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.
Steps near my house that I climb as a test.
This is harder than I thought it would be. I had hoped to make a comeback. But the rare, serious autoimmune disease I have been diagnosed with is a doozy. Or more accurately, the drugs I am on have major side effects. After more than 75 half marathons in three years and a regular routine of run commuting 4.5 miles to work, I have been forced to take six weeks off. I have failed to show up for three different races I signed up for, even after downgrading the distance. The end is not in sight. But I am determined.
My wife, who has her own illness, gave me two pieces of advice. The first was, “Respect the disease.” The second was, “Suffer privately.”
I have failed to follow both her suggestions. I have turned the corner. I am heading in to the office, not just sitting at home.
I appreciate now, however, that I cannot simply will myself to perfect well-being. Autoimmune conditions have many triggers. Stress, and mental state more generally, are crucial factors in how the body functions. An unhappy attitude likely will cause a flare up. But its opposite does not promise a remission much less a restoration to health.
The cure is not worse than the disease. But the cure is not fun. Methotrexate, my main prescription, was a cancer drug, and it is deemed toxic. Constant fatigue, especially at my dosage (80mg once per week), is normal.
I am compelled to share though. For me, running and writing are related. When I run more, I write more. The blood flows; creativity results. In this forum, my writing is about my running. So I want to document, especially if it can help others, the process of recovery — or the ongoing adaptation to a new life. Running and writing seem solitary. But I like to run with, or at least around, those who challenge me. I wish to write for readers, even if I otherwise never interact with them.
Thus the running and the story of running will continue. I am chastened. I will have to start slow. I mean that literally, with the correct use of the word. I intend to begin again with walking. I will do a slower pace and shorter route, maybe just sauntering around the neighborhood, which has its share of hills, with my dog, to build up stamina. I have to wear a hat now and slather on sunscreen at SPF30 or greater. Severe sensitivity and the risk of burning is another issue on the list of what to confront.
Yet I am reconciled to myself. The alternative is despair or moping around. There is a better cycle. It’s likely that if I hadn’t been so vigorous in my hobby of running, which I took up only three years ago at 48 years of age, I would be much worse off at this point.
So I have to summon again that spirit that I needed to set off on the very first walk to work. I doubted then that any ordinary person could do it. I had to prove it to myself. A sense of community, that you will be supported by other souls who care, enables us in these struggles, because however independent we would like to picture ourselves the important journeys we take are in the company of companions.
I have achieved fame as a run commuter. The simple act of traveling to work by a means almost all are capable of but few consider trying makes people take notice. However, I also am on hiatus due to health challenges. That is a function of hubris. I am determined to come back. I will not retire as a run commuter until I am rendered physically incapable of undertaking the pursuit. Please allow me to share the story.
A student where I teach wrote an article about our adventure on a Friday morning in San Francisco. He joined my run commute. We actually walked for the greater part of the route, as he duly reported. He had been commissioned for a magazine theme issue on how to address stress in law school. I was flattered by the profile. He approached me with the earnest outlook that I regret we seem to destroy most effectively through the rituals of Socratic dialogue. I attribute his attitude to walking. You cannot be disillusioned while walking. Cynicism is cured by a walk. You can be mad and stomp around. But, you are eased into a better state by a good ramble on a trail in the wild or trek on city sidewalks.
It wasn’t the first time this habit had been mentioned by the press. But, given the anxiety about law school and the animus toward deans of the institutions (which I once was), the earlier entries of media coverage might be forgiven the snarkiness of our era. The authors seemed to regard walking — with students! — as a ploy, like the scam they had deemed the JD degree to be. Perhaps an invitation to walk together will be suspected of an ulterior motive, since our effort to engage with other people meaningfully has been wrecked by swipe left-swipe right encounters and the prompts to connect to “friends” with whom we enjoy a commercial relationship at best. I associate walking, however, with conversations that are genuine, an exchange between equals, side by side, since you do not talk easily if one is ahead, another behind.
