On a Run

Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs

Gardening on Sunday led to sore hamstrings on Monday, which led me, in the evening, to consider attending a yoga class. But I dawdled, until I was running almost irrevocably late, and I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to run to the yoga class. So I stuffed some cash into my fleece pocket and laced up my shoes and started running. At two minutes to seven, I was there, or nearly there; I could have made it, I could have come in out of the cold and paid my five pounds and borrowed a mat and quietly tried to soothe my hamstrings and feel in touch with myself, or summon some hidden inner energy or whatever. But I was having such a nice time running that I just kept going.

It was cold but not too cold - not chest-achingly cold, just cold enough to make me feel like I had to keep going, or else. The sidewalks were wet, and the reflections of streetlights winked in shallow puddles. I was going at a really good pace, for me - down the Iffley Road and over Magdalen Bridge before I even knew it, and onto Longwall Street, and then Holywell, past the King's Arms, where a lone young man stood shivering outside with a cigarette, and up Parks Road, where it was dark and quiet. It was only here, on the edge of the night-black expanse of the University Parks, that I began to realise that my right hand, holding my phone, was numb from cold; I felt a twinge in my right calf; I slowed a little. Outside Keble, a boy and a girl and a bicycle stood. She was crying. He was holding the bicycle upright, saying very little.

***

I used to run quite a bit - never far, never seriously, but out of habit, and, to some extent, out of some fairly intense and persistent need: it felt like a regulating force, a way of maintaining congruity, balance, identity. One summer I worked down in Orange County. It was a hot summer, the sun trapped by chalk-white parking structures and grimy strip malls that all bled into one another, but I had a regular running route, along wide residential streets, across the train tracks, looping round the blessedly shaded center of old Orange. I suffered from bad anxiety that summer and sometimes, trying to ward off a nighttime panic attack, I would close my eyes and start to imagine the route; I would run it in my mind, and it would help. My first summer in Oxford it was a way to get to know the city, but it was also a way of maintaining a sense of other cities; sure it wasn't the Charles, but running along the Thames was not so different. They were still my feet carrying me down riverside paths, my eyes glancing up at other runners.

I run less now - a lot less, as in, hardly ever. Last night was the first time I'd run in - oh, six months, maybe, give or take. This is mainly because of aches and pains that weren't there five or six or ten years ago, and because as an activity necessary for the maintenance of my sanity, running has been supplanted by swimming. But every once in awhile the irrepressible urge takes me to run. And because I'm so used to walking places now, the first few minutes of a run always strike me as miraculous: how can I be moving this fast, on my own two feet? How can I feel so light and comfortable? The last few minutes always strike me as miraculous too: how can I have thought, not that long ago, that I could do this indefinitely? How can I have never noticed that part of myself, that particular complaining muscle?

***

On my way back home last night I paused in the center of town, under the Bridge of Sighs, to take a photo. I love this particular bit of Oxford and I love it perhaps best at night (but ask me tomorrow, I'll say something completely different), when people are only ever passing through, not loitering, when the shadows come alive. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - I've been thinking, having spent the last six years or so here, that thing that's great about living in Oxford is being on the outside, looking in. It's taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but here's what I think now: better not to be one of the fresh-faced students, full of energy and desire to be elsewhere. Better not to be someone clinging on to a past, to glory days played out here. Better to be the person watching. What's special about this place is the energy that comes from all that hopefulness and angst. What's special is seeing it happen, being amongst it but not of it.

So I took my photo - not framed very carefully, because I was in a hurry to keep running. On the other side of the bridge a man was crouched with a bigger, more complex camera, setting up a far more elaborate, deliberate shot. And what does that shot look like? Are my feet, briefly planted, in it? (My own image, blurred and manipulated and Instagram-ed, isn't detailed enough to reveal the crouched photographer, though he is, in theory, somewhere there). Queen's Lane was full of cyclists, some of whom were whistling as they rode, perhaps as a way of asserting their presence before blind corners. The High Street was full of pedestrians, mostly alone, carrying backpacks and briefcases, on their way somewhere. Iffley Road was full of other runners, all of whom I was simultaneously in cahoots and in competition with.