Running through the end of the world

"On the day the world ends A bee circles a clover, A fisherman mends a glimmering net. Happy porpoises jump in the sea,"

After more than a year of not running, I laced back up Tuesday. I’ve been putting on my trainers nearly every day, heading out to the park next door and strolling my way around the pond. But even with the right tights, the right playlist, the right shoes on, I’d never really managed to work myself up for a run. Something about it didn’t ever feel quite right. 

For years, running has been my go-to activity to feel good but when there isn’t much to feel good about, it has somehow felt better, truer, to simply wallow while out on my daily walk.

While other people took up hiking and marathoning and mountain biking and kayaking in the earliest days of the lockdown, most days just leaving my house in the midst of a pandemic felt like an adventure. It didn’t help that my favorite running trails were flooded with people once all the gyms had closed. Unmasked people who breathed heavily and got too close and spit on the ground and ran with the countenance of the wealthy, secure in their ownership of this park, this trail, this space, pushing aside anything in their way.

I can clearly remember my last run, on my last day at the gym back in March 2020, plodding along on the dreadmill, my hair in a ponytail and sweat streaming down my face. It was a cold afternoon so I had moved my run indoors and, as usual, I was one of the only people doing cardio in the nearly empty studio. I loved working out in this place, most often filled with retirees lifting five pound weights to keep their muscle mass and stave off boredom; the building had been a men’s swimming pool at the turn of the 20th century, and then a rave location after it had been abandoned before this gym moved in and revitalized it in an Art Deco design that often felt too fancy for a fitness studio. It felt good to be there, familiar, and I knew the pensioners if not by name then by sight. We saw each other in Pilates classes and nodded at each other in the sauna afterward, the steam sessions a reward for having bothered to get our miles in together.

On that last day in the club, I decided against a post-sweat sauna session. The day before, in the gym’s yoga loft, the teacher had joked about leaving for Bali, getting out of the gray, snowy winter of Cologne, and other students asked her if it was still safe to travel, if she wasn’t scared to be so far away, what with this virus creeping into everything. And she’d laughed and said, of course she wasn’t afraid, she was healthy and besides, it hadn’t really taken hold in Indonesia yet. Like a true tourist colonizer, she wasn’t worried about carrying it in with her so that she could do her yoga poses in open air studios amongst the rice patties. She deserved a break. And I knew already then that we were all approaching this impending crisis differently.

We had all been hearing on the radio about the devastation the virus was wreaking on a nearby town after a Carnival party and, just a week out from our city’s own festivities, it felt weird to even be out in public after the images of Wuhan. It seemed careless to me to be jaunting about the gym, breathing on each other as we were. The sauna, usually a safe space for me, felt even more dangerous.

That run was one of the only times I’ve felt keenly aware that it would be my last time partaking in something. Even when I’ve moved, in the past, it’s always felt more like a transition with the door open; I could always return to that place I’d been before, that ritual I used to love. But this run, in this space, beneath the stained glass cupola, I knew would be my last. That things were changing, would change, and this ritual, if I wanted to keep it, would have to change with it.

Except that as the days wore into weeks wore into months wore into more than a year, I didn’t know just *how* to adapt it into my days. While other parents trotted their kids out to the pond with them, barking at them to keep up or slowing their own pace every time the tot stopped its bike to smell the flowers, running was something that had always been the closest thing to me time I could muster and I didn’t want to make it yet another family thing. Not when we were already with each other 24 hours a day.

But I realize, now, that as I am saying goodbye to more things, closing more doors, that running is not one of those things I want to leave behind. So I’m heading back out to the trails, rescheduling my days to get a run in before the rains. I worked out a plan to build structure back into my days. Like Murakami, I don’t care about my speed or my time or my distance (I was never very good at endurance running anyway). I’m more interested today in putting one foot in front of the other, getting back into the habit of things.

Except that as soon as I slowed the pace on my run Tuesday, turned the last corner toward my home, the emergency services system on my phone pinged. It’s been pinging a lot lately: warnings about COVID restrictions every time the numbers go up, notifications that the rivers are too high, evacuation orders every time a construction site finds another unexploded bomb. I usually ignore the alerts but after the floods of two weeks ago, I’m on edge.

And there it is, a new nightmare: a chemical plant in the next town over has reported an explosion and air quality is uncertain. Get indoors, shut your windows, stay inside. Later, after the city reassures us the danger of chlorine gas in the air has passed, the nearby residents will report birds and black soot falling from the skies. We are warned not to eat anything from the gardens, not to play on the playgrounds, not to wear our street shoes inside. It’s like a dystopian nightmare: for 18 months we have been told to stay inside, to not see any other people, meanwhile the ground is shifting beneath our feet, our houses—and along with them, water, food, memories— are being washed away, and now the sky is falling, our breath taken away. Running has always helped me to process life in the 21st century but even in my worst dreams, I had not imagined the stupidity of this moment. The overwhelm of it. The way we are expected to carry on, putting one foot in front of the other while the world falls apart around us.

I do not know how to run through this. But I know that as the number of things and places and people I’m saying goodbye to increases, I’ll have to find a way.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

“A Song on the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz