“At Least She Never Walked”

A few years ago when I was living in New York, I was given a book by a colleague and friend written by a Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”.  I liked it. But now that I’m laden with a few more years of pain, joy and scars, I am turning back to it. Now I understand the depths of his words that quietly flowed over me before.  I used to see this as a book about running, but now I understand that it is about so much more.

Probably the most famous quote from Murakami’s book is about why he runs.

“I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue… I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human being’s emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”

At the time I first read it, I didn’t identify with it. I thought running was filling a void in my life, not seeking one… Running these crazy long distances allowed me to tap into a connection to pain, to overwhelming triumph, to failure, to other people, to nature, to an inner strength I didn’t know existed.

But now it makes sense. Now I get it. I don’t run to fill a void. I run to seek a void from the constant searching for ‘more’. Because the ‘more’ is achieved in those moments of pain, triumph, and failure. Because running in forward motion allows me to stand still and be present.

When I was a kid, I played it safe. I was constantly scared of “messing up” or making the wrong decisions…. I was scared of any kind of change. I was a geek, I was teased, I was constantly worried about what others thought. I studied, I swam, I danced, I played piano. I gave up a school trip to Japan because I didn’t want it to impact my math grades. I dreamed of something ‘more’, but I was too scared to try.

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Only as a young adult did I start to open myself up to ‘more’. I took more risks and allowed myself to try, and to fail. I traded in my job waitressing at a nightclub for a volunteer stint in Ghana. I wanted to throw myself into that uncomfortable space and see how it changed me. I went on exchange and fell in love for the first time. He could have been the right one, but I broke his heart. I was searching for ‘more’, and thought that meant I needed to be alone. Years later when I realized what I had done, he broke mine.

I went to India during Holi festival and was left with technicolour skin for weeks. I lost my breath at the honesty with which kids held me in their gaze. I got sick. I had operations. I taught Buddhist monks in Thailand and immersed myself in another religion. I rode elephants and took rafts down

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rivers. I studied, I struggled, and I made it into law school. I went into the jungle in Ecuador and cut myself off from communication from everyone for a month and a half. I learned a new language. I learned to like myself better. I allowed myself to gain weight. I played bongo drums with weird Peruvian artists and drank pisco sours until the sun rose. I climbed Machu Picchu and hitchhiked on a train under the moonlight back to town. I bribed my way across borders, slept in weird places, bonded with strangers and sandboarded down dunes in the desert.  I revelled in the search.

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In law school, I befriended men who adored me and dated men whom I only really liked. I went to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia and the West Bank.  I danced around goats at weddings, broke my jaw trying to pretend I could mountain bike, road dangerously on motorbikes, and saw the curvature of the earth awaken before me from the top of Kilimanjaro. I still wanted ‘more’.

I took a job in New York that paid me six figures because it was the smart thing to do… Maybe the search was to end in ‘normal’? But then I left for an unpaid job in London that brought me to Syria, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. I went back to school. I dated the wrong guy and let myself think I was no longer worth love.

burmaI moved to Afghanistan and felt a deep sense of purpose, even in the mundane.  I felt confused and overwhelmed, but being surrounded by death, in a strange way I felt alive. I felt the air of bomb blasts on my chest, breathed dust into my lungs, got drunk on illegal champagne, and volunteered at a girls’ school. I was brought to my knees at the ability of these kids to dream with hope for themselves and their country in the midst of chaos. I danced until 4 am in Dubai, ran in circles until midnight in an armed compound in Kabul, prayed silently to our Nepalese guards for safety, and escaped to a jungle retreat in Sri Lanka, surrounded by candles and birds instead of gunfire and planes.  The search for ‘more’ never subsided.

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I fell in love with someone I thought was my ‘forever’ and was transported and transformed. I found a deep belief in someone else that transcended all logic, and ignored all common sense. I believed I was accepted. I believed we would have endless adventures together. I believed I was no longer alone. I believed I could stop searching for ‘more’. I believed I had found ‘it’. I was wrong. I. Got. Hurt.

