By Megan Baxter

On Running

True Story, Issue #21

Equally a meditation on the pursuit of running, a reflection on Lewis and Clark’s endeavor to map the continent, and an exploration of the body’s limitations, True Story #21 asks: Is it possible to outrun yourself?

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?

—Walt Whitman


I want to say up front that I am not a good runner. I am neither very fast nor very graceful. I don’t run competitively, although I have completed a few races. But nor am I a jogger. Some people would tell you that although in both gaits there is a moment when both feet are off the ground, what distinguishes running from jogging is speed. Some people would tell you that runners strike the earth with the forefoot while joggers strike with their heels, but in fact many competitive long-distance runners are heel strikers. For me, the difference between the two comes down to intent. Jogging is something like a shuffle, a lack of commitment to intensity. But running . . .  Running is a pursuit or an escape. To run, the body goes all in; every ligament and muscle fiber strikes, pulls, and returns to the earth; the runner tips forward like the front edge of a wheel, rolling into space.

I remember the first time I ran. I felt like a queen, divine on the earth. I was thirteen and had never run before. I remember the night clearly because of its novelty and because running is a little like taking flight. I often dream that if I run fast enough I will begin to fly, as if speed on the runway is all the jet plane requires.

• • •

Pace:

Noun

  1. A walking step, not too long, not too short—in the United States, roughly 2½ feet.

The sort of step I take around the edge of my yard in the morning, surveying the quality of the coming day.

Verb

  1. To walk at a steady rate, back and forth, as an expression of anxiety.
  2. To keep pace.
  3. To measure by walking.

To pace is both to lead and establish competitive speed and to do something slowly in order to prevent overexertion. That is, although John Henry kept pace with that steam engine, he did not pace himself, and his heart burst, while the cold steel kept ringing.

• • •

In my sixth-grade history class, we did research papers on famous explorers. I was assigned Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. I became enamored of the two captains (although Clark was never officially granted that title) and especially fond of Lewis, who seemed, even from my amateur research in the middle school’s library, to be somewhat eccentric, somehow unfitting of the explorer archetype. Lewis was prone to what his contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, described as “hypochondria,” noting that the condition ran in Lewis’s family. Modern medicine would have diagnosed him with severe depression.

In 1809, at the age of thirty-five, Lewis committed suicide. It had been three years since the expedition had returned to St. Louis. In that time, he had run up debts, developed a crippling addiction to alcohol, struggled at his post as governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, failed at love, and been unable, or perhaps simply too depressed, to complete his written account of his great journey. He was carrying his journals with him when he died. Revisionist biographers claim that his death was murder, noting the brutal nature of his demise, or that he died accidently while cleaning his pistols. Even as a girl, I knew this was wistful, their need to rewrite a hero’s end.

I include the details of that night here only to summon the horror I felt as a girl at the absolute darkness of suicide, that shutdown of all possible routes. The story begins always with two gunshots, one to the head, then another to the chest, fired from his pistols. Some sources say he died shortly afterward from the bullet wounds. Others claim that when Lewis’s servant found him, he was slumped on his buffalo and bearskin blankets, slicing his veins with his shaving razor. He begged the man for water. “I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die,” he is reported to have said.

He bled out before dawn.

“I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him,” Clark wrote to his brother, describing Lewis’s passing. A few months prior to Lewis’s death, Clark had named his first son Meriwether Lewis Clark. He didn’t know that during the drunk, hallucinatory final days of Lewis’s life, his former traveling companion had claimed repeatedly that Clark was near and would help him. His servant reported his saying that “he herd [Clark] Comeing on, and Said that he was certain [he would] over take him, that [he] had herd of his Situation and would Come to his releaf.” I thought of the times when the two had separated on their journey to pursue forked waterways or explore passes through the mountains and how easily, and with what faith, they had found each other again in the wilderness. At his most lost, Lewis had expected Clark to locate him.

