One, two, one, two … My feet propel me forward, hitting the pavement with the steady rhythm of a metronome. My heart beats in time to the bipedal orchestra. A wave of endorphins bathes my brain. A feeling of serenity engulfs my entire body and I feel at peace. Running is how I connect to God and how I tap into my inner muse.
Only minutes into my journey, I experience a surge of ideas. I understand why successful authors like Murakami train for marathons between writing sessions, or why Hemingway came up with his grandest ideas as he walked along the Seine. There is something about bilateral stimulation and a good lymphatic purge that ignites the creative fire within.
I could write an entire novel in the time it takes me to run this circuit, if only I could capture my thoughts fast enough. Instead, I consciously file my ideas away and continue to tune in to the audiobook playing softly in the background on my iPod while I absorb the beautiful ocean scenery around me.
Perhaps the desire to run and the love of literature go hand in hand. Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to read and write. While other children were watching TV or playing video games, I was curled up on the couch with two or three books scattered around me. Hours could go by and I would hardly notice, so absorbed was I in the infinite worlds literature offered me. I kept a journal and wrote elaborate short stories. English was my favourite class in school.
My second favourite school activity was my position on the cross-country running team. My best days were spent practising followed by hours of reading and writing in the evening. While running or writing or reading, I entered what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” where time seems irrelevant and I am in a pleasant state of deep concentration and absorption in my activity. It is the closest I have come to perfect contentment.
My connection to running and writing has not always been this strong. It is hard to believe that only months ago I was clinging to life in the bowels of the local psychiatric unit.
Running at that time was a means of torture, far from the spiritually nourishing practice it has become today. I ran to punish my body for being gluttonous and fat. The anorexic demon inside me compelled me to run on limbs starved of muscle and bones weakened by years of starvation. The only thoughts that flooded my brain during these boot camp-like expeditions were tallies of the calories I had consumed and self-deprecating messages goading me into running just a little bit farther. I would arrive home exhausted and drained.
I resented the runners who looked blissful in their activity. Eventually, I was running from health instead of toward a sense of well-being, and it nearly cost me my life. My last tormented run nearly ran me into the ground, six feet under.
Worse than the loss of my physical health was the damage to my spiritual and emotional health. When I started to struggle with anorexia, I stopped writing altogether and disconnected from that part of my being. My perfectionism stifled my creative process because I was convinced that nothing I wrote was ever good enough. I shifted that energy into an unhealthy obsession with physical activity. Running no longer induced a flow moment. In fact, I was so caught up in my internal critique while I ran that I am shocked I never got lost on my route. Somehow, I always managed to make it home, but my mind was far from enjoying the present. My two favourite pastimes were usurped by the drive to be thin.
While anorexia robbed me of my ability to express myself creatively, it didn’t stop me from enjoying reading. In fact, if anything I read more when I was ill. Books saved my life. Reading was the only activity that quieted the eating disorder voice that incessantly told me I was fat. I sought solace in literary characters and gravitated toward resilient protagonists; if they could overcome adversity, then so could I. Reading kept a glimmer of hope alive inside my otherwise hollow, empty body.
It took having to stop running in order to permit that connection between pounding the pavement and creativity to return. Surrendering to the support and safety of the inpatient psychiatric unit, I allowed my body to heal. As my body was renourished, the thoughts in my mind mirrored my physical wellness by shifting to a more positive tone.
In stillness, I developed a deep desire to write again, something I had not done in years. Writing helped me refocus my thoughts away from my body image and internal experience to awareness of the world apart from my eating disorder. Channelling my angst by putting pen to paper allowed me to constructively exert myself and experience that endorphin rush that running gives me until my body was well enough to perform again.
In and out of hospitals and residential treatment facilities for 15 years, at 27, I am back at a healthy weight. Today, I am strong enough in both body and mind to reap the benefits of a good run. I approach running like an artist date with myself. Often I arrive home and don’t even bother changing, the words flowing out of my hand the minute I put my fingers to the keyboard.
Nourishment can come in many forms. The food that nourishes my body gives me the strength I need for my most important nourishment, which I get from running, reading and writing – the nourishment of my soul.
Tara Levis lives in Victoria.