Run commuting is not about garnering publicity of course. I decided to turn myself into a run commuter because it is intrinsically good. Then I continued because I discovered it is fun. By good, I mean I had a belief, in a culture that scorns any sincere feeling, that it would be morally worthwhile — without aggrandizing, it is in daily details that we establish our true character. By fun, I do not mean a moment of exhilaration as when riding a roller coaster, but the sustained contentment of the body after the heart has been pumping vigorously, which calms the mind and ultimately the spirit.
What is remarkable is that moving along on your own two feet has become remarkable. Time was, for our ancestors, it would have been normal to hike to a dinner party, stroll with a colleague on the boulevard, or put in 10,000 steps doing chores around the farm without the confirmation of any fitness tracker. Our forebears would have journeyed to the market alongside an ox pulling a cart laden with the fruits of their labors. The pace of life, and even consciousness of the lands beyond the immediate neighborhood, would be set by the measure of the distance that could be covered on human power, or maybe horseback. To await the illumination of a full moon to light the path would be literally natural.
Yet for us, driving alone in motor vehicles and soon to be driven by automatons guided by algorithms that account for the dilemma of the fat man run over by the trolley car, the notion of run commuting verges on preposterous. I have made it integral to my life. Among the most important decisions I have made, ranking with choice of spouse, is to live near work. Without judging those who have consigned themselves to a three hour round trip door to door to find a suitable home and make a living, I have concluded that I do not need a suburban mansion. Contemporary Americans reside in single-family dwellings that are twice the size, on average, as those our grandparents accepted as comfortable enough, and that exceed the expectations of our peers around the world. Where our home is, and who our partner is, are related too, in a cause and effect cycle. Until technology assisted dating, the factor that best predicted whom we would romance was their proximity; then, in settling down, a couple would negotiate about where to do so, and the community would define their own identities. We traverse more miles than any but explorers would have dared. That means there is all that much more space between us to separate souls.
All that philosophy is fine, but I have experienced a practical setback. I deserve it. I had become too confident of my abilities, that I was exercising as I had done never before in fifty years, logging 75-mile weeks with the splits improving, even entering back to back half marathons and finishing without injury. I now am ill. I probably am able to cope better, for all that exertion, without which my former self would have been laid low without as much hope.
What has happened has been gruesome. I developed sores all over my body, open wounds the likes of which provoked even my primary care physician to make a face and exclaim out loud. In addition to the blood which stained the front and back of my t-shirt every morning, soaking through the pajama top, threatening to ruin my wife’s sheets (hers, not mine nor ours, in this context), such that she insisted we lay a towel beneath to protect the mattress, my scalp exuded a waxy paste that dried into a purulent crust of blazing pain. As these decorations spread over the territory of defenseless flesh, I was diagnosed with, successively, spider bites, an allergic reaction, severe eczema, and a staph infection. I was prescribed pills and creams, to which I added experiments in whatever the pharmacy had on its shelves, ointments with honey, silver, tar, and proprietary formulas promising relief. I affixed bandages of every brand and type, increasing size, over the stigmata that would not progress to scabs, but which shone to any observer as symbols of my rot.
The proper diagnosis was a relief. It is the prerequisite to recovery. The clue was the blistering in the mouth. I was starting to sound a bit drunk when I spoke, as I sought to avoid agitating the flaps hanging from my cheeks or loose inside my lips and tried to ignore the hard white nodules that had formed a line under my tongue.
My wife’s alarm compelled me to visit the doctor’s office on an urgent call; I should have acted sooner, and it could have been an emergency. The junior dermatologist took photographs with her smartphone, to send to her senior colleague, who telephoned immediately from his Latin American vacation. He informed me this was pemphigus vulgaris, a rare, serious autoimmune condition, among the most severe conditions a specialist such as he would treat, equivalent to cancer. I was to start a course of oral steroids at the maximum dosage that could be administered safely. A biopsy would ordered for confirmation.
