desperate my life is, like everyone else’s. Running is free. It is fleeting.
Henry David Thoreau would understand and perhaps be unsympathetic. The great American Transcendentalist author; an abolitionist native of Concord, Massachusetts, mentored by his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson; assigned on the high school syllabus to modern youth who believe they have thought up “civil disobedience,” wrote a sublime essay about “Walking.” He had spent two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond, setting down his thoughts to share, in a book that can be reread repeatedly to inspire an examined life, and he rambled about the wilderness to his benefit and ours. After that, he penned “Walking,” which was published posthumously, the author having expired from the tuberculosis which had troubled him intermittently for his brief stay on this earth. Anyone who wishes to honor walking must become familiar with Thoreau’s regimen and reflections. He is the definitive American walker.
Thoreau was sincere, not sarcastic, in describing how for health and spirits he needed “four hours at least” in the art of saunter every day. He traveled “any number of miles without a road” in a nation not yet united by the transcontinental railroad, nurturing the “savage within” as he studied seeds and the propagation of plants. He was spiritual in these wanderings. He was resolutely American, facing the frontier rather than Europe. His first book had been a failure. It told of a week long boat trip with his late brother. His style is peerless. An imitator — or Thoreau himself for that matter — likely would have difficulty persuading an editor to publish these pieces unique in substance as well as tone, what with a poem inserted in the middle of what must seem silly for being committed, though his humor is lost on us (in Walden, for example, he parodies Ben Franklin).
A study of Thoreau impresses the reader with how integrated his actions were, as a natural philosopher who knew no separation of science and humanities: his published writing was based on journals and letters, which also were based on lectures and conversations, back when entertainment was, if not private, then public within earshot, but not broadcast for lack of technology. Everything was “live” in the best sense; there was no recording. The exertion of the body was essential to the output of the mind. These phenomenon could not be distinguished in the false dilemma between the physical and the mental. The aspiration to a meaningful existence is about the best any person could express.
A century later, Annie Dillard appeared as an heir to Thoreau. Her memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, came early, as she was only establishing her independent personality; it was about her sojourn, just past the edge of the Roanoke, Virginia suburbs, as original as Thoreau’s retreat to a pond. Married to a college professor of hers, apparently not wholly happily, but with a cat in tow, she called herself a “poet and walker with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts.” She, too, kept a journal about the abandonment of domesticity, blending walking and seeing and experiencing, and, subsequently, writing. Watching, then recalling for the benefit of the reader so vividly as to reproduce the direct observation in the mind’s eye, a giant water bug suck the innards out of a frog too dazed to comprehend its impending demise, before the insect glided away from beneath its meal, she more than matched any literary progenitor in raw spirituality. She has since continued to offer insights about how to conduct yourself, internally and externally.
Thoreau and Dillard exemplify what I can only gesture at. For them, walking is the same as writing. To walk is to prepare to write, and to write requires the walk. The writing is, more than once, about the walking. These are not academics enfeebled by books. These are individuals immersed in an environment that is rendered tangible by the verbal representation. Aristotle and Socrates, peripatetic in the public square, lecturing to students who followed them, were walkers who happened to be teachers as well. The hobbit Bilbo Baggins, fictitious though he may be, discovered the world beyond the Shire, an idealized English village, and the world within himself, a sturdy fellow with furry feet, on a journey “there and back again.”
Rhetoric has power. To write is to be convinced of that reality. To walk is to urge yourself forward. A walk is not abstract.
The run commute is an obligatory version of the walk. It is practical, professional to a fault. It is not the same as the stroll, the march, the promenade, or the expedition. The other forms of the walk deserve praise in their own right. These are all about much more than transit; they are about our realization of ideals.
Following the style of memoranda in the military, here is the bottom line up front: This is a great piece of kit.
I had studied many options for a new backpack, and I selected this model because of prior good experience with the brand. I have decided that it is better to be a regular customer, once you have become familiar with and developed trust in the products of a specific company, especially if you are wearing the item, rather than trying this and that, with the risk it will fit or it will not. I have owned two vests by Ultimate Direction. They were both well made and durable. I gave one away to a friend of mine after about 50 half marathons, and I replaced it with a version that cinches up slightly tighter. That is my only criticism. UD straps, other than in this case, do not tighten quite as much as might be ideal. I was aware of that potential modest negative, offset by the positives. For the record, this particular model has straps (front and side) that pull taut. (For reference, I am 5-9 and 175 pounds, wearing a men’s 42 suit and a 17-33 shirt, and my pack is the larger of the two available sizes).
The most important news I have to share about the Fast Pack 15, however, does not appear anywhere else – even on the manufacturer’s website. It fits a 15-inch MacBook Pro (2018 model) perfectly, meaning snugly, as if the sleeve had been designed for just that unit. I was unsure from my research. I even spoke with a customer service representative over the phone, who said he thought the device would be a tiny bit too tall. I am glad the guy turned out to be wrong, because I am able to bring a laptop on the run commute now. He was responsive, indicating he would share with the team that a smidge more room would be advantageous. I wrote back after my discovery, to assure them the dimensions were fine. (The other variations in the series with the same name do not share the same features, in particular the sleeve. It may be this year’s model will be replaced in any event.)
There are critics on the internet who disapprove of the very concept of running with a computer. They lead lives different than mine. I work; I work at a job that involves a computer; and I like to run for my commute. That involves running with a computer. I formerly resorted to a tablet, an iPad, and that is acceptable, but the laptop form factor remains the more effective option, with it’s existing software and my personal workflow. If we are similar, then I recommend this superlative choice. For that matter, if I were running recreationally, I likely would reach for this pack as well. I simply wouldn’t lug the laptop. The sleeve is unobtrusive. You would not be bothered if you never availed yourself of the signature feature. Be warned though that the back has a moderately rigid panel. If that is bothersome, consider an alternative.