I wrote my research paper from the point of view of Lewis before he fired the first bullet, in a series of educational flashbacks. To me, he became a symbol of discovery, of expansion, but also of emptiness. How, I wondered—and wonder still—could a man fill his memories with so many maps of beauty, herds of 10,000 buffalo, Indian ponies in the Bitterroots, the Great Falls of the Missouri, and still shut down that vision from within? Could you run fast enough, or far enough, to escape yourself? I think not. I think Lewis taught me that you can’t outrun yourself.

• • •

When I was five years old, I almost died from a lack of oxygen. It felt not so much like Darth Vader’s invisible choking force strangling my throat as a slow march away from light. My nail beds turned blue. So did my lips. I remember the sensation of tunnel vision, zooming in on the flooring tiles. By the time I got to the hospital, the scary part—the “I can’t breathe” part—was long past. Sometime in that breathless night I had come to terms with the fact that I could die, though I think I must have understood it only as not breathing. I might have said that I understood that I could stop breathing and then rest, for it is very hard to breathe into the tight fist of asthmatic lungs, and I had been fighting that constriction for hours. The long sleep of death would have been welcome.

And because I had learned that it was actually rather easy to die, after I recovered from that near-fatal attack death became even more frightening. Death was in every inhale, every game of tag, every hide-and-go-seek chase, every gym class. My asthma was triggered by allergens and temperature changes, too, so petting a cat could be deadly, or helping my dad mow the lawn, or waiting outside for school to begin in a frigid New England winter and then charging into an overheated room in my snow suit.

My childhood was a well-regulated series of interactions, aided by medications. In any other age I would surely have died, if not on that night when I was five, then on one of the many other occasions when even triple doses of inhaled steroids failed and I was rushed to the ER. The doctors said there was a chance I might outgrow it entirely, but to imagine that I could grow out of such a routine, that my lungs would change like my breasts and hips would, seemed impossible.

• • •

Dear Meriwether Lewis,

In your dreams the country becomes a map with waterways like a surgeon’s guide to the circulatory system, upcountry, downstream, all following the easiest path. The mountains rise and again you are trapped in the snowy gulches and deep-throated avalanche channels. You at the mouth of the Columbia, where I’ve read there are more waterfalls per acre than anywhere else in the world; great corridors fall down into that river, steep and tough in the north and choked with a mist that breaks through the spruce and cedar at the coast. You are there at the edge of everything, camped for the wet season in a shingled fort, the rain in your bones and in the blue of your wrist veins. You trace them up the forearm, to that soft spot in the elbow and then up through your shoulder and across the breast bone, to where they meet and pulse. There is nothing to do but return, with your bags filled with specimens, the shining birds and prairie creatures, gutted and eyeless.

• • •

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to Congress to ask if he might send a party into Spanish territory for the purpose of “literary pursuit,” he meant to increase geographic and scientific knowledge.

When Jefferson wrote in his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness,” he didn’t mean happiness in the modern sense. The root of that word implies the fortune or luck that was once associated with the whim of the gods. Jefferson meant this older form of happiness, the happiness of the ancient writers, like Cicero and Plato, for whom it was found through morality, justice, and duty. Cicero wrote “a happy life consists in tranquility of the mind.” That tranquility consisted of living virtuously.

When the assassins hired by Mark Antony finally caught up to a fleeing Cicero on the road outside of Rome, they found the old essayist sweating in his carriage. Accepting his fate with manly grace, Cicero bared his throat to his murderers like a defeated gladiator. Before the orator’s body was brought to Rome, Antony ordered the hands and head to be cut off and had them displayed on the rostrum in the Forum, where Cicero had once delivered his famous speeches. The hands were brutalized for having written those words; the head, defiled for having spoken them. Antony’s wife pulled out Cicero’s tongue and jabbed it with her hairpin, so bitterly did she hate his essays against her husband’s power.

When you say happiness, think of a hairpin in the tongue and imagine fleeing for your life on a cedar-lined road; smell the dust and the horses. When you say freedom think of a life of essays. When you say power imagine two old hands.