The tests proved it. I had joined an exclusive club of suffering. Thanks to modern medicine, the ailment is no longer guaranteed fatal — according to reliable sources, it killed off approximately 75 percent of its victims within two years, in spectacular fashion the details of which should be spared any not already familiar. It remains what kids would deem a BFD. The doctor issued me a letter stating I had a “life threatening” problem, ordering me to cancel my planned trips, and while I was grateful his verification meant full refunds from the airline the plain language sent me the message as well.
My doctor has great bedside manner; he established rapport, which made him reassuring. I looked him in the eye and asked the question: “Am I going to die from this?” His answer was a perfect laugh, followed by a simple, “No.” He did caution me that the half marathon I had signed up for was not a good idea. I had not even mentioned the vertical gain. If we have no humor, we are dead. I appreciate that my odds are excellent. We are arresting the agent of my misery. I can look in the mirror to see my enemy. By definition, “autoimmune” refers to one’s self. By some mechanism, my body has been confused into attacking itself.
For the moment, my rest has been imposed against my will. I am past the worst of this outbreak, but I may have months or years before we declare remission. My regimen now includes a series of prescriptions. They are their own problem, with side effects that impair any running, such as unrelenting fatigue and severe sun sensitivity. I may be on methotrexate for the duration, with folic acid as a supplement. I have to adjust, as others have before me. Among the salutary consequences, more abundant than supposed of sickness, is my newfound empathy for my wife. She has managed lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune infirmities, relying on the same remedies.
Nonetheless, for the moment, I cannot not run commute. I have to reset. It’s back to the beginning. My very first attempt was an hour and twenty, 80 minutes, and my personal record is 47 minutes. It was a five-year effort to advance from the former to the latter, a saunter to a race against myself. I will be more toward the slow end of the scale, but I can do it. I deny that my attitude is denial. My home is the same as before, my work too, so nothing is farther off than in my memory not at all dim. All that has changed is my resolve is more robust.
All of the items described in the post, with a bonus photo of the dog, Bebe.
Here is what I carry on my morning run commute. I am a minimalist. That philosophy requires discipline. Every now and then, I wish I had brought along this or that, but that is rare enough – I’m fine with the risk.
I use an ultra-lightweight backpack. It is a cheap but durable nylon number by Marmot. It isn’t specialized for this purpose. If I cinch the shoulder straps, it is stable enough. The interior contains a divider between two compartments, which allows me to stow sweaty clothes after changing. There is a little zippered top area, too. I liked it enough I bought a spare when it was on sale, so if I need to throw one in the wash or take one on a trip, it’s fine — I travel enough that I sometimes leave the extra at my elderly father’s house, so it is there when I check on him. The only problem with this model is it lacks any padding. I cannot throw it around for fear of damaging the gadgets inside. That only means I need to be careful. Or I could buy a separate case for the tablet. (For races, I switch to an Ultimate Direction vest.)
Inside the backpack, I have keys (two: house and office) with a high-powered flashlight attached, on a tiny locking carabiner. I have a driver’s license, work ID, credit card, and MUNI pass for the trip back, in a card case style “wallet;” an iPhone; and an iPad with my files for work. It is that last item that has made the run commute feasible. Basically all my data is accessible.
Oh, I also have a camera with me. I almost always have that, a real camera, typically a vintage film camera. That is extravagant. It weighs as much as everything else put together. I took up running and photography simultaneously, and for me they are associated activities. Others likely would forego the film camera.
Finally, I have a partial change of clothes: fresh socks, t-shirt, and shirt. I also have a lightweight towel meant for athletic use, about a quarter the size of a bath towel and much thinner. I sometimes carry another pair of pants or an extra pair of shoes, especially if there is inclement weather. I’d prefer not to do that though. I wear pants that are acceptable, as I judge it anyway, for a casual work environment. (My wife has a “no-fly” rule: if I am out with her, my pants must have a fly; these do.) I also have a cap, because my mother taught me to err on the side of putting something on my head when it was cold. (The running cap is soaked through with sweat when I arrive, so that has to be swapped out.)