I am a minimalist in philosophy and by practice. When I am not running to work, I carry more because I expect to use more. I have, for example, a breast pocket wallet, business cards in a case, a toothbrush and toothpaste in a drawstring bag with hand sanitizer and eye drops, a monocular and a tiny magnifying glass, pen and paper, and so on. On travel, I typically have noise cancelling headphones and a digital camera. All of that stays at home when I run commute. I keep a toiletry kit in my desk drawer at the office. In reality, unlike fantasy novels, the laws of physics limit us: a vessel that has X by Y by Z dimensions can hold only X by Y by Z volume, with whatever allowance is made for elasticity; there are not sacks hiding infinite expanses.
The materials are first-rate, but lightweight. The construction is highly competent. The zippers, a point of failure on bags, are medium weight, and seem sturdy. There is a simple handle at the top. There is a corporate logo in big lettering down the back. That is normal, albeit not to my taste.
What I Liked
Laptop compartment (fits MacBook Pro 15)
Excellent design allows good fit
What I Didn’t Like
Minimalist style inherently means not much can be carried
The shoulder straps have multiple pouches, three that zip and a fourth for a water bottle.
The design is good. This is not for an around the world journey or even a domestic flight. Although the capacity is more ample than advertised (21 liters rather than 15 liters), it is not by virtue of thickness. The room comes from height. The main section opens down the center with zip featuring two sliders and then further from the top, courtesy of hook and loop fasteners; it is a roll top, fastening securely on each side to a plastic clasp.
The compartment has room beyond the laptop sleeve. It isn’t much space. There is a zippered inner pocket for a power adapter and cables. I put loose items that are larger but not large enough to avoid the risk of falling out unnoticed into a separate drawstring bag.
Backpack loaded with Macbook Pro 15 and clothing (shirt, t-shirt, socks)
To tell the truth, I loved this backpack on first sight. I was not disappointed in testing on the first run. My comparison is an ultra-lightweight backpack by Marmot, which I was fond of, enough so to buy an extra. It was and remains excellent for general use, and I would not hesitate to endorse it as formless as it is. The unique selling proposition of this UD offering is the transportation of the laptop. There was no significant bouncing thanks to the straps having considerable travel. There is a bit of heat on the back. I am no engineer, but I have enough common sense to suspect it would be impossible to avoid some friction and trapped sweat between my back and the backpack.
Run commuting takes effort. That extends beyond the physical exertion. It obliges a person to plan. The Ultimate Direction Fast Pack 15 facilitates the process. I have a short list of favorite things. This has earned its place there.
I have added to my run commute with a bike commute. As much as I revel in the run commute, crediting it as a life changing habit, I am thrilled by the enhancement of the bike commute. For any run commuter who has access to the bike commute, I recommend it with enthusiasm. Here is how it works.
My home is in San Francisco, the city proper, just southwest of the geographic center of the 7 mile by 7 mile square. My wife and I had the fortune of purchasing at the bottom of the recession, shortly before real estate commenced its absurd appreciation at an accelerating pace to exorbitant prices and beyond. My office is in the Civic Center neighborhood. It is within sight of City Hall. The distance between home and office is 4.5 miles to 4.75 miles, depending on the exact route. It is not difficult to cover that on a daily basis.
For three years or so, I have been a run commuter. I am actually, as I have documented here, a run walker. I have no problem with that; it’s all about the ratio. I am always trying to increase the run portion and decrease the walk portion. It is no longer eccentric, however, to use this technique. There are training programs for long distance races based on the alternation, and I see even groups out there doing a timed sprint, then slowing down to a stroll. The Swedish have a name for it: “fartlek.” You can buy a t-shirt emblazoned with the term that seems scatological to English speakers.
I have lost count of the number of these runs I have done. I forget to start the smartwatch from time to time, and although I admit to backtracking to begin again I’m not obsessed enough to want everything recorded in Strava. Of these, only a handful are roundtrip. I typically hop on the MUNI train on the return leg. There isn’t a good reason for that. I could double my mileage easily enough. It is a slight uphill the whole way. That mild deterrent is the likely explanation for the weakness of follow through.
Once the run commute became routine, my attitude changed. I craved more physical exertion. The bike commute is a natural extension.
There are two competing bike share outfits in the Bay Area. One is affiliated with Uber, another with Lyft. These tech giants are planning to become transit companies in general, integrating automobiles with other modes. Apparently there is a legal dispute between them, and the city government, about the agreement granting licenses. The Uber option, orange battery-assisted vehicles under the brand name JUMP, are dockless; the Lyft rival, white and blue in both conventional pedal and new powered versions, share the name of the automotive giant Ford, with dozens of docks where once there were parking spaces. (Since I wrote the foregoing, Lyft has “rebranded” as Bay Wheels, with a black and pink motif. Citi Bike in New York City apparently is another tradename they use there.)
Both of these choices have geographic limits. Each excludes the western half of the city, “the Avenues” (dubbed the Richmond district north of Golden Gate Park; the Sunset, south), presumably because the density and the demographics renders it less lucrative. Their incursion to the Mission District has been received poorly, as another form of gentrification. In Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, the white yuppie who has moved into the black and brown neighborhood is a bicyclist wearing a Boston Celtics jersey, both intended to signify privilege and indifference. As a colleague of mine with training in economics and tax policy, also an avid biker, pointed out to me, the hostility to bike sharing is irrational since the price point is accessible. Yet these sentiments likely are about symbolism: my enthusiasm for bike share may be an indication of my bourgeois comfort.