Yard:

Noun

  1. The length of a man’s belt in medieval England. Irked by the inconsistency of this definition, King Henry I measured the distance between his nose and the thumb of his outstretched hand and standardized the unit.

In a Chinese-food restaurant I once overheard a first date combust as a drunk woodworking teacher explained to a stone-faced woman that he forced his students to use his body’s measurements to make their pencil boxes and birdhouses. One Bob! he called it, and held his foot up for her so she could take note of that exact unit. The woman shuddered. Only kings can get away with this sort of thing.

To measure the world with one’s body seems a particularly gross form of egotism. But who understands time and distance in theory alone and not through the measurement of individual days or steps along a familiar running path?

• • •

I am in the pinewoods, and the light is still golden like it is in the summer in Maine. I am in my girl body again, lighter and strange to me. It is a body I have just been given, and it seems to do things on its own as if it just became mortal. We are playing Capture the Flag. The ground is a soft golden carpet of fallen needles.

The light is behind me. I feel its last warmth on my shoulder blades. At first I am walking. I leap to cross a log, and then I leap to cross another, and then I am running. I am not playing, I am not running for a flag, I am running for movement. Oh, the ground is soft under my sneakers! And the light fades behind me so that I am running into the darkness of the woods, and the sound of the other girls is getting dim behind me, and I am up a slight hill, and still running, and my legs move like some animal’s, and my arms pump like strong pistons. I breathe in through my mouth and nose and then out again, clear and fleshy, almost bloody but healthy, like the taste of a coin.

I run and leap until I am high up where the ground gives way to boulders, the bones of Maine, and I look down and see the lake and the camp’s roofs and docks. The girls yip in the pinewoods like coyotes, and briefly I feel myself above everything, the systems in my body working, invisible and perfect, pulsing, exchanging, and I love it for the first time ever, this body that is now mine, but night is close so I head back. Running down is almost better than running up. I am pumping and swift, and sweat is rising then running its own course over me, salty and new, until I am again among the girls from my cabin, and they are sweaty too and out of breath, and we walk together under the flickering street lights down the sandy path to our bunks.

• • •

I could measure my life in the running trails I have followed. I could map it for you from that first evening to this morning, when I returned to my home flushed with sweat and, closing my pores with a cold shower, sat down to essay running, to measure it properly against what I know of myself.

• • •

In 2007, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I visited Cape Disappointment and Fort Clatsop, which during the stay of the Corps of Discovery was a miserable place but has since been transformed into an educational national memorial. The replica of Lewis and Clark’s split-log fort has been lacquered a shiny honey gold, and costumed rangers lead groups from the gift store to the film hall. The day I went was sunny, and the spruce needles glistened underfoot. Later, I drove along the Columbia River, marveling at the power of the water and the height of the gorge’s walls. All along the rocks, tiny waterfalls drained into the mighty river. I imagined Lewis shivering on the coast, bored during the cold, rainy winters. “Everything moves on in the old way,” he wrote—a haunting description of cabin fever.

At the time, I was training for my first marathon and took my long runs on Sauvie Island, just north of the city, where the Wilmette River joins the Columbia. Lewis and Clark camped there, scuffled with Native Americans, ate a potato-like food that grew wild on the island, and then pushed back upstream toward the mountains. As I ran I imagined I was retracing their route, expanding their maps each night. The long runs took up three or four hours of my Sundays, and I was always flush with excitement beforehand, wondering what I might see on the road. The running mind is the traveling mind, noting each odd color, granting each license plate and cloud formation significance. I gave names secretly to houses and trees I passed, just as Lewis had named rivers and mountains.

• • •

Foot:

Noun

  1. the average length of a man’s foot.

A woman’s foot is smaller, which is not to say her world is smaller, but rather measured differently. My foot is nine inches long.