I’m starting to wonder, is there an endpoint to the endless search for more? Or is the search itself a constant state that we should actually strive to keep? I’m not sure at this point. But I do know that as exciting and fulfilling as the search can be, it is exhausting.Image

So that is why I run. Because when my legs are in motion, I’m there. I’m in the present – I’m at ‘more’, if only for a brief minute. This is the comfort of the void. In the pain, the suffering, the triumph, the struggle, my constant drive for ‘more’ is silenced. By moving forward in space, I allow myself to stand still in time.  Ultrarunning allows this to happen in the most extreme form… and that is why I do it. That is why I need it. I that is why I hope I will never stop.Image

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this, which is perhaps why I am deeply drawn to others that have the same thirst for ‘more’. Drawn to those who actively choose to leave behind comfort in order to learn more about themselves, in whatever form. It doesn’t have to be through running. Perhaps in life the goal is to find a way to sustain the search, rather than to seek some comfortable end point. Perhaps in love the goal – at least for me? – is to find someone willing to search with you. Or someone who doesn’t make you want to stop.  I’m not saying it is healthy to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction, but I do know that for me, the search for more keeps me alive.

One of my favourite descriptions of the search for this Murakami-esque void through running can be found in a comic on The Oatmeal in which the author describes his epiphany during one particularly dark and stormy run:

“It was on this day, during this terrible and wonderful run, that a thought occurred to me, a thought which has never left me: I’ve always considered the question to be ‘Why am I alive? Why am I here? What’s the point of me?” And to that I say: WHO CARES! FORGET THE WHY. You are in a raging forest full of beauty and agony and magical grapey beverages and lightning storms and demon bees. THIS IS BETTER THAN THE WHY.

I run because I seek that clarity. Maybe it’s superficial. Maybe it’s just adrenaline and endorphins and serotonin flooding my brain. But I don’t care. I run very fast because I desperately want to stand very still. I run to seek a void.  The world around me is so very, very loud. It begs me to slow down, to sit down, to lie down. And the buzzing roar of the world is nothing compared to the noise inside my head. I’m an introspective person, and sometimes I think too much, about my job and about my life. I feed an army of pointless, bantering demons.  But when I run, the world grows quiet.  Demons are forgotten….”

cryingAs with any breakup, I’ve been consumed in these past few days with the why and the pointless, bantering demons. But I know the solution is to put on my shoes, and keep running. Keep searching. Keep seeking the void.

I’m humbled and overwhelmed by the response of my friends this past week. People I met once at a conference years ago who reached out, people I haven’t seen for years, and people whom I’ve leaned on heavily before to get me out of a hole.  Reply messages are coming. Thank you. I hope I never have to repay the favour, but I am here.

So. Next steps. My future in Hong Kong is no longer my present, and I’m working on accepting that. I’m headed to France (via a stop in NYC) for immersion classes for November and then Oslo for a course in protection work… After that, who knows? The search continues.  And it is the familiar scary, exciting and exhausting place that I know too well.

One of my other favourite quotes from Murakami’s book is that he hoped on his gravestone it would say that he was a writer (and runner), and that “at least he never walked”.  It fits with another quote that a friend sent to me this week:

“Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting “holy shit…what a ride!”

I may be hurting now, but at least I’m not walking.

skydiving running

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Categories: Musings about life

45 Comments »

    • I knew Nat would’ve read this before me, because she’s that good and amazing. But I have to echo what she has to say. And I love this piece; keep searching for more – you’ll find it.

  1. Stephanie, there is something about your posts that resonate with me. Seriously had tears in my eyes reading this one. So much rings true for me with what you wrote. Ironic, I just pulled out Murakami’s book again one of my favourites. Am running a half tomorrow in Toronto. 15 days until NYC. Am sore, tired, emotional hence the tears. But will run tomorrow thinking of not what “more”, but at least I am not walking. Keep running and writing.
    Kelly

  2. awesome read and and awesome words ..as always ..if your ever passing through Dubai please gve me a shout ..would love to take you running through the mountains and the Desert ..enjoy :-)x

  3. Sometimes I sit and think but most times I just sit. Same with running, if you think, it spoils the view. So many ‘runners’ write blogs. You write life in vivid colours. Impressive and gritty, down to earth and sincere. Whatever you do next will keep us captivated. I hope through the next episode of your journey, there is contentment. If we’re honest, that’s what we all seek – wishing you luck and happiness and eternal running.