Be that as it may, I tried a bike share when I had to meet my wife and another couple for dim sum (Chinese brunch consisting of small plates displayed on carts, which are wheeled around for you to pick from) someplace mass transit could not reach in a decent time. I had considered running over there, but it wouldn’t be as convenient on a social occasion as when headed to work, to wipe clean, change clothes, and be presentable. I have not hesitated to run errands in a literal sense, hoofing it from store to store, if I can carry what I anticipate buying in a backpack, but this seemed an ideal moment to check out this new phenomenon. I had to run a bit to the service zone. Our house is half a mile from the JUMP outer limits and a mile from the nearest Ford dock. I arrived early at my destination. I locked up according to instructions. It was fun.
Then I thought to myself I ought to continue the experiment with the commute. I did not need much persuading. You can locate the available units on a computer or smartphone. I have found, and I should point out, the technology is not totally reliable. Sometimes, bikes are there but don’t show up in the app, other times vice versa. The scan to unlock mechanism is okay. The failure rate is acceptable. You only need to look around for another ride.
I have used Uber/Jump and Lyft/Ford, selecting by proximity. I ended up subscribing to the latter after estimating the figures. The rides are $2 each for 30 minutes. The subscription has an annual fee which, if I log 81 rides, will be worthwhile. Considering the price of a mountain bike at retail, this arrangement is a bargain. It also enables usage on a one-way basis, which would be difficult with conventional ownership.
That is the new normal of our post-modern economy. We rent rather than buy. Look at how software is sold nowadays. Developers have wised up that there are not enough upgrades to keep customers paying if they are satisfied with what they are using, so they have adopted the model of a recurring fee.
The e-bike is a revelation. If you are not familiar with its power, that by itself why you should expend $2 for the experience. It fools you into believing it is natural, that you have the ability to cruise alongside cars, effortlessly. The speeds that can be achieved, even on flats, is impressive. The boost is welcome on hills, so much so that it feels like punishment to go without. A consistent eight miles per hour is possible. That means half as many minutes for the commute in the evening as in the morning.
There is a critical mass of bike commuters where I am. The dedicated bike lanes are an innovation. Bike commuting should be promoted as beneficial for individuals as well as society even if the rental boom is criticized as a blight (scooters are the worse nuisance scattered about and in use on sidewalks). There also is safety in the general awareness of drivers surrounded by cyclists. This is not a fad.
The run commute and the bike commute engage different muscle sets though each improves lung capacity. My legs have become strong. My butt has yet to catch up. Pedaling is excellent exercise. It even inspires thoughts of a triathlon. (If I take up swimming in earnest, I will write about that. Maybe best to look for a duathlon — skiing and shooting are the activities in a “biathlon.”)
My loyalty remains to my own feet of course. The bike commute is a supplement, not a substitute, for the run commute. A bike is not guaranteed to be around, which is the main problem. (A confession by way of digression. I do not wear a helmet. I know; I know. I should, and I’m shopping the collapsible designs.) But I am happy to have the bike, if I can find it, and it is better than crowding into a subway train. These are consistent with one another, philosophically. The run commute, like the bike commute, is about being more mindful and physically fit. That is a basic change in lifestyle.
I write to praise Darn Tough Socks. I attest at the outset that I have no conflict of interest: I bought these myself, and I receive nothing for penning this endorsement. I only wish to call out a product that has served me well. Socks are underestimated, and I have had enough problems with those that won’t stay up, which if you ask me means they fail either the most important or at least the second most important function of this piece of clothing — the only other things socks do are offer warmth and prevent blisters. The best are Darn Tough.
I have tried maybe a half dozen brands. I disclaim expertise beyond that of an ordinary consumer, afflicted with a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Almost all of the low cut athletic models, won’t quite stay on. My feet are either men’s size 11 or 10-1/2 depending on the last for the shoe, so it may be a consequence of socks being stretched a bit more than they should be.
For dress wear, I have an unusual preference judging by the proportions stocked at a department store if anybody still shops at such venerable institutions. I like over-the-calf socks. I’d rather not have exposed flesh under my pant cuffs. I do suffer a bit of sweating in the summer.
For the run commute, however, I almost always don form fitting socks that are invisible. I change at the office. There would be all sorts of issues attempting a run commute in full-on dress socks. The primary problem would be overheating.
Over time, I have been persuaded by the advertising. Merino wool works well. It wicks. It is suited for temperatures over three seasons. It won’t be the best under the direct summer sun. In San Francisco, that is not an issue. I would have scoffed at people who chose a place to live based on climate, earlier in my life, but I have matured and come around: a great benefit of where I have settled is that my wardrobe does not vary during the year, save for maybe one week when the temperatures are enough for my wife to state we need to have air conditioning (which we don’t, not uncommon for even upscale neighborhoods). I have various pieces of clothing made of merino wool (about which more another time). The tops also can be worn, other than if I have sweated strenuously, more than once between washings. The fabric isn’t scratchy at all. Beyond this specific make, I express enthusiasm for this material.
For those who are interested, Darn Tough has a good backstory. They take pride in it, as they ought to. They are a family owned business dating back two generations. They remain in the Green Mountains of Vermont. They are an American company. Pictures of what appear to be the entire payroll are displayed on the website. A customer service representative told me that mill employees will wear the same pair of socks for a month or more! That may be carrying it a bit too far.