• • •

In 2007, when I was twenty-two, I purchased a how-to book that began with the reassuring sentence, “Oprah ran a four-hour marathon.” The book was slim and contained training plans. It divided the work of training for a marathon into three categories: the long run, once a week, which I would take on Sauvie Island; the short run, which I would do as a loop around my apartment complex; and sprint intervals, which I would complete under the lights on my college’s track, long after the sports teams had left the field for the night. The long runs I found to be an exercise in patience. My mind created its own tricks, calculating my speed, naming the houses and farms I passed, watching the mountains on the horizon as Lewis and Clark might have as they rowed up the Columbia. The short weekday runs of between two and five miles were charmingly repetitive, in the sense that I could depart with no expectation for a timed mile. Fitting them in was the challenge since I could generate only a little enthusiasm for the slog. The track workouts, which consisted of quarter-mile sprints followed by prescribed rest periods, were the most physically demanding portion of my training. One loop around the track accounted for a quarter mile, so I could mark my pace easily. The struggle was to stay steady from start to finish, to push through with my original thrust during the final 100 meters.

My lungs burned. My legs threw themselves long on the track’s surface. The bright white lights above the fields made me feel Olympic, although I was alone in the drizzle and dusk. During the minutes of rest my ragged breath seemed amplified, all-consuming. Sweat grew cool on my skin. Then, at the beep of my watch’s timer, I was off again, along the same path, trying to summon the drive forward, with all my body calling for speed. The sprint required, in a short period, many cycles of motivation, like a compression of many days into one intense hour. Each sprint was its own expedition around the track, past the bleachers, the lampposts, the stadium gates. Every time I broke free from the starting line I had to commit, again, to flight.

• • •

To understand why I run, know that I both love and hate my body and have come to accept this balancing act. My body is like blood, constantly in flux, sometimes depleted and sometimes new and full of life. My body has been sick, and my spirit has hated being in a sick body. And of course I wish my body were something that it isn’t. I wish it were taller and longer. I wish my neck would grow a few inches and that my shoulders weren’t as wide as my hips. I could go on. When I was a sick kid, I dreamed of waking up in a new body. I dreamed of flying.

But when I am running I have to be with the body I have. Love it or hate it, there is no escape from it. Under the discipline of miles, the virtue of routine is that there is no turning back. There is just forward motion—the feet pulling and the hip flexors sweeping the legs back and my arms swinging, my chest slightly forward—and trying to breathe and not swallow the wind. The violence of running fills the body. Even at my leanest, running shakes me loose. Fatty female hips and ass jiggle, and I feel heavier than when I am standing still, as if motion itself increased gravity. I feel my bad right knee and my tight left hamstring and the curve in my spine where scoliosis takes it off course before it veers back again. There is no hiding when I am running.

To make it to the road I must first inhale medication, so before I even set out I acknowledge my limitations. This, my body screams, is what you’ve got!

• • •

Horsepower:

Noun

  1. The amount of power required to lift 75 kilograms one meter in one second.

The engineer James Watt, who designed the machines that dug the coal that fed England’s Industrial Revolution, calculated that a horse could turn a mill wheel 144 times an hour. He sold his steam engines on the power of the horse: imagine all those beasts pulling, their breath rising, their hides slick, imagine that power inside a steel piston. Everyone then had seen how hard a horse can work. Now no one can remember it.

An article in Nature cites measurements from the 1925 Iowa State Fair, reporting the peak output of horses at 14.9 horsepower (which lasted but a brief few seconds as they pulled a weighted sled through what I imagine was damp sand in the humidity of a late August evening).

Many years later, on a cool August night in Berlin, under the flickering lights of the Olympiastadion’s half-domed ceiling, Usain Bolt generated just 3.5 horsepower during the 9.58 seconds it took him to run 100 meters, faster than any other recorded man or woman. No holding back, no! He wins! He kept running after crossing the finish line, at least another 100 meters, first holding his pointer fingers out long like a conductor orchestrating the cheering crowd, then with his arms out wide, like wings.

• • •

Whenever I move to a new place, or vacation somewhere for more than a few days, one of the first things I do is to go for a run. I am, like most, a creature of habit, so when I find a route that is enjoyable—a good length with varying terrain, not too many cars, no scary places like dark tunnels or alleyways where I might meet my end, and interesting things to look at; ideally a loop, but if not then an out and back—I run it again and again until I start to read the landscape for markers of my pace, until I start to tell the same story again and again.

