notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
This blog began with a focus on literature. Lately it’s turned to another, newer passion of mine: long distance running.
I spent some time this week thinking–while plodding along on my new favorite seven-mile route–about the inextricable links between literature and running. It’s an idea that just popped into my head a few days ago, and one I feel I’ll be ruminating upon for some time to come. (I have an inkling that themes of food in literature will now also be supplemented in my PhD dissertation with themes of running in literature.)
I mentioned in my last post that I have recently decided to try a vegetarian diet. It’s been a long, evolving process that encouraged me to make this dietary and lifestyle transition. It was–like my literature and running meditation–inspired by thoughts I had while running. Something else happened this week on one of my runs that had a strange impact on me, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it quite yet.
In the middle of the path on the Washington and Old Dominion trail (or W&OD), right near my turn-around point on a tempo run, I saw something laying immobile on the yellow dividing line. It appeared to be a mouse, but when I looked closer I realized it was a baby groundhog. My heart sank. Bikes fly along at incredible speed down the narrow two-lane path, and it’s likely that an unassuming cyclist accidentally ran over this poor creature. It was a really warm day, and the groundhog was so exposed–I knew it would begin to decompose soon. I found three sticks, created a makeshift gurney, and carried the animal to the side of the path. I spent about ten minutes digging a hole in the earth near a small patch of wildflowers and buried the little guy.
As I’m typing this, I feel kind-of silly. A grown woman giving a baby groundhog a funeral next to the trail? Yes, that was me. I could tell it had been lying postmortem in its resting place on the yellow line for some time, and it didn’t seem right to just leave him there. He was so helpless. Poor creature. Poor groundhog.
For the remainder of my run I began to notice how much, recently, I have learned to notice. Had no one else on the trail seen his tiny body lying on the yellow stripe? I saw him right away, and was grateful I could be the one to take care of him. There was nothing more important in that moment than the small, meaningful task at hand. I’m not quite sure what to make of this experience yet, but it seemed really important in the moment, and my mind weirdly keeps turning to the image of his small body lying on the W&OD trail.
Alexandra Heminsley’s Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run is a fun and quick read for newbies to the sport. I found parts of it to be memorable and moving (her first London Marathon experience) and others to be really silly (the whole appendix section; her paranoia about having to use the bathroom on a long run). But there’s one memorable line from her memoir that encompasses how I’ve been feeling this past week:
“Running had changed everything.”
Running–like literature–forces one to spend long stretches of time deeply immersed, alone, in thought. Reading a lengthy tome, or a challenging novel, or sifting through themes and symbols and historical contexts can be exhausting, but also incredibly rewarding. My favorite books are a mirror to my life. When I’m in a dark place I recall Joan Didion’s words of advice for times of trouble: “Go to the literature.” Now, I not only go to the literature, I go to the trails. The reasons I pick up a book every evening before bed and the reasons I feel–daily now–the need to lengthen my stride on a new stretch of trail are nearly the same. I seek solace, wisdom, introspection. I seek to challenge myself and participate in an act that is both personal and meaningful every day.
I watch a ridiculous number of YouTube videos about running. (Ethan Newberry–the “Ginger Runner”–and Billy Yang are two of my favorites.) Interviews with endurance athletes are particularly interesting for me, and I always enjoy hearing ultrarunners’ responses to the question, “What do you think about when you’re running for so long?” The answers vary, but are usually the same. They think about food. They think about beer. They think about their training and how much effort and time they put into finishing the race. They think about their family.
Lately I’ve been thinking about some events that have recently transpired in my life, and I’m grateful both to reading and running for getting me through some of the most difficult moments. Both hobbies, I’ve realized, allow me to be my best self. They teach me patience and kindness, and push me to grow as a woman and human.
I passed by the groundhog’s resting spot today just as the sky began to open up. I finished my run as thunder and lightening paced my way home. Tired and sweaty, with heavy drops of rain pelting the top of my head and soaking my braid, I noticed how grateful I felt to make it home in time, to have run another 7 miles, to be able to do the same thing tomorrow. I noticed.