I experimented a bit with the Darn Tough range. They have multiple weights. Given where I live and my personal preference, I opt for one of their lighter weaves. I’d recommend that for others, since it seems odd to have anything too thick without covering the ankles as well. They are much more durable than I expected. The pairs I bought initially show no signs of wear. They have outlasted the competition.
It would be churlish to complain about choice, but note that these folks offer many options. If you want cushioning, you can be accommodated. It would be best to visit a brick and mortar store to feel the product — my own opinion is you are morally obligated to buy at least the initial set of the item there, since you are availing yourself of the service of that physical encounter in person. Or study with care if you are not looking in person, because socks warrant the attention.
Others have observed the purchase price might appear high, but the quality is worth it, and there is a lifetime guarantee to boot (no pun intended). There are vendors who package a half dozen at a discount. It should be obvious, but it is all too easy to ignore the reality of the marketplace: if you want small businesses to succeed, you have to buy what they sell. I didn’t think of socks as an investment before. I do now.
I would not hesitate to purchase more of these in the future. Continuing patronage is the best compliment of any company.
Among the best aspects of run commuting is that it is not competitive. Or, more accurately, it is a pure competition: you against you, for the purpose of self-improvement.
My run commute in San Francisco is approximately 4.5 miles, according to multiple outings measured by various devices. My personal record is just under 48 minutes. That depends on traffic lights turning to my advantage. A reasonable goal for me would be 45 minutes. Even that, however, is laughable to the real runners. I regard myself as serious but slow in this avocation, with enough repetition plodding along to establish both my sincerity and my speed. There are bicycles and cars to dodge. There is at least one hill no matter how you map it.
Competition has its place of course. Our system of capitalism depends on our faith in this premise. You improve by playing sports against those better than yourself. The desire to win produces progress. A slacker with inadequate motivation is to be talked to, whether cajoled or reprimanded.
Yet we also try to instill the opposite in children. We instruct them to cooperate. They can be too aggressive, too selfish for the good of society. We encourage them to share, because we acknowledge with varying degrees of enthusiasm that it is for the best. We worry about only children, if they become too accustomed to owning all the toys around them.
I have run with many people. Running is a rare sport. Without altering the rules an iota, it can be enjoyed solo or with company. Among strangers in a race, I succumb to what I believe many of us do. I select somebody in the anonymous crowd as my personal pacer. Unbeknownst to them, I am determined to beat them. They will not pass me.
I once signed up for a half marathon with two work friends. One said to me, “It’s not a race.” Then she corrected herself, “Oh, wait, I guess it is.” I finished in the middle: our other colleague was a ringer; she had run track in high school, a fact she did not disclose in advance. The one who was confused about whether it was a race or not had once done an ultramarathon overseas, but was set back from a recurring injury.
My pace was just between them. As one said goodbye to me, I bid farewell to the other.
My relatives by marriage include a niece who has run a marathon, which is more than I can claim, but who has not done so since bearing children, the eldest now a teenager. When they took a trip to see our new house, I persuaded several family members to run commute with me one morning, and she could barely make it. On the way home — I stayed at work of course — she had trouble climbing up the stairs at the neighborhood subway station (Forest Hill, San Francisco), reputedly the oldest in the American West, deep underground, with multiple sets of steps from the tunnel to the street, so that as you rounded a corner you groaned at the prospect of climbing further. A few years after she returned to running, for which I would like to take credit, which among kin is possible deserved or not (and will receive push-back if too much to assert), she was back to form. On vacations, I could not keep up, even if I started ahead, with my run-walk alternation. Yet it is good to be humbled.
It is a reminder of the reality that for everyone slower, there is somebody else equally faster, with the exception for the winner of the race. There are the multitudes slower than the last finisher of any race. They are slumbering abed as in Henry V’s rallying cry to battle on St. Crispin’s Day. They will regret they did not awake.
My favorite companion in this endeavor is a fellow named Ali. We are about the same age, but he is the most laid back guy I have ever met. He and I have hit the trails. We have done back-to-back races on a single weekend. I am pleased, probably too much so, that I have beat him consistently. On a demanding course in the country, with vertical gain over 3000 feet, I was worried that a mishap had befallen him. While hanging out at the finish line waiting for him to cross, shivering in the rain, I chatted with the organizers. I explained to the guy handing out t-shirts the nature of my relationship with Ali, how I liked him because I was sure I would finish before him.
“What are friends for?” the kid replied with the laugh of sarcasm, endorsing my feeling, as petty as I might be.
The run commute, however, is more purposeful. It is about arriving at the destination within a specific time window. I always have something I need to show up for: a class to teach or a meeting to attend. I need a few minutes to clean up and change into appropriate attire. That goal implies the opposite of what it might. It compels me to transcend competition. There is no victory to the run commute other than to clear the mind. That is a worthwhile aspiration as the opposite of crass ambition. It is all about the experience. The ideal mental zone for the run commute focuses on the run more than the commute. I can imagine I am dedicated to improving myself no less than the world. Thanks to that preparation, my job has meaning.
When I started to run commute, I also started to wear a uniform. I acquired enough of the same shirt and pants — and even, importantly for the task, shoes — to wear for a week, requiring only that I rotate through them, changing t-shirt and underwear and socks (though I’m in the process of switching to identical t-shirts and underwear, too). I am lucky. I happen to hold a job, as a professor, that allows me to pursue this consistency without worry that I will be shunned. I am risking a bit of spousal disapproval and mockery from students, both of which are inevitable anyway. The benefits outweigh the costs. This is who I am.