There are omissions. I sometimes wear headphones, but I’m ambivalent doing so. If I will be going back and forth — a great day includes a round-trip run commute — I might pack a spare battery.
All of the above are shown on a list. I am an inveterate maker of lists. That is a bit OCD. But I wouldn’t be comfortable if I didn’t check off these items before I started out.
Run commuting compels me to plan. I have to consider what else I am doing that day, to ensure I bring what I need. If I am headed to the bank, for example, I add my ATM card in a separate “wallet.” But I do not want to be burdened by baggage. Most of the stuff I own, I don’t use. I no longer feel any need to acquire material goods in general, unless I am confident it will become integral to my life. I’d rather be out there running. There is always someplace else worth the journey.
All of the items described in the blog.
When you engage in an activity such as run commuting, people wonder about mundane details. Since everybody who is able to do so walks, and increasingly is conscious about it with the advent of fitness trackers, if you take up a more robust version of such a common endeavor you inspire curiosity about technique and tools. Everything I do is ordinary and easy to replicate. I share for others who wish to try out what turns out to be life changing.
My shoes are a collection of Hoka One Ones. They are maximalist, what clowns would wear if they ran marathons — I must be a good 2-1/2 inches taller in the Hokas. I have used Vibram Five Fingers. They are minimalist, essentially gloves for feet. That means I went from one extreme to its opposite. I have read casually the research about footwear. My impression, as a non-scientist, is that it is inconclusive. There is too much individual variation. Personal anatomy and stride likely matters as much as gear. For now, I prefer plush cushioning. I have three pairs of the same model, size 11 D, in solid black. They are less conspicuous than colorful options. I have wanted to try out the running shoes with the look of dress shoes. Run commuting is all about practicality. (If I do that, I will report back. I am frugal, and this innovative product does not seem to be discounted much.)
My socks are various low-cut pairs designed for running. I have had multiple unhappy experiences with wardrobe malfunctions in this regard. Many socks don’t fit and won’t stay up. That ruins the race or the morning. I have concluded, as is true with shoes, that it is important to consider the exact sizing and proper shape. I would rather be a regular with a company that has suits that fit and customer service that is considerate. I am willing to pay for those qualities.
The pants are important. Every piece of clothing is. But the pants are constant. I found a brand. I liked it so much, I decided to invest a bit of my retirement account into its stock, but I receive no consideration for that disclaimer/endorsement. My choice is Under Armour. My rationale is they have a bit of stretch to the fabric. There are multiple models that are appropriate for exercise and after. That saves significantly on the change of clothes that otherwise would have to be carried with a separate pair of dress slacks. One side effect of all the running is lots of laundry. I generate a half hamper of sweat soaked stuff every twenty-four hours. I do a load of wash, in a high-efficiency front-loader, just about every day. When guests visit, I am always haranguing them for dirty clothes to throw in.
The shirts are less particular. They are all lightweight activewear tops made of synthetic fiber or merino wool. They have in common breathability, conspicuity, and bargain pricing. They’re whatever was available at the mail-order outlet, one of a half dozen I track, all of which send me deals via email. I was a patron of Ibex, an American manufacturer that, alas, went out of business. I stocked up on their gear during their final sale, and I lament that the global marketplace has made it difficult for entrepreneurs such as these folks to sustain their ventures.
Underwear merits mention. I have a story about my switch. I ran one of the North Face Endurance Half Marathons. It had over 3000 feet of vertical gain, which I can attest is not inconsequential. I was joined by a college friend. He beat me by seven minutes, which I realize is considerable. I felt good, however, that when we had our post-race brunch, he had to excuse himself after eating only a bite, because he needed to lie down for an hour and a half nap. An experienced road racer, much more fit than me, he also is wiser. When I complained about chafing, he inquired about the details of my outfit. He kindly informed me nobody was still in cotton boxers for distance running, and that had changed not long after we graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1988. On his advice and counsel, I am happily in technical briefs. I vouch for the difference, even if I gloss over the details. Suffice it to say, wicking of moisture is to be commended.