  4. In between running, write. You write well. You have something to say and you are paying attention–which many people are not. There is no prize at the end, no glory in stopping–at least not for those who relish the joy and mystery of life in this amazing world.

    Try this from eecummings “Is 5”

    “You and I are not like mostpeople. Mostpeople have less in common with us than the squarerootofminusone”

    –which my nerdy friend, you probably remember from high school calculus is “i”.

    The right partner is the one who will not have to have explained to him how you have chosen to live your life. He will finish the race right there along side you. There will be no need to explain why you run, what you seek and when that happens there will be no voids that need filling.

  5. Stephanie,

    Great post. A friend of mine and former classmate of yours (Sheila Crosby) put me onto your blog almost two years ago and I’ve silently followed your posts ever since. I also had the pleasure of meeting Ray last October at running camp in the Tetons (the beauty of the small inter-connected Ultra world).

    Until now I’ve been quite content to sit on the sidelines and admire your accomplishments through your well written prose but your recent post has spurred me into action. It is my pleasure to share with you some well written words that have helped me through many transitional periods.

    i beg you…. to have patience with everything unresoved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very Foreign language. don’t search For the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. and the point is to live everything. live the questions now. perhaps then, someday Far in the Future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer….

    -rainer maria rilke-

    Don’t stop running and happy trails!

    • This is a late reply, but one I’ve been meaning to write. Thank you so much for this comment all those months ago. I loved the quote. It is true, I could not have lived the answers I have now back then… but now I can. I thank you for sending that to me! Please give my best to Sheila and thank you for following.

  6. What an awesome piece. You are amazing and you will continue flying (running 😜). Sending you love and strength from the sand pit x

  7. Steph, this is very inspiring and beautiful, thank you. Sometimes I think it takes some really traumatic experience to pour out something so meaningful and beautiful, so you gotta tell yourself that your suffering is worth it ;-p

    I didn’t have a chance to say to you a few wks ago, but really wanted to say it. You are one of the most amazing, inspiring and accomplished girls I’ve ever met and Hong Kong is simply too small a world for you. I think your path is meant for “the world” and seems to me like God has a way of pushing you back on track…

    Murakami’s idea of the void totally resonates in me. The more I run, the more I have a deep sense of surrender, to nature, to my path and to my calling. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t have a lifelong partner travelling with me on this search. But rather, many many interesting people joining me on this journey, each showing me one facet of life. For good reasons.

    Found a meaningful quote from Caroline Adams and thought about you:-

    “Your life is a sacred journey. It is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path… exactly where you are meant to be right now… And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.”

    Sending you my best wishes, big hugs and kisses. Keep running!! 😉

    Agnes

  8. This is so beautiful, intense and so honest. Thank you.
    I can very much relate to it. Jut getting ready for a solo unsupported run in Asia. It’s not an organised run either, but rather just living the dream.

  9. I don’t know you but I´m also a runner. This year for me was a mess, with lots of things happening in my life, lots of changes that I can´t handle properly and of course it´s affect a lot my runnings in a point to make me think about why I became a runner and what the real meaning of it in my life.From where I am running from and off what I’m running for.
    For six months I stopped my 8 years running routine because It´is simply does not fits in my life anymore. But in a point in this time I start to feel something wrong like I’m missing something value and important in my life. There’s about a month I start to slowly come back to run, and I have lots of thoughts about why keep running and what makes me so lacking in ” a life without running”.
    Because of this your post I start to read the Murakami´s book and I completely identify myself. The void, be ok with some loneliness and how run stops the world outside us and let me just live the “now” for some moments.
    In this your post I have a chance to know some more about you and your life and I could quickly identify you more than a runner you are also a fighter. And again I could identify myself. Your post was a real gift for me because reading you I could answer some significant “whys” that I was looking for some months ago.I want to tank to you a lot for share some of your life and even you don’t know nothing about me or who I am you words bring me lots of joy and relief.

