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The Empty Sweat of Sport

By Chris Ames.

I don’t believe I have ever met God, but I think I may have felt what believers call a “religious experience” in the blank repetition of sport.

Last year, I participated in the Joshua Tree Half Marathon, a thirteen-mile night-run through the desert. Illuminated by a full moon and a bobbing constellation of two thousand runner’s headlamps, we snaked along the outer rim of the national park. It was my first race and I had trained accordingly. For months, I spent all the spaces in-between training for this event. I ran around Lake Merritt. I ran around Berkeley campus. I ran in place at the YMCA. Each time, going a little farther, lasting a little longer, blinking away the sweat that would hang in the creased little corners of my eyes.

So, come race day, when the outdoor speakers began to triumphantly blast the delayed arpeggio of U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’—God bless Joshua Tree—my whole body felt electric, like when feeling returns to a sleeping limb. I had stretched and hydrated and taken a rushed shit in a portable toilet like a true athlete. I was ready. Yet after the jolt of the starting gun and all the early-race adjustments of water bottle, bib, and crotch, my excitement started to peter out. By mile two, the dense marathon pack naturally organised itself by skill level, with separate little herds of runners settling into their respective strides. I remember thinking for a moment, “Okay, what’s next?” But of course, nothing is next. For the next two hours or so, my only job was to move forward. I could look at the moon or the sand or the widening pools of sweat on runners’ lower backs, but that’s about it. It was just me and my body in the dark.

Make no mistake, for all its cardiovascular benefits, running is wasted time. It’s boring. Friends have often asked me what I think about while I’m running, and it’s a deceivingly difficult question. At the risk of sounding like some fortune cookie runoff, I have to say I’m actively thinking about not thinking. I’m not thinking about the pain blossoming under my right kneecap. I’m not thinking about the burning in my lungs, like a cigarette being dragged down to the filter. There’s so much to not think about. There’s no ball, no points, no coach on the side-line. No one to hold you accountable. No teammates depending on you. No heterosexual butt-slapping.

Running is famously a “mental sport,” but I’ve never really understood what that meant. There’s no clear definition of what makes a sport “mental”, but as far as I can tell, it’s a relatively easy activity that only becomes challenging if you think about it. Maybe that’s every sport. Maybe that’s also sex and work and literally everything else. In all cases, don’t overthink it. The only problem is that the open road is nothing if not an invitation to think. So, running becomes an exercise in trying to keep the room of your mind empty at all costs.

If blank minds make good runners, no one told authors. From Oates to Murakami to DeLillo, running has long been romanticised by writers, and with good reason. In his piece for The Atlantic, ‘Why Writers Run’, Nick Ripatrazone says that “racking up mile after mile is difficult, mind-expanding, and hypnotic—just like putting words down on a page.” I wish I could lay claim to this expansion of thought, but I can’t. It’s true that the mind drifts when running—it gets bored, calls back old memories, plays with silhouettes of Joshua trees in the distance, like men throwing their hands up to the sky in prayer—but absent-mindedness is dangerous, for it’s not long until it wanders into the territory of how thirsty, tired, and sore you really are.

In order to keep the room of my mind as clean as possible, I started repeating singular phrases over and over. This was not a premeditated action or a piece of advice I learned on the trail. Entirely on accident, I found myself humming little phrases like here we go again or running through the sand or the joy of repetitive motion. They don’t mean anything. They were just lines for my mind to catch on to so it wouldn’t amble; a way to be in the body without being in it. Rather than expansion, I was trying to keep the ring of my thoughts as tight as possible. “Move, as the limbs / of a runner do,” writes Auden, in his poem, ‘The Runner’. “In orbit go / Round an endless track.”

Running then becomes a relentless adherence to the present. A sort of “Be Here Now” pseudo-spiritualism that, on the brink of exhaustion, can feel awfully like the real deal. Out there in the dark, humming here we go again / here we go again to the rhythmic beat of my own stride, felt analogous to the way one might find enlightenment through chanting. With body and mind engaged in endless repetition, I could become a more ideal object-in-motion. Or, to put it another way, it’s very difficult to draw a perfect circle in one line. But in the process of quickly drawing dozens of circles on top of one another, the lines begin to merge to form a pure shape. Some might even call it sublime. However brief, however delusional, the disembodiment of sport can let something like God creep into your bones.

To those in the armed forces, this will come as no surprise. What I was performing was, in effect, one-half of a military cadence. One of those traditional call-and-response work songs, like sound-off; 1 – 2 / sound-off; 3 – 4. When you’re moving and singing, you’re not thinking about the tightness in your shoulder, the throbbing in your bladder, or the impending nuclear war. You’ve found a way to sing your mind small. The loneliness in running alone, of course, is that there is no response to your call. Without a troop, you’re sounding off into the void.