I would not have attempted such an endeavor at an earlier age. I used to be ambitious in a conventional sense. That means I had people to impress. I had to mature into myself.
The credulous believe fashion catalogs that promise the right look ensures the happy life. You try to assimilate. As a kid, I remember begging my immigrant parents for the same sneakers and the same blue jeans that the neighbor kids had, the suburban aesthetic, which made them cool and which I was compelled to copy. My brothers and I would not be accepted in our hand-me-downs brought annually from the cousins and home sewn polyester courtesy of our mother. I came of age during the preppy handbook era, which proposed we embrace the fads of East Coast WASPs who were proud of the privilege symbolized by polo shirts. I wore penny loafers for too long, slouching and shuffling along, until I developed plantar fasciitis, only to receive the recommendation that I alter my footwear choice as a cure, which worked to my great relief. As a lawyer earlier in my career, I still had to imitate those at ease in business attire. Casual Fridays were introduced then, and the standard was anything but casual, because there was a secret code established by social superiors of how to relax properly. Henry David Thoreau offered the advice not to undertake any occupation that involved a new set of clothes. He was a frugal fellow and a wise one as well.
Nowadays, I am ambitious in a better sense. I am content with my station in life. My current goals are along the lines of better form as a runner, a faster pace, and greater stamina. I would like to be a decent human being. That includes humility.
For this new phase in the cycle of the universe, my costume is black. I dated a woman once who insisted that all shoes had to be hair colored. When I met her husband, I glanced down at his feet immediately. An astute man, he said, “Yes, yes, I know. Hair and shoes should match.”
Whether that admonition is the origin of the style, my top is lightweight black merino wool or cotton, a pullover, a turtleneck if it is especially chilly. I favored Ibex, which went bankrupt, and I switched to Icebreaker. The pants are black, Underarmour, which can be worn during the run and then for the rest of the day. The belt is black webbing, as plain as possible. The shoes are black leather pull-on, the type with stretchy side panels. They were a bargain, so I stocked up. These are carried in an ultra-lightweight backpack. (Some days, the shoes are black Hoka One Ones, eliminating the need to swap out footwear to a dress alternative). If I must don a collar, I have no-iron black dress shirts bought in bulk at a discount. The underwear is technical fabric, or, based on research, bamboo. The t-shirts are Amazon Basics, v-neck in black, so I don’t have bits of white t-shirt visible underneath a black shirt, as if I remained a geek unaware that this violated norms — I guess I am a conformist to that extent.
The running wardrobe emphasizes high-viz yellow for safety’s sake. That includes a cap and a jacket.
There is a philosophy to the practice. I have no desire to put on a necktie, nor advertise a corporation by displaying its logo. An organized life becomes convenient. I fold my clothes when they come out of the laundry, stacking everything so I can grab the next iteration from a series. A side effect is efficiency while traveling. I waste neither time considering what to pack nor space on extra items.
I am not embarrassed that I am a creature of habit. I follow the same route on my run commute. I vary a bit, more due to traffic patterns than for the change of scenery. But even the same route is not the same daily — if you become attentive to subtlety, which I would like to, there is the passage of the seasons and the new goings-on in the neighborhoods through which you pass. When I do something different, it is still within a range of options that have become familiar: I turn left a street earlier or later, or, if I want an adventure I head through historic Haight-Ashbury, home of the “Summer of Love” (1967), the year I was born, albeit in the much more conventional Midwest.
There is much to be said for habit. I have realized that, even if I may be rationalizing. My wife and I are homebodies. When we eat out, we have a few places where we are regulars. At the sushi joint down the street, I study the menu, but I have always, without exception, ordered the same dishes: the mentai oroshi (cod roe on grated radish) and the sashimi moriawase (the raw fish daily special). All that changes is the drink, based on the weather: sake, hot or cold; or beer. The husband and wife proprietors recognize us. They laugh with us, a private but shared joke, as we study the board showing specials, then recite what they have heard us say before many a time, because our dining there is a ritual.
There are others who have followed the same regimen. They save themselves the trouble of a decision each morning. Efficiency commends itself. Albert Einstein is reputed to have done it, but I have doubts about whether that is apocryphal. The late Steve Jobs appears to have followed the discipline. Gilligan and the rest of the castaways on the island in the eponymous television sitcom, like the Star Trek crew (pity the redshirts) and other fictitious figures who have fan followings, possess limited wardrobes, although of course their story explains the constraints of the situations: for Gilligan, the Skipper, and their guests, other than coconuts, there wasn’t much they could add to their closets since they had planned on only a three hour tour. They become so easily identified they qualify as iconic. John Wick comes out of retirement with a white shirt and a black shirt. But he never removes the bulletproof suit jacket (“tactical”). There is a gender aspect to the method of course, to the advantage of males and the disadvantage of females, as is typical of gender inequities. It likely is easier for men to repeat the same outfit incessantly without social stigma, and even those who are not trying to do so can duplicate suit, shirt, and tie without others noticing much less objecting. There is no reason a woman could not adopt this system.
For me, the run commute and the uniform are related. They started simultaneously. I have more important matters to consider than what covers my body. Among the subjects to contemplate productively are the transcendent aspects of the urban hike outside my door before dawn. Beyond that, my run commute and uniform are about the cultivation of control over one’s self, about establishing character through specific actions, deliberately, mindfully. I want to be my own person. Ironically, every individual aspires to the same. But I am confident that only a few will follow through: wake up early, venture forth in the dark despite cold and rain, clean up at the office, and be ready for the day as the author of one’s own story.