Where I live, when I start out it’s usually foggy and about fifty degrees. For outerwear, I put on a high-viz fluorescent yellow windbreaker about half the time. It is not labeled as specialized for running. I almost always start off with a cap, too. I have several super thin wool skullcaps. If it is raining, I have a SealSkinz waterproof version. Although it is slightly too heavy, I prefer it to wet hair.
All of the above is “quotidian.” That is an apt word. It is a fancy synonym for “daily.” Perhaps others will benefit from seeing how simple it is to take up run commuting.
Here is a typical week. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, were run commute days. Thursday was low in mileage, but in part because of a transcontinental flight that took up much of it.
As a run commuter, I happen to be a bit of a cheater. I don’t mean a fraud such as Rosie Ruiz, who was stripped of her Boston Marathon medal in 1980 for not completing all 26.2 miles of the course or even very many of them. I merely mean I am not a stickler for results to brag about on Strava. I want to get some exercise into my day and get to work. Those are straightforward goals. I’m not looking to impress anyone.
A preface before my confessions. I am no slouch. In January 2018, I ran to work a dozen times; February and March have continued similarly. That is 4.5 miles, or as much as 4.75 miles depending on the exact route and meandering, including days that rained. On a few occasions, I also ran with my coach. On at least one of those days, I exceeded 15 miles on foot (and I have provided the digital proof).
Yet, I want to be honest and humble. I am not the run commuter I aspire to be. I did not run another eight mornings when I could have. There are various reasons. The least common among them, only through self-flagellation (figurative, not literal) is laziness. There usually was an impediment, and the most aggravating among them was the need to put on a business suit, followed by the disruption of airplane travel and ensuing jet lag.
What I fail at most often is in fact to run. The truth is, as I admit freely, I am technically a run-walker, not a true runner. I am a fast walker though. So I figure my run-walk routine satisfies whatever is the abstract, agreed-upon standard for what constitutes “running.” I am constantly striving to increase the speed and the length of the run portion of the cycle. I am seeing modest gains. At 51 years old very soon, but only three years into the sport on a serious basis, I figure the inevitable effects of aging — as they say, better than the alternative — will offset the progress of discipline. I cannot seem to break 45 minutes (10 per mile) over the distance I must cover, though I can make it just under 8 minutes for a single mile.
I have discovered a new tactic though. I feel good about this maneuver. Bike sharing is the latest trend. But it will be, I predict, more than a fad. I have now done a part-run, part-bike trip that allows me to indulge the fantasy I could do a biathlon or triathlon. (I grew up with a swimming pool, and I must be about the worst swimmer for someone who had that luxury, so there is more work to be done.) In San Francisco, they are rolling out undocked, electric-assist bikes! That means you can leave them anywhere within the authorized zone, and they offer a boost for the hills. The dual workout is wonderful. I am using different leg muscles, while also exerting the lungs to greater capacity. Run, then bike, and see the city as you could not enclosed in a vehicle.
Even my most obvious dishonesty is defensible. I have more than once hopped on the bus. The reason is keeping to a schedule despite the sauntering for a spell. I have competed against myself. All out, I am pretty sure I’d beat the bus. But at the run-walk pace (see above), I can save a couple of minutes with mass transit. Since in contemporary America, we suffer what has been called “bus stigma” — in the hit movie Speed, which made action stars of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, her character is compelled to explain why she is stuck with the other losers who are aboard a bus in Southern California — I feel I am engaging in a worthwhile protest against the One Percent by boarding the MUNI; I can proclaim that I am a man of the people. Besides, the bus line I take travels through the historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the home of the “Summer of Love” that transformed our culture.
Like everyone else who doesn’t quite live up to their aspirations, I suppose, I am compelled to rationalize. The point of run commuting is to get the blood flowing and accomplish the task of traveling from home to office, while being better to the environment. I figure if I have something of a shortcut, I am still better off than if I drove a car by myself, both to me and toward the world. My point is that the run commute is intended to be pleasurable and practical. It is supposed to decrease stress, not increase it. It’s not a sanctioned competition. Easygoing is fine. Most of the rest of my day is intense. People who do not run commute misunderstand. A good run commute is relaxing. It adds rather than subtracts to the energy I have. The psychological benefit turns into a physical one.