    • Oh thank you for this. It touches me that my words have helped you. It helped me to write them. And I love that you see a fighter in me… She’s still in there and I’m trying to bring her back!! Keep on running, keep on fighting. No matter if we fail, at least we’re not walking xx

    • Hi Miranda – sorry for the late reply! I’m not an expert on running for kids that young, but I would say… just make sure they enjoy what they do. Long distance for a 6 or 9 year old may be a 5k, whereas long distance for adults is obviously much longer! If you guys can all enjoy a run together, that is amazing. Get out to a park somewhere and try running on trails. The more of an adventure you make it – like an exploration – the less it will seem like a chore. Running, particularly at that age, should be FUN. Kids tend to like to sprint, rather than do endurance, so just see what they prefer… Good luck! And happy trails!

  10. My darling Stephanie. ..it was a pleasure working with you seeing you run every day around UNOCA compound..i’m still can’t believe you and Stuart have parted ways..there’s no magic formula to step things right…but being the strong woman I know you to be…I believe in YOU. Keep ur head up sweetie and remember to be gentle to yourself!! Hugs . Xo. Cristina/ex UNAMA

  11. Thanks for the ‘heads up’ on the book – I’ll be downloading that tonight… Since hitting the longer trails, with my ultra running, I’ve been a true believer of the “flow” and “rhythm” that many runners talk about and refer to in their blogs, books and talks…
    It’s an exciting thing to share with someone, that knows exactly what you’re talking about and not thinking that you’re plain ol’ crazy! 😉

    If interested, have a look at this one… I was fortunate enough to have been at one of Mark’s talks – great evening and book…!
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Running-Pack-Thoughts-Meaning-Mortality/dp/1847082025

  12. Hi Stephanie,
    I came across your website just now and this was the first post I read. At this point in my life it is clearly synchronicity at work…I can’t tell you just how much your story and tales hit home to me and how much I can relate.
    Your honesty, vulnerability and transparency to share your experience takes courage and strength and has inspired me greatly.

    I have been also searching for more in my life travelling the world engaging in so many adventures till now and in the last 18 months just started back running.
    It has helped me tremendously especially in the last 12 months and I am now excited to be training for my first half marathon in May and full run a few months later. I have just started learning about ultra running, I didn’t know it existed until recently and so happy to have found your site to hear about your experiences. If you come to Sydney please let me know I would love to go running with you,
    Wishing you all the beauty and light this world has to offer,
    Keep shining your light and vibrant energy
    GG 🙂

  13. Hi Stephanie,

    I just figured out your blog couples of days ago, and I immediately fell in love with it and your wittiness. I’m also a trail runner (just started last year though), but I mostly only did half marathons. After reading your blog I feel that I need to thank you for being so honest on telling your stories. You may not realize it but this writing really gave me strength on facing the situation I’m struggling with at the moment. I could deeply relate to this story particularly and with what you were feeling when you were in this situation. And yes, some people seek comfort from their therapist, some go to bar to get drunk and forget things, but we chose running as our therapy! I haven’t met you in person but only from reading your blog I know that you’re a strong person and beautiful inside and outside. Thanks so much for inspiring me! Hugs from Indonesia!

    Rani

  14. Hi ultra runner girl,
    My girlfriend put me onto your post about the male-only Iran marathon; I thought of the argument, while reading, that it might act as a catalyst for change. Your blunt parallel with the black and white golf course quickly shut me up.

    I then saw this post pop u[ and it resonates a great deal. Thanks for sharing your experiences and views online- I am sure it has helped and encouraged far more than you are aware.

    Blue skies to you,
    Brenni

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