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Running in circles, and always ending up at the same place.
It’s late at night, and the crickets croak like an impatient clock.
I’m back in Taipei, running at Bihu, the Emerald Lake.
On my 24th birthday, my present to myself was an hour-and-a-half run in drizzle.
Lap by lap, mile by mile, I’m counting the hours in 30-minute increments. The fat moon hangs low, and I keep my chest high. I count my breaths to seven, and begin writing a long poem in my head, until every lap blurs like vignettes.
I was 15 when I started running at Bihu. Newly emerged from two years of reluctant cross-country practice, I discovered I liked running. Our cross-country meets were held at the American school in Shanghai, which intimidated me. Not only for the 5K, which was a tremendous length, but also the American girls’ high pony-tails and short shorts, bouncing in front of me with an Americanness and athleticism that I lacked.
In old t-shirts and school-issued shorts, I decided to join the throng of runners at Bihu. People run at all hours of the day, from casual to serious, young to old, clothed or half-naked, weaving their way through more leisurely diversions: Indonesian caretakers chatting while their ama’s and agong’s take in some sun, retirees dancing under the pergola, silent old men fishing. Back then, my mother would still swim at the public pool and my grandma would still take evening walks alone.
The air was thick with humidity and sweat and Osmanthus and whatever seasonal fruit was sold from a truck. Inexperienced, I was too eager to pass every old man running, seeing them as a target to prove my youth and speed. When 5Ks were my season milestones, I could pat myself on the back after the second lap, as the old men continued into the night.
I was 18 when I wrote a college essay on happiness. My interest in running was budding though hesitant; I had the post-season blues but not the audacity to call myself a runner. Yet it felt authentic to write about running: “Sneakers at the ready, I can run anywhere — at the lake in Taipei, at my apartment complex in Suzhou, or the snowed streets of New England — and I shall be happy everywhere.” It was equal parts descriptive and aspirational.
The next year, I was running on the plowed streets of New England, graduating from three miles to seven miles, ten miles, twelve miles. Where did all the miles go? They disappeared into my body, into time. They were difficult, but their memory escapes me. My frozen fingers burned in the shower, recovering to their senses. My aspiration was a one-liner from Amelia Boone: “I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.” After the 12-mile mark, though, I ran irregularly, and some semesters the miles disappeared altogether.
Running in circles, from cold winters to heavy summers, always back to the lake in Taipei despite how far I’ve travelled. There were still American girls and middle-aged Taiwanese men faster than me. I was running the bare-minimum towards a far dream of who I can be, the amount of suffering I can endure. For easier exercise, my mother switched to an indoor bike and my grandma would take walks when accompanied so they could endure.
In fact, my new GPS tracker was telling me I was slow. The long loops in Oakland grew to 15 miles, then 19 miles, and every mile stretched longer, fitting in more time, from nine to ten to eleven minutes. I was embarrassed at the conceit of thinking I was faster. Young and slow, suffering along the long distance with nothing to show but lost time and a vague sense of, now, being a runner. The miles were slow, but they grew longer and longer.
I often joked that if I squint hard enough, I could see Taiwan on the other side of the Pacific. Sneakers at the ready, I can run anywhere — and I’m back in Taipei, running at Bihu.
It’s as beautiful as ever. For many in the city, it’s an urban getaway. It’s the new year and I fear I’ll never get away. I was feeding my mother and mistaken for her sister; she walks with a right lean, sometimes breaking into a precarious run. I bought a wheelchair for my grandma and was mistaken for her daughter; she still laughs like a bodhisattva even with a bruise on her face.
I’m taking it day by day, week by week, and my long term thinking falters after that. The distinct rhythm of time escapes me. What I see most clearly is the minutiae of the everyday, my ambition channeled to a to-do-list, but behind it is a vast desire, unending and uncertain, like the miles ahead of me.
The fear is living in loops, unchanged; making marks in the same grooves, digging deeper graves for aspirations that I’ve outgrown. Running in circles, and always ending up at the same place. The reality is all the miles are moving me, and I’m growing with time. I miss the adrenaline of race day, and America is far away again. But I’ve run all these miles to know a different kind of time, felt at every huff and puff, itself running away.
Sometimes, I forget how old I am. I remember the 10K in the pouring rain, the puddles on the path, dreams of mango slices when running on an empty stomach, the urgent blur at the beginning of a run followed by the slow stretch of time in the last hour. Sometimes, my watch dies in the middle of a hard run. But time goes on, so I go on running.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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