Nonetheless, every time I do not complete a run commute on strict terms, I feel guilty. And if I can set a new PR, even if it is only for my own satisfaction, I feel I am a better person.
The US Mint in San Francisco, which I pass on the most challenging route I can take, up and over between Mt. Sutro and Twin Peaks.
Run commuting has made me a better person. I am not who people believe I am. To wake up early and trek into the office on my own locomotion is intrinsically worthwhile. Yet it also is consistent with my plan for self-improvement. Please allow me to explain.
People regard me as among the hardest working individuals they know. I once said to a colleague that I felt I wasn’t hard working enough, and he replied explicitly that there was something wrong with me if I were sincere in the statement. That is no brag. Throughout my career, I have worked so much that people who have commented on it have not intended it as a compliment. When I practiced law, albeit briefly half a lifetime ago, I billed at a 2750 hour per year pace. I’m told that remains a respectable amount even now.
But here is my secret. I am among the laziest people I know too. I can cite various examples. If I am working, I won’t bother to leave my desk if I am thirsty or need to use the facilities. In the interest of efficiency, I wait to rise from my seat until both conditions are satisfied. Observers assume I am ambitious. To the contrary. I’m an idler. I like to sit at home with the dog.
There is no contradiction between being hard-working and being lazy. The hard-working persona is cultivated; the lazy one, natural.
When I was a kid, I enjoyed the T.H. White retelling of the King Arthur legend, entitled The Once and Future King. Written with World War II ongoing toward an outcome that seemed at best uncertain, the tetralogy of novels has endured as the version of the myth for our era, featuring Camelot, the sword Excalibur, the wizard Merlin, and so on. It was the basis for the Disney cartoon. The monarch is an orphan transformed into various animals to learn by allegory. What made an impression on me is the defining dialogue between the ill-made knight, Lancelot, and the Queen, Guinevere, who are carrying on, certainly within the awareness of Arthur, who regards the French chevalier as his only friend and the champion of the round table. Lancelot, asked by the Queen why he strives to be so virtuous, confesses it is because he is so wicked. The sentiment is profound, for any of us who aspires to personal progress. Our perfect selves are not our true selves, and although we might not achieve the former within our lives we need not be as awful as the latter.
Social scientists now have data about how we make decisions that suggests we can change the architecture of our choices. The Nobel Prize in economics this year went to the professor who has promoted the concept of “nudges.” We can alter, in the aggregate and on average, behavioral outcomes while respecting free will, by changing defaults from opt-in to opt-out and otherwise being conscious of the framework within which we pick among options. We, many of us anyway, will save money if enrollment in the retirement program is automatic — though within our ability to change, since we won’t bother. We will tend to control our portions by putting out smaller plates and consume less sugary soda by insisting on smaller containers. These are important insights about how our brains function, whether we consent. We can fool ourselves, not necessarily for the worse.
Run commuting has become my means of enforcing discipline for myself. It is effective. You can structure inertia to favor continued activity. In my fantasy life, I have long been a runner. It was easier to implement my imagination than I had supposed, following Lancelot and using “nudges.”
To begin, I set appointments with others to walk, eventually adding speed to the stroll. The commitment made all the difference. I had to live up to it. Otherwise I’d be disappointing a colleague. In some instances, we dubbed it a “walking meeting” — I was thrilled to discover that, like run commuting, the walking meeting turns out to “be a thing” as kids say nowadays. I even arranged, as a teacher, to lead groups of students, adding a coffee break at the end, though fewer than half who RSVP’d typically showed up for the 7am start.
