by Aaron Benjamin
Artwork by: Daniel Workman
I remember the day. Crunch. Crunch. Well, at least I think I remember. I know I remember that sound. Crunch. Crunch. I’ve heard it so many times now that it’s embedded in my head, like a track on repeat. The sound of two feet beating the hard sidewalk. The sound of just two small pieces of my flesh pushing my weight forward, yet simultaneously falling and fumbling on the concrete, one after the other. Only miraculously do they spring back up, escaping the ground, and repeat the process. How do they do that? Better yet, where are they taking me?
It was the first time I had ever really gone on a run. It was the summer after my first year of high school, in the small city of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I sat doing nothing in the two bedroom apartment that my mom and I had lived in for that past year. Eventually, I couldn’t take the silence that judged me as I drowned in boredom anymore. I put on my piece-of-shit tennis shoes, and I told my mom, “I’m gonna leave my phone and go for a run; I gotta get out of the house.” Instead of her usual inquiring protocol, she simply looked at me and said, smiling, “That should be good for you.” She looked peaceful as she laid in bed under a flickering ceiling light while she read A Woman After God’s Own Heart. I kissed her and closed her door on my way out.
At first I could hear everything around me, but soon the noise faded and my mind separated from my body. I turned down Graham Rd. and I noticed buildings I hadn’t seen before. The low sun was gleaming off of an abandoned hardware store. Wind rustled the heavy trees where the houses went down into the valley. “This isn’t too bad actually, I’m not even tired yet,” I thought to myself. Crunch. Crunch. What the heck was that? Oh, that was my feet. I had forgotten I was actually running. I can’t be running, can I? I’ve just been viewing, thinking, feeling. Wait, I’m actually lost now. Eventually, I made it back home, long after sunset. My mom said I was gone for three hours.
Retrospect is a weird thing. Time nudges past you like a dark stranger on a crowded subway, difficult to read or discern, and then for reasons known or unknown to you, you are different. Life has changed, your people have changed, your mind has changed. Throughout your life you will think about the past, and if you choose to evaluate it you are gaining retrospect. For some, the past is just an internal photo album, a collection of memories and lessons and moments. For others, especially those who bear the painful burden I call self-awareness, the past has another life itself. For those people, maybe the past is what has made them who they are. Maybe for us the past is better forgotten. What if I’ve changed too much? What if I don’t even know if I’ve changed for better or worse? What if things had gone differently? I bear this burden. I bear this burden of, “what if?”
I grew up in a Christian home. I went to Christian schools for ten years. I knew things. I knew my parents were supposed to love each other. I knew my family all loved Jesus. I knew we could slip up but ask for forgiveness. By the time I was in seventh grade, I saw that I was wrong. When I was only twelve, I had to learn the truth about my father and his habits, you could call them. I saw the anger and violence exploding in my brother. I saw the depression eating at my sister. I saw things. But time passed and all three of them moved out of the house. I had to hold my mother while she cried the month my dad finally packed up his stuff and bought an apartment closer to Cleveland. My mother meant everything to me. At this time, I had to become a man for her.
You could say I grew up a lot that year. Fifteen-year-old me wrote essays, like this one, about that year and called it, “My defining, maturing climax of tribulation from God.” I had thought I had myself all figured out. Looking back now, this boy may have been mature for his age, but he had no idea that, years later, he would still be just as lost as he was before.
Mom and I moved out of that small apartment at the end of the summer. We found ourselves in another house back in the neighboring town, Hudson, where my family had lived before the divorce. Mom got a house big enough for my brother and sister to come home to for the summers. However, they would never really come back from college. But for now, we settled into our house and life settled with it. I started to run almost every day sophomore year, but it was something that I always kept to myself like a secret treasure that I didn’t want to share. I would come home from school while my mom was still at work and, before I had my license, I would take my brother’s old car out somewhere where I could hit new roads with my new shoes. If I finished an assignment, I would reward myself with a break to go run as a healthy way to put off all of my other work. My younger self was simpler back then, and he didn’t care about how much exercise he was getting or how adventurous he had to be, he just wanted to do it.