• • •

Dear Meriwether Lewis,

In the history books they show you on a rise above the plains, in leather and uniform with a breeze from the Continental Divide blowing the fringe on your jacket back toward the Missouri. You squint into the western sun, like some great bird, just ahead of Clark with his sunburned skin and heavy forearms. I have always imagined you right before you put the first bullet in your head. Your intake of breath, like a storm’s first tracking up the valley, your eyes closed, finding your temple with the gun barrel, setting your teeth, and outside in that trailside inn, the other people drinking and falling asleep without terror, and the country filling in all the places that were only prairies and mountain ranges in your maps, and all of their quick starts at the sound of the gun while you faded, backward through increasing darkness, up to the spring source where the purest water rises.

• • •

Have you reckoned the earth much? asks Whitman. If you have run the same route many times, I think you have, at least that piece of it. You’ve learned its terrain, its highs and lows. You are familiar with its smells during different seasons and times of day (the sweet grass of summer, the dull salt of winter, the rising swampy springtime mornings and sharp autumn sunsets). You know the pattern of traffic and the paths of animals. On the side of the road you find the things that happened when you weren’t there to witness. In the night, deer were hit. Trash was thrown. A bottle was broken over the blacktop. On each run a new note reveals itself. Two fence posts closer together than all the rest. The tree scarred by a snowplow. On a clear, sunny day in November, when all the leaves are down, you look further into the woods and notice an old shack by the creek. The body works hard here on the hill but not on the long downslope to the pasture. And here the road tilts to prevent flooding, and your ankles sway under that strain. Jump a puddle. Skip over a rock that has rolled down from the cliff. Here, the blood pulsing hard in your ears. Here, the sweat drying on your cheeks. Here, the howls of dogs. Here, a strange silence from the swamp, the half-built subdivision, the echoing farmland.

• • •

Acre:

Noun

  1. In the Middle Ages, the amount of land a man with a yoke of oxen could plow in a day.

Like a man-hour, this unit is subject to specific conditions: the ox, the driver (a man of tolerance? a man of violent need?), the soil, the air through which they both must push.

• • •

The bones in our feet shifted as we began to walk upright. The shape of a foot can date a skeleton as quickly as can a skull or a jaw. As we evolved, the opposable big toe was phased out, so that we can no longer hang from a branch with our feet like we grip a barbell or bike handle or steering wheel with our hands. We became runners. We didn’t evolve to escape from lunging lions or packs of dire wolves; humans aren’t great sprinters. And anyway, everyone knows running from predators is a bad idea; it triggers their chase drive, and we simply won’t win in that race. Instead, ancient humans were long-distance hunters; they pursued animals until they ran up against cliffs or fell shaking to the earth with capture myopathy. In this hunt our hairlessness was perhaps our greatest advantage. We could sweat and release heat while our furry prey overheated to its death, and in this manner a beast with two legs could catch a beast with four.

• • •

There are traditional running cultures, and I claim no connection to their practices. When I think of those Incan heralds or the tribesmen of the African plains, I think always of my own death. I simply could not have survived in any time other than this one, and so nostalgic daydreams of living and running in times past are not longings of mine. I run to stay in shape, a problem that my ancestors would not have understood, in the same way that I can’t imagine the power of a horse on a mill wheel. What haunts me is the idea of chase, followed by the idea of escape, and the concept of measuring the earth with a body.

I have run away since I was a little girl, packing up and leaving home, moving instead of fighting. I have a powerful flight instinct. I say I run in pursuit of health, but I am also escaping its opposite. The idea of fitness is as powerful to me as my fear of sickness. My asthma is not influenced by my running, but my running will always be influenced by my asthma. The two exist together but are not equally affected. I will never outrun my asthma, but it will always bear on my running.

Through the map of years they hunt each other. One winning. One retreating. Then charging back. There are seasons when I am invincible. There are days when I come into my body weeping for its weakness. But had I nothing to fight against I’d have nothing to pursue.

