You’ve probably seen those cartoons that feature a bespectacled brain and a wide-eyed heart pulling each other in different directions, the heart generally prevailing as it skips jovially away chasing butterflies and rainbows. They’re cute and funny, though I don’t completely believe in the dichotomy these personably drawn organs represent. I’ve never seen “thoughts” and “feelings” as opposites, nor do I believe we must simplistically choose one over the other. The rational and emotional are not necessarily at odds, despite all the turmoil poor Mr. Spock had to go through on Star Trek; like so much in our world (and in outer space), it’s a little more complicated than that.
Take skydiving, for example. Take it far, far away. While I can very easily understand the appeal—literally no experience on earth could deliver such an adrenaline rush—the idea of jumping out of a plane fills me with loathing and horror. It’s not unreasonable to fear falling, as frequently it does not end well at any height, and there are many rational reasons not to undertake skydiving: it’s a genuinely risky thing to do, as avid skydivers will tell you that accidents are shockingly common and nobody will insure you if you foolishly state this as a hobby. Yet my loathing and horror is an entirely emotional response, not a rational one. Any yearning I have for new experiences and thrills is extinguished by my extreme gravity phobia. In this case, the emotional is at war with itself, with the rational simply a background chorus.
And then, in the realm of people who like their feet to leave the ground for no more than a few seconds at a time, there’s speed work. Every Wednesday my running club conducts speed workouts at a local high school track, and in the interest of training for a Boston qualifying marathon, I decided to participate. Speed work generally entails intervals, meaning that the runner goes fast and hard for a short distance or period of time alternating with an even shorter period/distance going slow and easy, repeating the pattern several times. Though you might end up “only” covering a couple of miles, it’s a grueling couple of miles. There are rational reasons why this is a good thing to do if you’re a runner, most obviously, to the point of tautology, running fast makes you a fast runner. This is the reason everyone does it. No one does it because they think it will be enjoyable. Running in circles until you’re about to throw up really shouldn’t be enjoyable.
Yet speed work is enjoyable, weirdly so, in large part because of the people you run with. We’re all way beyond our high school years (some of us way, way, way beyond them), yet here we are at a high school track trying to defy our years and push our bodies hard. Because of this, even though we are pushing hard, nobody here has left their sense of humor at home and nobody takes themselves too seriously. There are people of all speeds and all but the very fastest get lapped, so we’re always passing and being passed by others—which means always cheering and being cheered on. And of course, we’re all in pain. Nothing breeds camaraderie like mutual suffering.
Last Wednesday there were brutal winds gusting from the south, so the speed work coordinator improvised: 250 meters hard, 150 meters easy, in three sets of three repetitions. The 150 would be done going south, so we wouldn’t have to push hard against the wind for very long. That was kind, but it didn’t really lessen the suffering. Running hard feels like I imagine it would feel to drown in an undertow while wearing a suit of armor. You struggle, you flail, you reach, reach, reach, all the while your lungs are both collapsing and bursting at once. Push push pushpushpushpush PUSH.
It hurt. It hurt nine times. Each time I thought an alien had come bursting from my chest dragging my entrails behind it while I desperately tried to catch it so I could stuff everything back inside. And after the ninth time around that damned track, we turned to each other—gasping, aching, barely able to stand upright in the 40mph gusts—and one of us said, “Another three?”
We did another three.
I don’t know why we did it. It isn’t logical, since we were in pain, and emotion doesn’t quite explain it either since, well, pain. We did it, though, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to see all the same people again this Wednesday. Is it heart or head that brings me back? I don’t know, but I damn well intend to keep both of them inside me so I can go on running.