Insatiable
JOE MADSEN

You become insatiable. That feeling you achieve, it makes you insatiable. And all the effort, energy, and exertion, it leaves you exhausted, daunted, even, but it’s a gripping desire, and you’re insatiable now. You were clumsy with doubt when you first started. Still you’ve kept coming back. Back again and again because you know how sweet it is at the peak, how every move, every lurch, every thrust forward promise an explosive release to refill your stores tenfold. And that reward for your endurance cascades across every muscle in your body. It’s magnificent. Pain and pleasure wedged together, each distinct, each inseparable. Everything tenses, everything rushes at once, accelerating each moment, until it all washes over in pulsating blasts of pure serenity. And you breathe heavy. Deep. Focused. For a moment or two. Or three. And then It fades. And then you’re calm.

And if it lasts, you can manage to think nothing for a minute, and without knowing how or why, you know you’ve changed a little bit somehow. Chest heaving. Pores pouring. Few clothes to think of. And the clothes you’ve kept on are soaked in sweat. Words and memories, the tools of the mind, slowly start to return, but breathless, you linger a bit in that other space. You still recall what it felt like to climb to the peak of your animal instincts. And the memory is what leaves you changed. Even if only a little. You need to do it again because you are insatiable. And the only ones who matter are you and the partner beneath you. Your partner the earth. The ground. The paved road. No one but you and the road on this climactic escapade, however long you have together, and with each beat of your feet against the street, each burning breath, you arrive, little by little.

You’re a born runner. And this what it feels like.

Waiting to Run

At least it can, but in fairness, not always, and not to everyone. It depends on how far you take it, and not in meters but in efforts. Like any physical excursion, you draw what you invest. And you gain what you don’t retain. When you run, you free yourself from all that’s superfluous, all your possessions, all the things you carry, and you throw them aside because you can only take what matters: one instrument and your skill in wielding it.

In this moment, the instrument is your body. In this moment, the skill is your determination. Your grit. With every mile and minute of running, you can watch your determination grow with your limbs; mind and body share the same will and show it with each laboring step. No, it’s not easy to begin, but everyone would do it if it were.

It all started to swirl together, the doubt and the motivation, the pain and the pleasure, none born without the other.

In fact, this conclusion is the one that all concede: running sucks when you start. Everything hurts, and your body wears it all, from battered toenails to stitches under ribs. And your mind isn’t coping well feeling alone, feeling exhausted, feeling so fucking exhausted. It’s a solitary endeavor, this running, because when you’re so breathless that you can’t talk, the only discussion you can have is battling the urge to give up, to give in, to just fucking stop already for the love of God. What even is the point of this ridiculous activity, this running to nowhere in particular? And that berating self doubt, the one tied to all the pain in your bones, it carries on as long as you do. Sometimes, though, in those early first attempts, you catch a glimmer of thrill, a spark on the flint, and sometimes even, just sometimes, it’s enough to make you come back. Again. And then again. And then again and again and again. And without even noticing it, you’re insatiable, doing battle with your doubts.

Running in Mud

It’s not all lucid, recalling early days of running, but looking back between now and my teenage years, I can understand with sharper judgment what I was going through as I first took up the sport. Or at least I can make a story that makes sense. In those years, I was always young for my age, by my looks, stature, and fledgling uncertainty, and as a high school freshman, I jumped from experience to experience with little expectation in between. If what they say is true, that youth is wasted on the young, I’m glad I had it in spades because with little understanding of myself and my potential, I needed all that I could waste. I had no agenda for the things I tried. And I don’t know if much else could be expected of a 14-year-old, so I try not to become frustrated when I consider how I was at that age. Whether I obsess or not, it doesn’t change.

When I joined my school’s cross-country team, I went not knowing where I’d fall but found out quickly that I fell near the end. Didn’t matter, I thought. I just wanted to make friends. Maybe even get in shape for spring sports. I didn’t care for any objectives, and I had none to care for because I was indifferent, and the indifference blinded me to what I could possibly learn. That with running, I could grow, I could discover myself in ways I hadn’t thought possible. Indifference blinded me, though, and I was indifferent for years. Ignorant to the possibilities.

What even is the point of this ridiculous activity, this running to nowhere in particular?

Still I kept coming back, season after season, improving some, but hovering in mediocrity. And as I consider why I returned to running each year, I think now indifference was only part of the story, that maybe it was even just a mask, because I would not have kept with running if I didn’t care one scrap, if I were utterly indifferent. I wanted to be better, but I never got as good as I could’ve gotten, and I think by donning indifference, I gave myself limits. My very own mask.

Running in the Waves

So, I ask myself what was I masking? I think most things we mask are things we fear, and oddly enough, I think I feared being better. Getting better. Wanting to get better. Trying to get better despite the insurmountable task. Despite how foolish I would look. Despite failing and flailing along the way. Despite how far I’d have to go to get to a point where I could run with the best, run boldly, and run courageously, without caring who watched or had opinions, and realizing the fantasy of it all, being a better runner than I was.