• • •

Every clear night of their journey, Lewis and Clark made celestial observations, sometimes staying up well after their men, reworking their complex implements. On cloudy nights, when there were no visible stars to cast onto, they noted the temperature and tended to their maps. Even on days when neither man wrote a journal entry, they entered information on longitude, latitude, temperature, and weather. They named the rivers and mountains they’d passed during the day after sweethearts, heroes, and dogs. Although their collected work fills volumes, it is still incomplete. Whole books were lost or, perhaps, never existed. Clark dutifully kept a log, but in the summer of 1804, Lewis, who spent his days walking the banks alongside the Corps’ small fleet of boats, botanizing and keeping an eye out for Teton Sioux, rarely expressed his thoughts on paper. Was he joyous beyond words? Was he so focused on his saturated vision of expansion that the overflow of ink onto paper seemed unnecessary? He left to Clark the task of journaling, and I imagine him on the banks of the Missouri in the golden light of early fall, drawn away intensely by happiness, as he would later be isolated by pain.

The following spring, after the party pushed off from Fort Mandan, where they had camped through winter, and rounded the great bend of the Missouri, Lewis’s journal entries thicken. Some are over 5,000 words long and would have taken him, at a stream-of-consciousness pace, about two hours to write by hand. He seemed to have words for everything: specimens, geography, bear encounters. It’s during this time that he produced his best travel writing, summoning a sense of adventure and grandeur in his prose. But on June 13, walking ahead of the party as he often did, he confronted a sight that, despite his many words, he felt unprepared to describe. He’d discovered the Great Falls of the Missouri, a series of five linked waterfalls that would present a massive obstacle to the expedition. He sat down on the shore and feverishly wrote.

. . . my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which would frequently dispear again in an instant caused I presume by the wind which blew pretty hard from the S.W. I did not however loose my direction to this point which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri. . . . to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle . . . formes the grandest sight I ever beheld, . . . irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receives the water in it’s passage down and brakes it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the hight of fifteen or twenty feet and are scarcely formed before large roling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and conceals them. . . . from the reflection of the sun on the sprey or mist which arrises from these falls there is a beatifull rainbow produced which adds not a little to the beauty of this majestically grand senery. after wrighting this imperfect discription I again viewed the falls and was so much disgusted with the imperfect idea which it conveyed of the scene that I determined to draw my pen across it and begin agin, but then reflected that I could not perhaps succeed better than pening the first impressions of the mind. . .

He thought about crossing out his words and beginning again. His imperfect description disgusted him. He left the account in his journal nonetheless, sensing that time dulls memory. In it I read his rush of excitement, the thrill, and then his loss of faith in his ability to record it. You see him embark then retreat into darkness.

• • •

Heading out, my lungs expanding, I think of the pig’s lung I dissected in fifth grade; I stuck a plastic straw down the esophagus and blew into the straw. Careful, our teacher warned, don’t inhale. The lung ballooned out. I think of the tests I took in the hospital with an asthma specialist. I blew into a tube that was connected to a computer screen. I was the wolf, and my exhales were meant to blow down the door of the pig’s house. A scale at the bottom measured each puff.

Before I head out to run I suck on the red plastic mouthpiece of my inhaler. My lungs expand. I bend to lace my shoes. There is the house, then everything beyond it. Each foot claims a bit of earth. Sometimes when I leave I am reluctant. Sometimes I bolt into the dawn.

What I want more than distance now is speed. I want the sprint and thrust of a fast mile. The unbounded, reckless joy of that night in Maine, when my body was both my body and something new that drove me with it. A run is something faster than you want it to be. It is a statement against the body’s frailty, written on earth by the body. The contractions astound me, the stop and go, the pull and release of ligaments and tendons, how the legs load and unload in one swing and the heel bears weight and then takes flight.

About the Author

Megan Baxter

Megan has won numerous national awards including a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been listed in The Best American Essays of 2019. Recent publications included pieces in The Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine.

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