A love letter to running and to Maggie Rogers.
On a particularly bleak day at the end of March, having been furloughed and in the grip of pandemic panic, I very dramatically did not get out of bed for an entire day or open the curtains, in the manner of an Edwardian society lady with a migraine and a weak constitution. I found myself falling down a YouTube rabbit hole watching Harry Styles videos (because how could that not make me feel better?), and this eventually led me to Maggie Rogers’ Tiny Desk gig. A friend played me Fallingwater last October, and then the whole of the brilliant Heard it in a Past Life. Maggie’s voice is so sagacious that I had an image of what she must look like in my head, but when I watched her Tiny Desk gig, I was confronted with an angelic-looking kid. A bundle of joyful energy who transformed into this old, wise soul when she sang. I was captivated and began watching everything on her YouTube channel, culminating in her mini-documentary, Back in my Body. I had heard the song Back in my Body before, but I had never listened. This is probably the most worthwhile twelve minutes and forty one seconds I’ve spent in lockdown, because it unlocked something in my brain.
She reminded me of how I can be at my best: exuberant, grateful, genuine, humble, in love with her life and proud of her work. On the documentary, she says:
“It’s my job to see the world and report back. It’s my job to feel things fiercely. And it’s my job to be present.”
I have memorised that quote because, I just thought, well, yeah. That’s it. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, I love the way I see the world. I love the way I seek out beauty in the ordinary and the decaying. I feel like I have a superpower: making the ephemeral permanent through an image, creating a record of a moment that is gone forever. Maggie’s words felt like a mission statement, a method by which I could reclaim my life from the self-pitying headspace I had found myself occupying for longer than I care to admit. It was a reminder that I don’t have to, indeed shouldn’t, play the role of victim.
In addition to making images, running has been my other lifeline on and off since 2014. As a precocious twenty-three year old who had just made the decision to go freelance, I started going to the gym to give myself some semblance of a routine, and I started running for the first time in my life, on the treadmill. I don’t remember exactly when I started running outside. I think it was late summer that year. It was disconcerting that as someone who had never been vaguely sporty (I was always picked last for the team), suddenly I liked running. I liked running because I could do it on my own; I was only competing against myself; it was free; I could listen to music; and I could be outside. I could do it whenever, wherever, as long as I had my trainers. There wasn’t really a feeling of being good or bad at running, it seemed to be an achievement in itself just to be doing it. I overtake some people. And some people overtake me. As a committed perfectionist this was a novel discovery.
I have run fairly sporadically over the last six years. I get really into it, overdo it, get terrible shin splints, and then have to stop. Or work gets frantically busy and exercise is abandoned as I fall into a lifestyle where my being awake and functioning relies more on takeaway cappuccinos than it does on sleep, home-cooked meals and keeping my step count up.
Since last August, I have run consistently three or four times a week. I don’t like to make commitments I can’t stick to. So I made a commitment to run around the block – three kilometres, eighteen minutes – on as many weekdays as I could, often culminating with Parkrun on a Saturday morning with my brother, and Sunday afternoons on Parkland Walk, an old railway track that’s been repurposed as a nature trail. I ran as the clocks Fell Back in October; I ran through the Winter in the artificially illuminated dark of 6am, layered up and wearing the fingerless gloves my Mum knitted for me; I ran into the pink and orange light at the end of the Winter tunnel, dawn mingled with street-lamps.
I have always stuck to pavement pounding the streets for my early morning weekday runs, as I am acutely aware of my safety as a lone female runner. I recognise all the binmen and we smile and say hello and I feel as though they have my back. Until the morning after The Bleak Day in March. I started my habitual route but looked up to the railway bridge overhead and realised there was a runner on Parkland Walk. So I cautiously ventured up there on this particular occasion, and to my delight there were lots of runners and dog-walkers out, which now seems so obvious that of course, there would be.
I had a heightened awareness of my senses: frosted leaves below to my left, a blue plastic bag caught on a budding branch above, filled with air and perfectly still. A lone black glove on the ground. The cold air rushed in through my nose alongside the faintly floral aroma of English hedgerow. The low sun cast me as a long shadow on the ground. I felt the power of my legs and my feet that allow me to cut through the air. The strength in my lungs that automatically know to support the movement of my body through my breath.
I reached the end of the track by Highgate Station, and turned back. The sun hit my face and I was blind to everything else. Instinctively I lifted my face and let myself sun-bathe. I ran a little further, underneath the trees again, the moment had passed.
As I ran, I acknowledged Maggie’s words: “this time I know I’m back in my body,” and felt so grateful that this song found me when it did. I find that music has a mysterious way of entering stage right in your mind at the precise moment you need it the most.
Running is not always some sort of spiritual awakening. Sometimes I am running solely for the purpose of getting home again for breakfast (the thought of pancakes enabled me to pick up the pace on a 10k a couple of weeks ago). Sometimes I cut runs short because I’m hungry. And that’s ok, too. Sometimes I don’t want to run at all but irritatingly I know I’ll feel better if I do. I have never regretted going for a run.
In this time of lockdown when my world has shrunk and consists entirely of places I can reach on foot, it has been a true privilege to watch the passing of Winter into Spring on the track during April. I have watched the inflorescence of the huge blossom trees, standing fluffy and proud like those crystal trees I used to get for Christmas as a kid. Ultimately what remains is the hangover of petals trodden into mud. The cow parsley and bluebells have exploded into life in the blossom’s departure, a floral firework display.