The Clarity of the Track

By April 27, 2012April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

Tangible tidiness can be satisfying.

By Rachel Toor
As featured in the May 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine

Recently I’ve been annoyed by realist novels and movies that come too close to representing life as it is. Life is messy and uncontained. Life has ragged edges and frayed seams. Life can be hard and at times, awful.

I know all this. I don’t always want to see it reflected in art. Sometimes I want tidy and predictable, clean lines and completed circles. That’s why I like reading mystery novels. And, as of last summer, going to the track.

I’ve never been on a team and have no fond memories of lazing around the infield, puking at the finish line, or building sandcastles in the long jump pit–or whatever real track people do for fun.

Years ago, I would show up on track nights with my long-run guys. Since I refused to follow a program, I’d do whichever parts of their workout seemed fun and skip the rest. I tended to like the warm-up and the cool-down.

My running club had summer track meets, and I’d often go but would rarely run. I’d volunteer to handle the stop watch, or call splits, or cheer for my friends. Once I was hanging out with a collegiate 800m runner who was aging gracefully into his 30s, and when I asked why he wasn’t doing the race he said, “The track looks really big today.” At the time I thought it was a silly comment, but he was serious.

My muscles don’t twitch at a rapid rate. Back in the day, LSD was my drug of choice. Long Slow Distance is what I’m made for. I can go for hours on trails. I can go by myself, or I can go in company. I’m usually happy either way, and I’m usually happy just to be out there.

Long runs can get messy. You can get lost, or run out of water. The person you’re running with may turn out to be a boor. You never know when you’re going to feel like dog poop 15 miles into a 20-mile run. You need to expect the unpredictable and prepare for the worst cases.

It’s not often in life where, when you finish a discrete task, you end with the knowledge that you’ve completed it successfully and well. You might get a fleeting sense of satisfaction if we’re talking about mowing the lawn or doing the dishes, but much of the business of living is messier than that. When I teach a class, write an essay, or engage in a difficult conversation, there’s no real and objective measure of exactly how well I’ve done. If I think I’ve given a terrible performance, but other people tell me it was excellent, who’s right? Am I training my dog properly, or am I blinded by my love for her? There are few times when I know exactly to what extent I’ve succeeded or failed.

To be able to run fast, you have to run fast. I know this, and I know that the best place to run fast is on the track. But while I adore solo ventures into the woods, going alone to the track can feel like entering a dark and smoky bar on a bright, sunny afternoon. You don’t want to go there. At least, you don’t want to go alone.

Bar-hopping afternoons, however, can be a hoot when you’re with friends. Something that could have felt sad and lonely on your own is transformed into a party. So it was that joining a local group for track workouts last summer revitalized me as a runner.

Each Tuesday night, I’d look forward to catching up with Dori and Jaye and Marianne and Keith and whoever else happened to show up. After we warmed up I knew what the workout would be, when we were halfway through, and how good my performance was. Even if I finished last–which I often did–I could still see improvement. The clarity of the clock offers a hint at a more ordered universe, a more tidy life.

Track workouts are broken into parts. While a long run can feel like having to eat a humongous bowl of spaghetti, doing intervals is like enjoying a frozen meal. Discrete compartments. Small portions. You wouldn’t want it every day, but it can be a welcome change, an efficient solution to the problem of dinner.

Literary novels can help us think about the complexities of the world; mystery and detective fiction ends with a tidy finish. You know whodunit and you know why. There’s comfort in that.

There are times and places for messiness, and I would not forgo them. However, the work I do on the track–and the tangible results it brings–is something I’ve come to appreciate. Some days the oval does look too big. But other days, after I’m finished, winded and sweating, it looks exactly like where I want to be, a space where I know, for a few minutes, my place in the world.