I have not decided if running is a solitary activity that I engage in within a community, by racing half marathons; or if it is a social activity that I engage in alone, commuting back and forth. I have concluded, however, that it is a contemplative activity. For me, running naturally promotes thinking, and thinking naturally leads to writing. I am not alone: Haruki Murakami, the avante garde, Western-influenced Japanese novelist, turns out to be a marathoner. A decade ago, he published a memoir about training as well as how he became a runner, a writer, and then a runner-writer who blends the activities as many of us aspire to do. It deserves the acclaim it received. I loved it.
This book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, made clear the difference between doing something on the one hand and talking and writing about it on the other hand. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a magician. I tried to persuade my parents that I should give up piano lessons for the magic equivalent. I bought treatises and supplies and tricks and those boxes of everything including a wand, which were advertised on television. As I delved into coins and cards, trying to palm them, force an audience member’s choice, drop or load, I became intrigued by the histories and the stories. No doubt that was an excuse: I have to admit I was too lazy to practice the manipulation needed to fool anyone but the especially gullible. I was curious, but by character preferred studying to performing.
Since then, everything I have attempted to do, I have wanted to document, no matter how well it turned out. I have written about motorcycling, for example, and I once rode across the country, a journey I recommend heartily; I also have blogged about photography, a pastime that I have combined with running, and which I took up in earnest at the same time in life. So I am more analytic than athletic, more abstract than practical.
Yet the run commute and writing match perfectly. I want to run commute as much as I want to write, daily. The point of the run commute is more than either the exercise or reaching the destination in order to work. I could exercise elsewhere, including by running for the sake of running, which I confess I rarely undertake. I could travel through San Francisco by motorcycle or MUNI train or my wife’s car or on a bicycle.
The run commute is magical though. I feel as if I have made a discovery. I suppose since it is new to me, it can be described as such, belonging to that category of revelation about life that you need to experience for yourself, even if it would be foolish to suppose it is in fact unique to you. It is personal. You cannot gain the insight by any education other than experience.
I enjoy the run commute so much that, while as a matter of principle I deny having any regrets, I am willing to acknowledge that I wish I had embraced the run commute much earlier in life, or at least the long walk. When I was in college at Johns Hopkins University, they had housing only for first year students, and after that I lived off campus what seemed a great distance away, all of six blocks, far enough to excuse missing class too often. I had a friend in the dorms with whom I lost touch, in part because the following year he moved around to the other side of campus and that hike of what likely was less than a mile was too much to manage for the geek I was back then. For that, I look back in disappointment at myself, acknowledging the cliche that youth is wasted on the young, because I would be in such better shape today if only I had developed this good habit much earlier, not to mention still being acquainted with a fellow who was an amiable conversationalist when I was able to work up the will to go for a saunter.
That is why it is wonderful to learn from Murakami. His book is easygoing, as if he were accompanying you and encouraging you to continue pushing forward. I imagine it would be great while running to listen to the text in audio format. Then it would be as if his thoughts had become your own thoughts, giving that illusion of being faster as a runner and smarter as a writer too. It’s like an extended interview, as in the Paris Review, about how a writer does what they do (Murakami has been the subject of just such a session). Readers, in particular those who wish to be writers, enjoy that, as if copying a mechanical routine in turn will produce a manuscript: talent, we are told, is not the same as focus and endurance. Murakami is a bona fide celebrity. He also became a recluse. He and his wife agreed, when they moved to a rural area early on, that they would see people they wanted to see and not bother with people they didn’t like. That is as admirable as it is difficult.
Son of a literature professor and grandson of a Buddhist monk, Murakami the young man had been proprietor of a jazz club. He recalls how at a specific moment, he decided to enter a contest to write a novel, sending away the only copy, the original manuscript he had handwritten in Japanese with a fountain pen, then being surprised he won, coming into consideration for a major prize. He then set out on a career, which seemed speculative against the established success of the jazz club, a comparison that indicates how risky writing really is as anything but a hobby, but supported by his wife, who otherwise scarcely appears in his story. The running was a self-imposed compensation for sitting all day to practice his craft (he also quit smoking). The book title is a reference to the late Raymond Carver’s definitive short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love — Murakami is Carver’s Japanese translator. In addition to magical realist fiction, he has published a book length conversation with conductor Seiji Ozawa and a journalistic study of the terrorist attacks using Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
Perhaps he, and any reader of this minor scribbling, will forgive me for envisioning myself as a junior colleague to Murakami. I have always figured I was a writer with a day job. The reason he is inspiring is his thoughtfulness about how running is integral to writing. His running is directly related to writing both because as his blood flows the ideas course through his brain, which he can record later, and since running itself is the subject of writing. I feel the same. It is inevitable that a good run will produce a good piece of writing. That is my definition of a good run, that it generates such a result. Running is reflective. There is so much to a simple act that, if you pay attention, can be discussed. I’m merely imitating Murakami. That is fine, because running is sincere rather than snarky; you cannot be ironic about the activity despite the costumed crowd at events such as Bay to Breakers, the festive race in San Francisco.
