• Why I Run: On Thoreau and the Pleasures of Not Quite Knowing Where You’re Going

    Rachel Richardson Doesn’t Need Your Directions

    “I wish to speak a word for Nature,” said Henry David Thoreau in his famous essay, “Walking.” And so do I, but the Nature around me is the one he disparaged, carved with concrete roads, lined with fences and For Rent signs. It’s the neighborhood, not the forest, and I rarely saunter there. (Saunter, from “going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land,” he explained.) Most likely Thoreau would say I am one of the many, the idlers and vagabonds, who walk timidly along the marked paths. Okay.

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    But no, Henry doesn’t even allow me this. I am a woman, and therefore my kind, “who are confined to the house still more than man,” is not the kind for walking. Henry has sympathy, but ultimately not much use for women, since only a free man is ready for a walk.

    A woman is a useful symbol for the splay of land on which such a free man saunters—“Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty…”—but the human women he knows are in the kitchen or parlor, bound to their domestic duties, unable to lace up their shoes and set out.

    I am also someone’s mother. But today I am a woman going for a run.

    *

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    I was not always a woman going for a run: as a kid and into my 20s I hated running. I wheezed around the track in high school PE and tried to bow out of the mile fitness test by wielding my inhaler as proof that making me run was a very dangerous idea.

    When I did finally give in to it, all four laps, the PE teacher clocked me at around 11:30, five full minutes after the fastest boys had raced in. If you had told me then that a mile was just the warmup for most runners, and that I would be one of them, that I would run marathons, I would have rolled my eyes. Nope.

    The boys sat on the bleachers as the last of the girls stumbled in, sweaty and red-cheeked, panting. I remember my feet feeling on fire, unbearable in the sneakers I wore. As we re-entered the gym to start the rest of our class, badminton or yoga or something (I specifically chose the sports that wouldn’t involve more running), I tried to cool myself down, wiping my forehead with my red gym shirt sleeve, loosening my shoelaces to release the steam that was suffocating my feet. How or why anyone would do this for pleasure was beyond my ability to fathom.

    *

    Most days, when I start, I’m not quite sure where I’m going—sometimes I stand in front of my house looking up and down the street, considering what hills, what neighborhoods I want to see today. Thoreau says that if you stand there, outside, boots on, you’ll find the way you’re supposed to travel. Sometimes you walk in circles for 30 minutes before knowing in what direction you’re meant to go. Southwest, he says, is usually his direction. From Massachusetts toward Oregon. (Though I have to point out that’s bad geography: he’s really headed to California or Arizona.) California and Oregon both became states in the years that Thoreau was drafting “Walking.” The direction of progress, he says. Westward ho.

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    I was born in a California Thoreau couldn’t imagine, in a hospital in a town laid out with lawns and gardens.

    I too consider my options: little paths or wide boulevards? People to leapfrog and shop windows to catch the eye, or generously-spaced houses presiding silently over the sidewalk? And how fast can I get back? I’m looking at my watch: in 50 minutes I need to be in the shower and then back out the door to pick up a kid from school or jump onto a Zoom call.

    *

    I also start out southwest most days because this takes me downhill, onto the Ohlone Greenway. It’s not lost on me that this concrete greenway bisecting the East Bay’s cities is named for the people who were forcibly displaced, that I am living and running on unceded land. The Lisjan people, the branch of the Ohlone who lived in what is now the city of Berkeley, had been swept off to Missions to be baptized, and their land redistributed by the Mexican government around the time Thoreau was imagining this mythical Western landscape, synonymous with freedom.

    I adjust my hat, set my watch to start GPS, cinch my ponytail tighter, and pull on my sunglasses as I walk, then lope, past the neighbors’ houses—hi Peter, hi Medha, hi Minna. I see a new fence going up, a For Sale sign on a fixer-upper sure to be dubbed a “jewel box” by the realtor, a fairy house at the base of a street tree, a Little Free Library doubling as a food pantry. In six minutes I’m leaning into the turn that delivers me from the sidewalks onto paved trail in the shadow of the BART tracks. And then I settle into my pace.

