Every time I go for a run, I think about Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. It’s not particularly good. I only read it once, probably around age fifteen or sixteen, and I don’t remember much about it, except that it involved aliens, and Jimmy Smits played the protagonist in the movie version. Honestly, the single detail from that book that stands out at all is the typewriter. It’s an invention put together by the Jimmy Smits character, a writer who becomes possessed by aliens (I think) and begins to create all kinds of contraptions, including a typewriter that’s capable of understanding exactly what he wants to write and how he wants to write it, then does the work for him. I would kill for that typewriter.
Last night, I watched the movie The Hours for the first time in years. I discovered that it’s really overwritten, with characters philosophizing and despairing and talking at each other in a way that no one ever actually talks. But there’s a part where the Ed Harris character, a poet, says, “I wanted to be a writer, that's all. I wanted to write about it all. Everything that happens in a moment. […] And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with it ends up being so much less.”
That’s why, when I run, that typewriter pops into my head. I try not to think when I run. I breathe, and watch the snow fall, and let my feet touch the ground in time with the beat of music in my ears. But you can’t shut the brain off. It chatters. Nonsense, worries, lists of things to do and places to go.
Or sometimes it works with an actual purpose: I begin to think about something I want to write. Running, it all seems clear. I can find the words—not because I actually find them while I run, but because the feeling of what I want to write is clear, and that clarity makes the right words seem possible. I can hold two, three, twenty, a hundred thoughts and feelings in my head simultaneously. All the everything that Ed Harris talked about: all of it mixed up, impossible to pull apart. I run, and my brain churns, and it seems easy. It's all there. Just go home and put it on paper.
But it’s never that easy. The minute I try to put into words whatever it was that seemed so clear while my shoes pounded pavement and the breath rushed in and out of my lungs, I start to fail. That’s the hardest part about writing. The translation of what’s in your brain to words on paper—words that other people will (hopefully) read and not just understand but know, down to their bones. As with any translation, though, something is always lost.
Language isn’t always enough. Which is why it’s exciting when you do read something that exactly captures a feeling or a thought or a way of seeing the world that resonates—that makes you feel like someone crawled inside your head and translated what they found there and got it exactly right. There’s joy in discovery, too, of lighting upon a new way to think about something. But I think that feeling of recognition is the greatest triumph of good writing. It’s the thing that makes it possible for reader and writer to understand each other—for us to speak the same language.
Tuesday night. I perch toes-only on a curb, my hand on a street sign that claims there's no parking from this point to the corner, and drop my heels. Outside the Skinny Raven running store on H Street, people cluster in groups, stretch their quads, don their earbuds, or stand in line to sign in for tonight's run. There's a route map taped to the window of the store and a table piled with Asics or Sauconys or Mizunos, depending on the week, that you can try out for free. The sun is setting, or has long set, or won't set at all. Most weeks, this is where you'll find me Tuesday after work: the Skinny Raven Pub Run, a three- to four-mile route that always starts outside the downtown location and ends at McGinley's Pub. Advertised as a social walk/run, the weekly event attracts all kinds -- moms with strollers, speedwalkers, groups of friends, married couples, lone runners. It's not a competitive event, and while start time is officially 6 p.m., plenty of people hit the pavement as early as 5:15.
Sometimes I'll meet up with a friend, but this time of year, I'm more likely to fall into the lone runner category. Understandably, Anchorage has a good number of fair-weather runners; as the cold sets in, the Tuesday night numbers dwindle. For those who are left, there's a sort of hail-fellow-well-met vibe; we nod at each other as we pass on an out-and-back, we merry few who deck ourselves out like Christmas trees in lights and reflective gear, who don studs and Yaktrax, who bundle ourselves in running tights and thermal pants, wind-resistant jackets, beanies and Buffs and balaclavas.
In the summer, knots of runners clog the trail, and there's a constant soundtrack of pounding feet and conversation audible beneath whatever song plays from my earbuds. In the winter, though, I'm insulated from the world by my cap or earwarmers. Most sounds outside my own breathing are muffled. I'm less likely to pass more than one or two runners at a time, our footfalls conversing for a brief moment, our mingled breath freezing, suspended in a pool of lamplight.
I run four to five times a week, usually alone. For months, sometimes, the pub run is the only night I'll run with others. We generally don't talk -- I've yet to make any lifelong friends at the run, or even acquaintances -- and from week to week I don't recognize any particular people from previous runs. But there's solidarity in this group. If I were to strike up a conversation, I'd know I have at least one thing in common with whomever I chose to speak to. We both know what it's like to chip away at the miles, with no one but ourselves to be accountable to, nothing but our own minds to distract and bedevil us. We are lone wolves who have found a temporary pack. There's a rush you get, running with a herd. It's why people race: the adrenaline surge, the ability to push yourself further, harder, faster when you're alone in a crowd instead of alone on your own.
Tuesday nights aren't about racing -- though I'll find myself growing competitive with the stranger just ahead of me or silently cheering when I pass another runner. Tuesday nights are about community. Not "community" as in the place where we live, but in the fellowship we have with others when we share common attitudes, interests, goals. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, I'll be on my own again. Tuesday, though, I run with the pack.