by Amy Kaler
The road is never neutral. You are always moving towards something or away from something, bearing dread, hope, anticipation, longing, as you go. No one is the same at the beginning of the road as at the end.
Roads are also risky. “Highwayman” was once a synonym for the worst sort of thieves, a “roadhouse” is a place where bad things can happen, and when someone titles a novel “The Road”, you know it’s not going to end well. By now, there may be nothing new that can be said about a road – the metaphor itself as exhausted as the travellers.
Speaking of exhausted –
In mid-September, I was running on a road near Banff, Alberta, and I was exhausted. It was my first official road race – Melissa’s Race, 10KM – and along with several thousand other people, I was pushing through rain, snow, sleet, freezing mud, and cold water in all its forms. The weather was not just bad, it was apocalyptic. At the end of the race I ran into a friend who regularly runs Death Marathons and the like, and he used words like “gruelling” and “excruciating”. So now you know I did make it to the end of the road. But I am getting ahead of myself.
By the second kilometre I wanted to give up. My knees hurt, my chest hurt, I could not run uphill in slush and breathe at the same time. I wondered desperately if somewhat dramatically whether it was possible that I would actually die, just fall over and die, in mid-race, and whether that would be better or worse than giving up and revealing myself as a quitter who couldn’t handle the road. This run is supposed to be visually spectacular, circling upward through mountains, but all I could see was the metre right in front of my wet shoes, and the peripheral view of other runners moving steadily past me. My MP3 player with its curated inspirational running music had given up on me a few hundred meters in, so I jammed the cord into my phone and listened to the same six Fleetwood Mac songs over and over. I had to stop. But I had to continue.
After a while I became aware of my feet. At first I noticed my feet because they were not cold, unlike most of the rest of me. Then I became aware of my feet running, side to side, right and left and right, like a pendulum swinging fast while moving forward. The oscillation started to weave into my monotonous survival-focused thoughts. I’m overwhelmed, I can’t keep going. I can do another hundred steps. I can’t do another hundred steps, I’m going to die. I can do another fifty steps. I can’t breathe any more. But I AM still breathing because I’m having this thought which I couldn’t have without oxygen in my brain. I have to stop before we get to the hill. I can keep going up the hill.
Eventually the thoughts narrowed down to I can’t run/I can run. I have to stop/I won’t stop. Left, right, left-and-right. Breathe in, breathe out. I can’t/I can. I have to/I won’t.
Many things invaded my mind, my imagination skittering around a wealth of images because linear thought was not really happening. I was bouncing amongst all the times when we say yes and no, real and unreal, what is and what isn’t, known and unknown. I was Vladimir and Estragon, who can’t go on/ will go on. I was a fresh Marine recruit at boot camp (when I first typed that, I wrote “boot can’t”) marching in cadence: I don’t know/But I’ve been told. I was a hundred therapists and yogis and spiritual teachers breathing: in with the good air, out with the bad.
Am I the only runner in the history of Melissa’s Race to fantasize that I was a yoga teacher? Left, right, left-and-right.
Every step was a question and a choice. Can I? I can. Left side, right side. I did not have the clean precision of a metronome. I was irreducibly organic and visceral, not mechanical. I tripped over roots, skidded on a Dixie cup discarded at one of the water stations and doubled-over a couple of times when I truly couldn’t breathe any more. I kept falling out of rhythm and then falling back into it. Left, right, sideways, then left-and-right again.
I have read that neurologists use diverse forms of bilateral stimulation, alternating sounds or pulses or light on the left side and right side of the body in order to calm erratic nerves and to help people integrate traumatic or awful memories into their present selves. I met no trauma ghosts as I was running, and even now as I write this, the awfulness of the cold and wet has moved away from me, become something I describe rather than something that I feel. But I can easily believe that the left-and-right, one-side-the-other-side, movement helped to draw me through a physically pretty intense experience.
I also believe that this back-and-forth of running opens into a bigger experience of ambivalence and contradiction. I’m in danger/I’m okay. I can/I can’t. I am/I am not. And all the while I am moving forward while I’m tiring out. I am not enjoying this road, but I’m not getting off it either.
You never know how far you can go until you stop, and at last I did stop, with ten kilometres behind me. In the final kilometre, my glasses fogged up so I was running through a fuzzy translucence in which I had to trust that there was an actual road in front of me, which is probably a metaphor for something. At the end of the road, I was indeed not the same person who began it. When I started, I didn’t know if I was the person who could run ten kilometres in terrible weather. I thought I was the person who would give in to the road, who might be humiliated by weakness and failure.
But I did get to the end of the road. I did it one step at a time, but more vividly, I did it step by step by step by step. I have to stop/I can keep going. I can’t breathe/I’m still breathing. I can’t/I did.
Amy Kaler is a professor and associate chair in the department of sociology at the University of Alberta. Her academic work can be found here: https://sites.google.com/ualberta.ca/amykaler/home?authuser=2. Her nonacademic writing about Edmonton can be found here: https://edmontonseries.wordpress.com/