    I am running to breathe deeply, to let my mind fill with nothing, to listen to the steady beat of my footsteps, a rhythm of just going about human business. I’m not accomplishing anything spectacular, but steadily getting things done.

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    I’m also seeing the place in which I live, Thoreau’s imagined paradise: plastic potato chip bags nestle in the blackberry brambles along the trailside, old condoms like deflated balloons stick to the asphalt. People rise from their tents behind the shelter of retaining walls next to the creek where they’ve bedded for the night; dead rats wash into the middle of the trail with the winter rains.

    On these same lanes, bikes pedal along with toddlers on the back, on their way to preschools and jobs, while young men crouch in the bushes with needles, and old women in tattered layers amble along, pushing overburdened shopping carts filled with their worldly possessions.

    This is my city, and running is how I see it.

    *

    There are many places I’ve been told not to run: the Greenway at night. The Bay Trail where it curves behind the racetrack. Don’t park at the Seabreeze Café because people are casing the parking lot at all times and will break into your car as soon as you take off on the path. Don’t run on Vincente Ave because there’s an aggressive mother deer with a baby nested in a backyard nearby. Don’t run at Lake Merritt—someone found a dead body in the reeds. Don’t run on Marin Avenue—it’s so steep that cars lose control and will hit you. Don’t run on the Bay Trail toward Emeryville unless you want to breathe exhaust from I-80 the whole way. Don’t run on Telegraph Ave unless you want to get accosted for drugs. Don’t run by People’s Park unless you want to risk stepping in human shit. Don’t run alone at Inspiration Point because of the mountain lions, and maybe also rapists. Don’t run on the Ohlone into Richmond because of the RV village at the roadside and their mountains of trash. Don’t run under the underpass to the Albany Bulb because of the tent encampment and their mountains of trash. Why do you want to run by all these mountains of trash? If you run without mace you’re stupid. If you run without a buddy you’re stupid. Run at the track. Run on a treadmill. Carry your phone. Don’t carry anything of value. Don’t run when it’s smoky out. Don’t run at dusk. Don’t run on cracked pavement. Maybe just do an exercise class.

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    The well-meaning advice-givers of Berkeley—on the NextDoor listserv, my neighbors, my dad—would like me to know where the dangers are, or at least to know that I’ve been warned. If I go there despite their clear words of caution, I might just deserve what I get.

    *

    I’ve run in all of these places. I’ve never been attacked while I run, but I’ve been cat-called, I’ve been told to smile, I’ve been preached to, screamed at, chased. I’ve had to plan out my self-defense maneuver when running toward a cluster of men on a narrow road, when turning around to avoid them feels scarier than running straight through. I’ve also encountered a mountain lion, once, and a black bear in the mountains, once, on the road. In those cases, I did turn around and run the other way, trying not to change my nonchalant gait, afraid to turn my head to see if they followed.

    Running turns off my mind in most ways, and it’s a relief: I am outside, breathing, working, enjoying this beautiful place I live in right now.

    I’ve run in hard rain and 100 degree heat. I’ve been afraid when I ran out of water with miles of barren trail to go, but more than that I’ve been afraid of getting lost when I’m ten miles into an urban route, afraid of the man who flails his arms and blocks the road, shouting in falsetto, Listen to me! The government won’t listen to me!, afraid of the particulate matter from the smoke I’m inhaling in our months-long fire season.

    Still, I run. The joys are simple but encompassing. Sometimes I’ll take the slow steady hill up Arlington Ave into El Cerrito, a five-mile run, in order to triumph at the intersection of Arlington and Moeser where the road seems to tumble straight down into the bay. Sunsets here are a bath of golds and purples—I always spread my chest and arms open at the top, eagle-like, not caring how many drivers see my sweaty splendor, letting the wind fill my lungs, as if I were about to leap and take flight from this mount.

    Or there’s the pre-dawn run, the silent streets of my neighborhood made new in the early dark. I pad along, my headlamp bobbing a path down the sidewalks, and I listen to the quietness of the city, my own feet, the leaves rustling. An occasional other runner—another denizen of the blue hour—silently hails from the other side of the street.