But it lived as a fantasy, as long as I wore my mask of indifference, and eventually, when I was 18, I gave up running for a full two years. If there’d been a chance to learn something, I hadn’t given it to myself. Not yet at least.

So for two years in college, I didn’t run. I floated, from experience to experience to experience, on occasion finding some passion and excitement to keep me engaged, but never enough to make me excel. Even in academics, where I’d always thrived, I found myself unwilling to surpass a certain threshold of potential because what good would trying to improve be? I was good enough. Why risk failing in the attempt to get better?

I was still under the same spell I’d cast on myself as a runner, but without running in my life, I no longer had that clear point of comparison. I grew despondent; I stopped investing in things I used to care about. And without understanding, I’d grown unmotivated by neglecting the things that once motivated me at a time in my life when I was running. When, despite teenage apathy, running was one of those motivating things. I hadn’t recognized it at the time, but challenge is the blessing of running, and if I’d paid it more mind, my struggle with the sport might have been my solution.

I stumbled on this realization in a particular bout of sadness. I thought, haphazardly, that maybe some actual movement could shake my stagnant mind. And without a team, or a coach, or any external factor directing how I spent my time or energy, I felt for the first time in a long time that I was ready to learn. And I did learn.

Everything hurts, and your body wears it all, from battered toenails to stitches under ribs.

I was rudely reminded that pain was inevitable as those first weeks back at running kicked my ass. Every joint from my toes to my knees creaked. My lungs were on fire. And I thought for sure my shins would shatter at any given moment, forming fissures like the cracks in the pavement they were pounding. But I learned. By the grace of pain, exhaustion, and crippling self doubt, I learned. And the first lesson I learned was patience. To be patient is to endure, and I think endurance is about accepting and challenging your humanity at once. Endurance running isn’t acting tough or keeping perfect form the whole distance. Endurance isn’t being invincible, either. It’s weighing every step, each one on its own, without tiring at the thought of all the steps that are left. It’s knowing where you’ve been to drive how far you’ll go, not dreading where you haven’t to stop all at once.

Race

When I learned patience, I felt my motivation grow. I knew I wouldn’t become the runner I was envisioning overnight, but I also knew I was on the right path, and dreading the space between the two points would do me no favors. I’d made a start. And no one could take that away except me. Slowly I became more self-aware, and as I realized there were more lessons to learn and relearn, the harder it became for me to quit and walk away. Lessons in staying present. Lessons in tricks of the mind. Lessons in respecting my limits without being shackled by them. Lessons in avoiding the sabotage of comparing myself to others. I often repeat a mantra when I run, “you can’t go a path you’re not on.”

I hadn’t recognized it at the time, but challenge is the blessing of running, and if I’d paid it more mind, my struggle with the sport might have been my solution.

I couldn’t let go after all I’d forced myself to learn. There was too much value at stake, too much invested in my progress. What if I abandoned all my work? How long would it take me to get back to this place, knowing what I now knew? There was so much to learn from toil and pain. And because I knew what I could learn from the pain, the pain became a source of pleasure. People talk of a runner’s high, when the body relieves exhaustion with a heavy cocktail of endorphins, and that much is true. To me, though, that physical relief ties simultaneously with the mental relief of knowing how much can be gained from deliberate exhaustion. It all started to swirl together, the doubt and the motivation, the pain and the pleasure, none born without the other. They spun me further and further forward, growing stronger with each loop, like the relentless circles of my legs along my path. I still felt pain, but I rejoiced knowing it was there because of what it would bring: a baptism of fire. The pain told me that there was a path forward and that I was on it. And once I began to see the other side, I knew that running, this most basic of human abilities, could push me through all facets of my life, not just the sport itself. But I had to return to something I’d never excelled at before, something that used to make me feel utterly mediocre, to learn the scope of my own ability.

It isn’t easy to convince others, but when I say running gives me pleasure, I’m being quite frank. Of course I feel the pain. I have a human body, too, and every aching bone and muscle reminds me of that. But being human isn’t the same as being beaten by limits. And of course it’s not easy. But discovering the best parts of yourself rarely is. Six years ago, I knew I wanted to be better than what I was, and in a rare moment of clarity, I’d chosen to return to something that for years had made me feel less than in every way. Now it makes me feel like I’m truly being alive. Running once represented a difficult time in my life, but but by taking it up again, I learned that revisiting hard times isn’t necessarily a problem; it can be a solution.

I still revel in the pain of running because I know there are secrets left to unlock, lessons left to learn, and they won’t stop as long as I let myself continue to change, grow, and rebuild. I still delight in the breakthroughs I experience when I’m in motion because I know that as I learn my body, I also learn my mind. And they’re incredible, the breakthroughs, so personal and universal at the same time. You see how much you can do. You hear how much noise you can silence to do it. You understand the smallness and magnitude of every step you take, and you blossom in these breakthroughs. They leave you wide-eyed, panting, sometimes void of words altogether, and you’re so exhausted that all you have left to process is what you can see and feel: the world around you and your body within it. And they’re both magnificent. In the grand picture of all we can imagine, what you achieve looks little, but little doesn’t lack the profound and powerful. And for that feeling you become insatiable.

Running Into the Horizon

 





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