Then I became known as a run commuter. The security guards on campus become accustomed to seeing me arrive in my hi-viz yellow windbreaker and a cap soaked through with sweat, disappear into my office for a moment, then show up once again in my regular outfit for the day. The expectation of others is vital to my motivation. It might be less enthusiastic than the cheering from the crowd during a race, but it serves the same purpose of inspiring. Even though run commuting is becoming more popular, anyone who engages in it likely is enough of an outlier to develop a bit of local fame. It’s only slightly more common than, say, riding a unicycle.
Here is my discovery — not original, even to me, but rather one of those aspects of human nature I keep realizing after forgetting how integral it is to all of us. Repetition forms habits. These can be good practices, despite our more acute awareness of their bad counterparts. I run on my own now. I run without people taking notice, even to “run” errands.
Run commuting has trained me. It has become a mindset. Its value extends beyond the exercise. I have become more deliberate in planning my day and more mindful in carrying out activities shown on the calendar. I appreciate both the moment and the surroundings.
In a sense run commuting has become my philosophy of life.
San Francisco Muni Train on the “F” line featuring vintage cars
I jaywalk. I admit it. I was well into adulthood when I realized this conduct was considered mildly criminal. My wife was once given a citation for it, which means I am not alone in failing to comprehend that it is frowned upon — or perhaps we have in common that we are scofflaws in this regard.
Yet I also am paranoid about crossing the street. When I run commute, I make it a point to stand well back at intersections. I have a specific memory. Or, more accurately, I was told a story once that was so vivid I felt I had witnessed the event myself, even though I was only relayed the situation; it’s a textbook example of hearsay but no less compelling to me for having heard it from a friend.
More than twenty-five years ago, so essentially in another life — I am twice the age now I was then — I was meeting my pal Chris. He was a bit late.
When he showed up, he explained to me he had seen a terrible accident. He saw somebody die. This was in San Francisco, downtown, maybe on Market Street, one of the major thoroughfares. He was walking. A bicycle messenger swerved in front a city bus, but come what may didn’t make it, and the guy was run over by the massive vehicle.
What made it compelling, however, was that Chris told me, at least in my memory, he watched, as did other bystanders, the death throes of the victim. As the victim was being crushed under the wheels and the weight, his legs twitched madly, with blood seeping outward. His description was completed by his shock, which was palpable; I shared it.
Even though I was not there, I have to say the incident made an impression. I visualized the gruesome scene as perfectly as if I had been there in the flesh. In the free association of trying to exorcise the image, I recalled childhood piano lessons that had failed to make me a concert-playing prodigy. There was a style of song, the tarantella, which had a mythology about dancing to death.
So when I am headed downtown in the early morning, I have trained myself to be mindful. There are so many cars pulling out of garages or turning behind me as I dash straight through the crosswalk, not to mention the buses, public and private, that come with great speed perpendicular to my path of travel, and the MUNI trains, which rattle the very ground. I appreciate, both in the sense of being grateful and in the sense of being awed, that this anecdote had such power. In my work as an advocate and a teacher of those who would persuade, I communicate using narratives and encourage the same.
I also have direct experience of the near miss. More than the moments when I personally came close to shuffling off my mortal coil, I am enthralled by what I was present for, observing in that manner that has the sensation of being at the cinema (what analogy was appropriate before moving pictures?), that surreal perception of slo-mo that somehow cannot be stopped despite its pace. Once, I had met a colleague at the Golden Gate Bridge to hike in, enjoying an urban landscape that tops my list of places to live, and as we proceeded along Crissy Field in the amiable conversation I associate with strolling, a woman of a certain age, oblivious to the risk, violated the right of way held by a luxury car being propelled forward far too fast. By some miracle, she was not squashed, not more than two arms’ lengths away, and, even more shockingly, she appeared to be undisturbed by the prospect of her demise; she continued in her daze. By coincidence, the driver was even more insensitive to what was happening around him, and, in a display of the inaction that is more remarkable than any action, he disappeared into the traffic rather than screeching to a halt.
The moral is what they say about getting out of bed in the morning. If we possessed perfect knowledge, we would not rise. All in all, I prefer the alternative. I hazard the run commute, and I am the better for it. I just have to pay attention to the lights — we all do.
A few medals