“Call-and-response is my favourite song form on earth,” writes Amy Fusselman, in her book, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, “I’m not sure why, except that I feel like I have done the call part so many times, both literally and metaphorically, without hearing any reply, that call-and-response is like an aural fantasy for me, a place where no pleas go unanswered, where no questions go unheard.” Maybe every sport is an act of fantasy. Maybe every religious experience is a song of call-and-response.

But really, it’s impossible to forget how dull running is. Its sheer boredom and repetition can trick the mind into religious ecstasy as easily as a radio accidentally tuning in to Bible Belt preachers. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how animals view our relationship to running. That is, we sit so comfortably at the top of the food chain, we have turned the act of flight — normally reserved for the sole purpose of not dying—into a recreational exercise. What is chasing you? they must think. Why are you wasting your energy?

 Then again, waste can become its own kind of art form. “Wasting time is a concept,” says Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh, in an interview for It’s Nice That. Perhaps most famous for his “Time Clock Piece”, he spent an entire year punching into a worker’s time clock in his studio, every hour, on the hour, without rest. “People ask me if I do art anymore,” he says. “I’m working hard at wasting time, but I don’t produce anything.”

Instead of pure waste, perhaps running is merely another way of measuring time—into miles, steps, breath, labour, water bottles that need refilling, gym clothes that need washing, washing machines that need quarters, blenders that need a good, hot soak to dislodge the crusted film of yesterday’s protein shake. All things considered, the run may be one of the most accurate ways to measure time, as it never lets you forget that you are a body moving through it. You can’t lose track of time on the trail. Every moment is accounted for—what watch can claim that? After all, “a clock,” writes Mary Ruefle, in her poem, ‘My Pet, My Clock’, “is a very poor way to tell time, for all it ever does it sit there or hang on the wall, and very seldom does it do anything of itself to remind you of time.” Chanting may take you out of the body, let you reduce that capital T, cosmic sense of Time into a small musical phrase, but you are still counting out beats.

The last mile of a race is perhaps the most co-opted sensory experience in all of sport. To say nothing of its overuse in film, television and music videos. I have lost count of the number of branding meetings I have attended where a company has promised to “deliver the last mile of x.” The container of the last mile is large enough to airlift whatever meaning you’d like to shove in there. For a runner, it’s a time when the instrument of your body goes into frenzied autopilot. There is no need for God or song or time in this space because your monkey brain hasn’t evolved to think about those things. In the steaming, graceless way that a meteorite rips through the atmosphere, the body sheds everything nonessential until its shrivelled core hurdles across the finish line. If companies knew how barbaric, how excessive and devoid of beauty the last mile is, they would never use it to sell databases or network security or whatever a blockchain is.

In ‘Opposing Energies’, her essay for New Life Quarterly, Jordan Karnes writes that wielding a competitive spirit is a matter of wrestling with excess. “While giving into some parts of yourself (physical) you must restrain others (emotional), as if the two were not intertwined,” she says. “As if giving into one doesn’t embolden, empower the other.” This balancing act is never harder to manage than in the last mile. Many people inexplicably cry when crossing the finish line, not out of pain or frustration, but as a purely somatic release. Maybe it’s because, after two hours of desperately keeping the room of your mind clear, balanced and free of dust, you let the whole grisly world back in all at once. God’s little temple in your head gets all cluttered up with hunger and thirst and then, eventually, the parking lot and traffic and checking the mail and did you pay the rent yet.

After my race, I ate two servings of spaghetti, drank three beers and soaked in a hot tub with my girlfriend. With my bones all jelly and my mind on simmer, I thought about that unattributed quote that Einstein or Twain or Churchill probably said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet in sport, this is the very definition of progress. Here is the activity and the outcome: do it over and over and over again and the results should change. Do it until your body understands it better than you do, and the outcome will change yet again. In your ceaseless repetition, you should expect different conclusions. It’s like a physics problem slung in a jock strap. This is the anti-logic of sport that tends to draw the most stubborn, bull-headed and perversely talented people to athletics. By definition, sport is a kind of insanity, unhinged enough to fit all kinds of unknown behaviours and result-sets from the same interaction. As Alan Sillitoe writes in his book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the “run of an early morning makes me think that every run like this is a life—a little life, I know—but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening as you can ever get really around yourself.”

With an empty horizon, there’s room for everything on the open road. Out on the trail, you’re the only something in a sport about nothing.


Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. Most recently, his work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue. He lives in Oakland and online at @_chrisames.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 7th, 2018.