I understand now, and I think I might have known back then too, why running is such a beautiful thing to me. It’s just you and the earth. It’s man’s purest sport. You’re connected to an entire massive world and everything on it by just your two small feet. When you are stuck in your own life, succumbing to the predetermined routine, you can step outside and just run. It doesn’t matter when or where, how or why, with or without anyone, you can just get up and go, if you are blessed with health. You can listen to that peaceful sound of your two feet gliding across the terrain. To me that’s beautiful. I would turn down random streets to see where they would take me. I memorized the road signs on the new routes I would take. I got to view my small world in a way you can’t when you just zoom by in a car. In my mind, I was transported to any world I wanted while my ears were filled with the hopeful cries of “Deep Blue” by Arcade Fire or the climactic pounding of drums in “Festival” by Sigur Rós or that billowing organ of “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.
But I kept it to myself. I became pretty decent at the sport these years, but I didn’t really take my fitness seriously. Running was my leisurely escape from my time in high school acting in theater or causing trouble with my friends. When I told friends who were runners about what I did, they said I could be great. “You should definitely come to our summer practices. You could be on the team, man!” I could see the genuine delight behind Chris’ eyes. He was one of the kindest and smartest kids I knew. “Yeah dude, that would be cool,” I made myself say. I would go to one practice before junior year, and I sucked. I couldn’t keep up, I made excuses to stop on the trail, and I walked the rest of the way panting as Chris and Ryan kept pushing. “I hate running with people, and I don’t think I’m cut out for this now,” the thought weighed down on me. I thought I’d be happy keeping it to myself, to my own schedule. I could tap into my performance potential anytime I wanted. However, this thought was representative of the rest of that year where I ended up just drifting. A lack of drive and apathy quickly crept upon me. Why?
Crunch. Crunch. Jump ahead now. On May 15th 2016, at seven in the morning on Sunday, the race started out with a calm, sunny sky. It was cold as hell out there. However, soon clouds rolled in and gave freezing rain, then hail. Thirteen-point-one miles of this was going to be agony. But, it was also very extraordinary. For the first time ever I was in a city race along with thousands of other souls there in downtown Cleveland. The sight of such a community coming together to run on that day overcame me with a sense that I truly belonged. At the start of senior year, I finally joined the cross country team, although I was one of the slower guys because of my long hiatus from the sport. I forced myself to train more, and I even logged my miles on a board in my room. Now I was actually there in the race, and I pushed myself to accomplish a real goal as I powered through the rain, while I listened to the crunches of all those other feet beside me. Somewhere along the route my mom cheers, along with my girlfriend, Gabby, and her mom. Again, I did something I felt proud of while my mom was the only representative of my family who could watch, and usually it would just hammer into my jadedness. But this time I had my girlfriend who shared her family and love with me. She really was a sweetheart.
I finished the race as soon as the sun came out. Nice joke, God. I shook furiously as I felt my muscles clench and scream in the bitter cold after I stopped running. I finished in 1:46:53, fourteen minutes faster than my goal. On that day, I felt it. I felt like I tapped into the potential that everyone told me I had. It was the most positive I felt in a year, and I asked myself why I couldn’t experience this all the time. I could definitely be a marathoner and hit the trails every day next year in Colorado. I could be that guy who really connects with his friends and community every day. I could pursue this sport, and pursue God, and pursue happiness. I could.
Soon the sound of the crunch is gone. The inspiring picture of two feet pounding the road one after the other that I used to imagine is no longer playing in my head. The physical and mental aches and pains arise now. What happened? How come I haven’t thought of these memories for years until now? How come I have to look back at pictures to remember what I was like, what I felt? Well, I told you retrospect is a weird thing.
I’m sure that first run was amazing. I discovered something new that I enjoyed. Honestly, however, looking back at that day and all of it now kind of scares me. What if my discovery of running was also a discovery of how to run away from my friends, how to run away from my problems. Was it yet another thing that I could just do without really having to commit to a plan or to others?
I think my family’s split when I was twelve did mature me into the form of man I am today. But it was far from bringing me to what man I should be for the rest of my life. Maybe it eventually made me think I was too good for that of this world, or just already good enough. Fast forward to today, and I am still struggling with the fallout. I struggle to feel the same boyish thrill for the things I get to do and the time I spend with others. Interestingly, I can see that when I’m running frequently I feel better, I am being driven by something. When I’m not running, I don’t stride through life, I am merely drifting. Drifting some place, only God knows where.
You cannot let apathy control your life. I know that I will always be thankful for that beautiful sport and welcoming sound—I’m damn certain about it.