    *

    When I run, I smile and people smile back. Kids wave at me and cyclists nod as they zoom by. Other runners raise a hand of hello or, my favorite, flash a big grin. Sometimes we’re wearing the same race shirt—me too!, I point. Sometimes they’re in a zone I can’t penetrate, with their earbuds and podcast or playlist keeping them company. I still smile, even when they don’t look up. Hey, we’re out here, doing this beautiful thing.

    When the endorphins start kicking in, around mile three, I love everybody, even the sourest-faced walker or most oblivious group of teenagers taking up the whole trail and dropping Doritos on the ground. Nice dog!, I shout when I see a dog happily panting at her runner’s side, or You’ve got this! to the struggling jogger stumbling to the end of his route. When a car nearly flattens me as I cross an intersection, I throw up my hands and shout HEY! and sometimes even get a Sorry. I’m shaken for a minute, but still consider myself a public servant, improving Bay Area drivers’ awareness with my presence. I sometimes pump my fist in the air or sing a line out loud just because there’s a song in my head that I love, or someone’s speakers blare something good as they drive by. I am an unrepentant dork when I run.

    I am also naked, with none of our common armor: I have on minimal clothing, no layers for warmth or modesty, no makeup, no phone, no wallet, no earphones, no mace. Henry would approve. If the air quality index is under 100, I’m running, though if it’s close, I’ll jog slowly and imagine all those tiny carcinogenic particles of ash from burning forests and buildings settling into the soft tissue of my lungs.

    *

    I started running in my twenties because it was something I could do that didn’t make me feel bad. Much of my presence—my simple awareness of my human body on this planet—had come to make me feel anxious and guilty. It can still paralyze me in a ball on my upholstered couch.

    Thoreau’s argument about going for a walk was an argument for wildness, which for him was also rumination, the freedom to think, to loose his spirit into the world and be open to possibility. To live in the present. But what’s left of the wilderness? When plastic particles have been found at 30,000 feet, atop the most remote mountains, when our acidifying oceans choked with oil and chemical sunscreens cause mass fish die-offs, how can we feel we are creatures frolicking in some pristine wild? Our human impact can be seen everywhere we look, and if I’m honest with myself, I can’t say I’m not implicated in this harm.

    Running turns off my mind in most ways, and it’s a relief: I am outside, breathing, working, enjoying this beautiful place I live in right now, despite all I know about its perilous state.

    I am a better person in these moments: I don’t want to own any more stuff, I just want to move. I have only the running clothes I need, have never gotten swept up in much beyond the essential gear, most of which lasts for decades. And running is participatory: I am a community member showing up in my community. Running is inspiration, my silent pulpit: look at how good it is to be in a body and move on one’s own power. All seems better with the world when running, and that’s the point: I feel like we’re a team, a society in which we all might work together, solving our big problems and appreciating each other’s gifts.

    *

    Thoreau says that in Wildness is the preservation of the world, and that “the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild.” I was born in a California he didn’t imagine, in a hospital in a town laid out with lawns and gardens. My first bedroom was hexagonal, with a skylight, and at night from my bed I looked out on the twinkling San Francisco lights. I made shadow puppets—coyote, rabbit—on the footboard with my hands when I couldn’t sleep, imagining the animals talking to one another. Under a full moon I read books in the dark, facing the silver bay.

    Perhaps the wilderness is lost; we’ve reached the western edge and developed every inch. The forests are all on fire. Still, when I run, I enter my animal body, I bask in the air shearing my skin, the crust of salt that forms at my hairline. I smell eucalyptus and redwood mingled with ripe compost in a bin for the waste management truck to pick up. I pass my high school track and laugh, remembering the girl who couldn’t have imagined this woman running by, waving, with miles and miles in front of her.

    Rachel Richardson
    Rachel Richardson
    Rachel Richardson is the author of two books of poems (Copperhead and Hundred-Year Wave, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press) and several essays in magazines. Her work has recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Lit Hub, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has been running for eighteen years, and is currently training for her eighth marathon.





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