Murakami is no slouch. The guy is a bit of a nut. He tested himself by running around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo seven times, for a total of more than 22 miles. His PR in the marathon is a self-reported 3:27. He has even, solo and on commission for an article in a magazine, completed the original marathon, i.e., to Marathon in Greece albeit short by a mile due to the straight route being not quite the distance imputed to it (his time was 3:51). At the time of his book, he had finished the Boston Marathon six times, and in the concluding essay, he is preparing for a triathlon. He said in an interview that finishing, then eating clams and drinking beer is among his happiest moments. He enjoys American rock music, the classics extending into the 1980s (he mentions Duran Duran and Hall and Oates, which are not the same genre at all). He’s not a team sports participant despite being a baseball fan, following one of the less fashionable Japanese franchises, and he has jogged with fellow novelist John Irving, famous for his enthusiasm over wrestling. However, running is now “like brushing [his] teeth.”
I am sure not everyone will agree about running and writing. Some will suppose I am too philosophical. You write about motorcycling or photography, and some readers take you to task for not being out there riding or taking pictures. It is academic, pedantic, and pretentious, to be literary about what they would prefer to lack such self-consciousness. We all have our own dispositions.
Murakami gets it. I am disappointed, however, that he disapproves of the run-walk. That is my mode. His epitaph will declare he never walked. I also don’t have the same style. He goes topless. Since I do not know Japanese, I am not sure if it is Murakami or his translator — even though he gives speeches in English and does the reverse of turning English into Japanese, he has relied on someone else to transform his prose. He sounds colloquial, contemporary, as if he is “shooting the breeze” alongside you; that is the sort of phrase that appears, “shooting the breeze,” with an everyday tone.
For me the run commute has taken on the qualities Murakami has identified. I intend to write more and to read more. After Murakami, there are many others who have documented excursions. If you are open minded, attentive to details, even the same route to the office will be epic.
From the rooftop deck of where I work, you can just about see where I live; my dorm is in the next tower directly behind the building on the left.
The feasibility of run commuting depends not only an ability to run but also the length of the commute. No matter how dedicated a runner you might be, you have to consider the feasibility of the commute distance. My decision to be a run commuter is about my desire to run as much as it is about my lack of desire to be much of a commuter. You have to travel to appreciate your home. My summer in Shenzhen, China, made me realize how much each of us can control an aspect of our lives that we should not mistake as circumstance: whether we live close to work or not. I want to stay within the limits of my ability to carry myself on my own two feet to my desk each morning. (I am doing 4.5 miles on average, in San Francisco. I might be willing to take that up to 5. I doubt I have the skill to push past that number.)
My preference has always been to have a house near the office. I am sympathetic to those who have made another choice, considering family or other factors, and far be it for me to pass judgment. But I wonder if each of us makes ourselves miserable by increasing the miles we have to journey to a job on a regular basis, while also adding to the burden on the environment with a carbon footprint more substantial than needed.
When my wife and I married, she moved into half a duplex I owned in Washington, D.C. The unit was behind a fast-food restaurant, which I took to be a convenience during my days as a bachelor, but to which she, especially as a vegetarian, objected to as a nuisance — you could just about place a drive-through order from the bedroom window. I was a law professor a few blocks away. That was not an accident, because I had sought out real estate that would be walkable to campus. In those days before I embraced the run commute regimen, however, I exhibited a moral failing that now I regret, I complained to my wife about the ten minute stroll, and I even drove sometimes (confession: often), my excuse being the heavy casebooks I had to carry. She pointed out I could become a clerk at the deli around the corner if I really wished for convenience,
Later, I had an opportunity to move back to my hometown of Detroit. I became a law school dean. My wife wished to remain in the capitol even as I returned to the Motor City. We bought an architectural landmark downtown, which was feasible in that magnificent wreck of a metropolis, symbolic of all that happened in twentieth century America, especially the development of car culture. As absurd as it might have seemed to fly back and forth, I did a few calculations, In a typical week, I commuted only as much as the average suburbanite who toiled downtown in terms of the time in transit.
This summer, I am humbled to be a visiting professor at Peking University School of Transnational Law. The institution, which uses Chinese and English as the language of instruction (I am capable only in the latter to my chagrin), is in Shenzhen, a city that sprang up as a special economic zone across the border from the then British colony of Hong Kong. I was presented the option of a dorm room in the tower for foreign experts or a long term stay at a hotel just off campus. Consistent with my philosophy, I went for the former. By my calculation, I am three minutes from the newly opened law school building at a crawl or probably ninety seconds in a sprint. (The old building was even closer, across a reflecting pool.) It being typhoon season, last Thursday I was at the exact midpoint, having waited for a clear moment, when the skies opened again. No benefit to you turning back, I trudged forward, arriving drenched.
Other than that, my stint here has been without mishap. Since I am overseas, and only temporarily, I feel as if my horizons have expanded, not constricted. It is true I live so close to work I can come back “home” for lunch. That is an advantage. I love being embedded within the community. I am dedicated to my teaching. There isn’t a moment wasted in traffic. I always can wander farther for entertainment. One night we journeyed to an Italian restaurant in an upscale mall. My sense of scale adjusts. Thanks to the ability to hail a car when needed, I am not constrained.
I like the countryside and rural areas with open space — for a weekend excursion. I would rather not be stuck in a subdivision where I would depend on an automobile even to shop for groceries. There are material benefits to population density. There are costs too of course. Yet on the whole, to run commute is to engage directly with the people around you, on the ground. It is to value human interaction, sustained relationships, and civic engagement.
I find myself in an unlikely place to resume running. I am in Shenzhen, China this summer. For those not familiar with the boom town, which boasts one of those stories that defies belief but exemplifies the power of the global economy, it is on the mainland next to the former British colony of Hong Kong. After being granted permission to experiment with capitalist markets early on, it developed into the third most significant city of a nation that continues its rise, ranking with Beijing and Shanghai. Like everything else that happens with a population exceeding a billion, the place is one of those you-have-see-it-to believe-it phenomenon, with the constant of change promising opportunity to all who would pursue it. As many skyscrapers and apartment complexes have gone up in short order, there remains more foliage and open space, less traffic and pollution than you might expect or fear, relative to rival metropolises.
