The First Run
The first five minutes were a piece of cake. Running down the hill from where my grandparents’ house is in Austin, I immediately got on the trail that goes along Shoal Creek. Even the initial climb that I encountered on the path didn’t feel that bad, and after not doing any sort of routine, extensive exercise for five weeks, much less any cardio, I was feeling pretty good. The pleasantness of the summer breeze in my face, the fading sun on my back, and the ringing orchestra of cicadas had me thinking that I wasn’t quite as out of shape as I had thought – after all, I noted with a smile, walking everywhere had been a large part of my life in Germany. I looked up, and I could see a cardinal flutter across one tree to another. Everything seemed to point towards my run as being an easy, relaxing run.
The reason I was even outside on a Monday afternoon in the heat and humidity of Austin, Texas, was because I had decided to start running again after my summer stay in Berlin. I regularly play soccer and basketball, although the quality of my play isn’t anything worth mentioning, and there isn’t a worse feeling than to step on the field or the court and to start wheezing the Song of Death after ten minutes. Taking those things way too seriously as usual, I wanted to get a leg up on everyone else who was coming back to Penn for the fall and to not feel overburdened by the smallest exercise.
As with any plan that involves exercise, particularly one with a goal, the first step is buying new gear. It doesn’t matter if your diet the past eight weeks consisted of beer, wurst, potatoes, döners, and Jaegermeisters (this, obviously, wasn’t my diet the past eight week at all, except on days that ended with a “y”) and that your slightly blossoming pre-summer abs had taken an indefinite, unpaid leave by the beginning of August – what matters is that you have stuff to wear to feel like you’re turning over a new leaf, emerging from that cocoon into a butterfly, getting ready to do the next best thing after liposuction. A former shoe-nut, I was gifted by my generous corporate sponsor Grandparents, Inc. a new pair of Air Max + 2013’s in an obnoxious neon orange color. If these weren’t going to make me run faster, at least they would make me look like my feet were a pair of mobile neon bar signs. So, that’s something.
And Then The Pain
Running back into shape is slightly like bad sex. At the beginning, you’re telling yourself that you’re not going to blow this, that you’ve got everything under control, that the pace you’re going is very much maintainable. Several minutes later, your only option is going at a snail’s pace, followed by blowing your load, becoming exhausted, just wanting to pee, and ultimately falling asleep.
After running at a pace that was as unsustainable as the world’s consumption of oil, I hit the wall in the seventh minute of my run.
That’s a blatant lie. I hit the wall, the Berlin Wall, the Walls of Troy, the Western Wall, and the Great Wall of China in succession. Before long I was playing a duet with the cicadas, as they shrilled away and I wheezed my Song of Death to complement them. Soon after my decline, three teenagers and a tweenager running on the path passed by me without breaking a sweat. At this point, I was already having a hard time (among with other things) keeping my gaze in front of me. More and more often I was looking down at the ground right in front of me. Hey, at least my Nike Air Max looked good.
Exercising is a curious thing. It’s one of those activities that make you feel good, to the extent that it doesn’t, and is also looked upon favorably by others. This is actually not as commonplace as you would think. Try reading outside, and your friends will question why you’re sitting alone like an unsociable hermit instead of hanging out with them. Try watching a Law and Order: SVU marathon and your mom is going to comment about how you should quit being so lazy sitting on that couch and to go outside. Try masturbating in the library using the library computer, and some random librarian will be beside himself because you’re masturbating in the library.
But exercising? Nobody will ever get upset at you for exercising. Blew off a coffee date because you were too tired from working out? Why that’s perfectly understandable. Can’t have sex tonight because you’re too exhausted from the self-defense class? Your boyfriend won’t be upset. Exercising is like that “Get out of jail free” card from monopoly, except you can use it in real life. Viva la exercise!
So we should all engage in exercise, no?
The Question of Why
When I had hit the fifteen-minute mark, all thought process had virtually stopped. I was no longer thinking about dinner. I was no longer thinking about that-one-really-cute-blond-girl-from-Penn-who-is-drop-dead-gorgeous-and-has-absolutely-no-interest-in-me-and-man-aren’t-I-a-hopeless-loser. I was no longer processing my thoughts in words or in any coherent sense, and if anyone had asked me at that point how I was doing, I would’ve answered in a series of grunts, heaves, and spits. I could even feel the McDonald’s chocolate milkshake I had drank earlier booking it’s trip right back up my throat in the express lane. I hurriedly opened my bottle of water with whatever energy I had left in me and forced myself to take a sip without making myself feel any sicker than I already did. A little bit of energy came back, along with a nice serving of self-pity that I couldn’t even run twenty minutes without turning into a zombie. I looked at my watch. Nineteen minutes had passed.
Why the hell am I doing this, I suddenly thought. I felt like I had just been dropped by Brian Orakpo, my legs had turned into something like ramen noodles, the heat had no longer become endurable but instead suffocating, my brain cells were dying en masse like they had joined Heaven’s Gate, I was getting my figurative nuts stomped on by kids who were effortlessly running past me, and my brand new Nike Air Max were getting dirt all over them.
I’m guessing this is what countless other humans have thought before me: why the heck are we doing whatever we’re doing? “Why are we hunting down that six-ton mammoth? All we’ve got are these dumb sticks, Malcolm, and it’s going to trample us all to death”; “Why are we trying to eat these puffy fish with spikes on them, Josef? This has all the makings of a bad time”; “Why are we pushing these stones up to make a huge pyramidal grave for our king, Billy? We’re all going to die an agonizing and cruel death anyway.”
Again, why the hell was I running?
As a philosophy major, I’ve read enough texts and listened to enough lectures where the person, whether he or she is a philosopher or a professor, brings up the idea of humans as rational beings. Whenever I encounter this idea, I cringe inside, because it makes as much sense as Real Madrid paying £100 million for Gareth Bale’s transfer fee.
The idea of humans being rational gets thrown around, most commonly, in utilitarianism. Simply put, utilitarianism calls for actions that benefit the greatest common good, the greatest number of people. This is all fine and dandy and easily to rationalize, if people could be counted on to act on the “rational” idea of the greatest common good.
But rarely do we bother about what’s rational and what’s not rational, much less even diving into complex principles such as utilitarianism and the greatest common good. “I did it,” each one of us has surely encountered the phrase numerous times, “because I felt like doing it.” It’s an answer used to oftentimes justify actions of impulse, but that’s not the only times it’s used. Humans have the ability to understand probabilities, percentages, odds, and other mathematical concepts that allow us to scientifically map out what the most likely outcome is, and to act accordingly in response to that likely outcome. Yet there are too many instances, such as when we go buy the lottery, or apply to a school that’s highly unlikely to accept us, or decide not to use the last bathroom stop for the next eight hours, when we simply ignore what seems “rational,” disregarding the likely outcome of a situation.
So where does that leave us? Are our irrational decisions, powered by our volition, simply infrequent occurrences that don’t change the fact that we’re rational beings? Are we, instead, unfettered in our irrationality, slaves of our volition, and irrational beings? Or are we somewhere in between, a lukewarm mix of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, seesawing between the rational and irrational?
I don’t have a damn answer, in the same way I never seem to have one in any of my philosophy classes. Regardless, if I wasn’t at least half-crazy trying to run for the first time in three months under the penetrating gaze of the Texas summer sun, I could probably say one thing:
I was an idiot. And a little bitch. And my brand new shoes were getting dirty, man.