While here to teach American law at Peking University’s southern satellite, in English — itself a test of how the world will come together — I am trying to recover from a health challenge. This is not easy. The heat is much higher than I am accustomed to. The humidity too. Climate change likely is worsening matters. The locals complain that it is worse even than they can withstand.
But thanks to jet lag, I need no alarm to cajole me. I am up before dawn whether I’d like to be or not. At that hour, however, I still feel assaulted by the air. It is clear that the mugginess will be overwhelming later in the season.
The first Monday, I met a new colleague, also from the States, for a walk. We had made arrangements via email before our respective departures. I had anticipated I would need to be up and about, as soon as it became light outside. We met at the business school that is a new start up even among new start ups. The Starbucks in the corner of the building was a convenient landmark. It offered a means to ask for directions without Mandarin language fluency.
Our morning meander was easygoing. There were multiple outdoor tracks we could visit. Three different universities, all leading institutions of higher education well established elsewhere, had been recruited by the local government to considerable acreage near the zoo. Each school had its own facilities. There also is an impressive gymnasium opened especially for a major athletics competition a few years back. That is on the list of attractions to check out. Its first-class equipment apparently is under-used. Perhaps the indoor course will be the best venue for further training.
We saw a few others exercising early. One or two solitary figures were engaged in qigong rituals, calm and calming to observers, with the silent fluidity of contemplative motion. A couple male runners, shirtless, were making good time. Street sweepers were finishing their shifts, construction workers beginning theirs. Female students riding bicycles or strolling arm in arm carried umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. A few guards kept an eye out. There were fisherman hoping for a bite, their lines cast into a canal that ran along the perimeter of the grounds. Signs warned of snakes. They are mildly poisonous.
By a permissive standard, I have become a run commuter again. I am housed in a dormitory for, among others, foreign experts. I can mosey along the paved path to the law school in about three minutes; probably a jog would take me there in under two. It could not be more convenient for a short stay. Immediately upon arriving at the office, I had to return to my residential unit, because I neglected to bring an appropriate adapter for the electrical outlet. I thought briefly of doing without until the battery was exhausted, but I realized it would be unconscionably lazy to avoid the extra trip.
According to my GPS watch, I logged ten miles. An additional adventure was finding my own way to the administrative office to load credit onto my ID card. The campus is cashless. I did what I do while in Asia. I accost random non-Asians for help. A young European pointed me toward the proper office for my errand.
My initial plan was to shower twice. I figured I would sweat enough to need it. I instead am on a schedule of thrice. I wonder if I will adapt. Otherwise, my wife has warned me via our international video calls, I will dry out my skin and wash away essential oils. I cannot resist though. Even well short of the environmental maximums that will be hit in mid-August, I cannot make myself comfortable. I am aware of my body, in that manner that impairs the mind doing anything else other than dwelling on the flesh that constitutes one’s self.
The path along the canal where I am run commuting this summer, at the Peking University Shenzhen campus.
“You are very mild,” someone said to me the other day. She meant it as a compliment; she said that she had a similar demeanor. That surprised me. Most of my life, as a child and adult, I’ve been considered more belligerent, rude, grouchy, and sarcastic.
I attribute the progress to run commuting. Physical health and mental health are bound together in a cycle either vicious or virtuous. Regular exercise has positive effects for body and mind. How we interact with one another depends on how we feel inside ourselves. Science can confirm such effects. We do not have to be aware of our emotions to have our lives determined by them, and, for that matter, our unconscious selves may have the better of the ego we deem to be our own identities.
Run commuting has improved my personality. It has increased my forbearance, patience, and resilience. These traits are all important. They have nothing to do with my intelligence or the skills I have developed. Yet they make me a better employee and employer, as well as a more decent person.
There are direct mechanisms at work. I must plan to run commute to ensure I have everything I will depend on during the day. I need to be mindful while on the road to avoid being run over. To get the heart pumping early in the morning circulates more oxygen, which generates ideas, making me productive as a writer. The endorphins that are released make me calm and content.
The truth is there has been more than one day I have left the house outraged about this or that. Somebody has been disrespectful, ungrateful, or otherwise aggravating. My negative sentiments dissipate over 4.5 miles though. I cannot sustain them even if I wished to do so.
Probably a study could be devised to test the hypothesis that a run commuter is less likely to be resentful. Driving a personal vehicle in a crowded city and taking public transit are also probably not good for blood pressure.
Run commuting has not made me perfect. Nothing will accomplish that for any of us as human beings. But it has made me better.
The only other aspect of my life that has had the same influence, according to observers, is marriage. Another long-time friend once told me that my wife had, as she herself would attest, changed me. Run commuting and marriage might not seem comparable. But they are. Both are activities, not outcomes. The daily physical exertion is a reminder that the constant process is as important as any temporary result. You have to keep at it if you want to maintain the beneficial effects. That is the most important insight I have ever had: our days are meant to be engaged in, not to pass by as if we had no ability to participate. Run commuting requires nothing (if you have embraced the barefoot trends, not even shoes). Yet it calls for what is most difficult to summon: initiative that only we can take.
To run commute is to insist that the world is ours. It is material, surrounding us, demanding that we involve ourselves. Even in the rain and the traffic, despite our fatigue, it is imperative that we motivate ourselves to move ourselves.