Emily Banks

A New Balance: Running, Healing, and the Complexities of it All.

Run: The Faces, Places, and Mental Spaces of Long-Distance Running

Running the Styx

There comes a point of saturation when I go running in the rain. A point at which my clothes cling like a suffocated web over my limbs. Water pours along the ridges of my scalp and strips my face in a sheet. When I wipe it away with the back of my hand, I disrupt the flow only for a moment. The rain picks up again as the next cloud passes overhead, new droplets sizzling on warm pavement. Steam rises up beneath my feet and I wonder if it would be warmer to just stop and lay down in the thick of it. Not to give up, but rather to wonder—what would happen if I were to stop dead in the middle of this forsaken road?—and then continue.

            We tread along in the middle of the Tasmanian wilderness—an island off the south coast of Australia—as part of a trip for our study abroad program. It was one of those programs that incorporates a lot of travelling, so we’d spent the better part of the last few months flitting around the west coast of Australia before hopping across to Tasmania. And for the majority of the trip, while most of the other American students remained in the tent cabins, I would roll out early with Lena, a runner like me, each and every morning to go for a jog.

I slow and turn—Lena is choking on water or on breath, I am not sure which. We are four miles out from camp, in the tiny town of Maydena, the rain as furious as it has been all week. Headlights pierce through the mist from behind us and we burrow ourselves against a tree along the road as a truck hurtles by. We watch as the vehicle plunges around the next corner, then keep on. The rain has soaked through our shoes, the last great barrier, and can do no more harm. My socks squirm beneath the balls of my feet. The skin on our hands crinkles into raisins and our cores pump fire through our breath.

It is the worst kind of run, by most accounts—brutally cold, legs sore after days cramped in a tour bus, the road steep and hair-pinned and unevenly paved, and our view blocked by cloud and dense rainforest. We have spent the majority of our time in Tasmania aboard a bus, zipping along from campsite to campsite, to see all the sights with minimal movement, and our bodies are stiff. Yet there is something remarkable about running along the same Tasmanian highways, surrounded by nothing but wavering Eucalyptus and the acoustics of our footsteps against the tree trunks. There is something exhilarating in knowing that we are the first and only people to run this section of road as opposed to drive it, and thus the experience of it is ours. People don’t seem to run in this part of the world. Everyone else sees the valley through a car window, while we are pioneers, smashing through the glass in this rhythmic beating of heart, breath, and step.

            People talk a lot about pivotal life moments—moments in which they snap around a 90-degree corner and start hurtling down some new path that ultimately changes the outcome of everything that comes after. I started running at seventeen—four years before that run in Tasmania. It was more of a 180-degree turn around for me, and I remember the exact moment it happened with a strange clarity. I was sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s Honda Civic, at a stoplight.

            “What are you going to do?” my friend asked me in the same way she’d asked me so many times before. I slouched in my seat. At the time, I had no idea. I thought I’d tried everything. I had depression. Serious, crippling, undiagnosed depression—and no way of pulling myself out. The only instances that I ever left my house were to ferry myself to and from school and soccer practice, or to buy myself meal and nibble at it solo. When people asked—which they rarely did, because I was a social recluse and had a chip on my shoulder about it—I told them that I was busy applying for college and keeping up with classes. But most days during high school, when I got home, I would make myself dinner and retreat to eat it in my room. I wouldn’t resurface until morning.

            It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be going out in crop tops with boys and plastic water bottles of Smirnoff Vodka. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to the beach on Saturdays, or to have go-to friends to make immediate eye contact for group projects assignments. I was like this horrible spiky creature shuffling around high school with a blindfold on—too rough around the edges for anyone to touch, and terrified that no one would ever try. People could feel my distress hang about me like a wraith, and if that wasn’t enough to scare them away, my scowl usually did the trick. A spikey, scowling girl who hid a flowering muffin top and a distaste for bras beneath softball sweatshirts and ripped jeans and who never spoke to anyone beyond one of three friends unless spoken to. Unapproachable barely scratched the surface.

            “Why is this traffic light taking so long?” I blew out sharply in my friends car. She shrugged and drummed her hands along the steering wheel. Tomorrow was Sunday. The white picket sign would be sitting on our driveway come morning—Open House: Sunday 11-2pm. It was the root of all evil in our household. Marcine, our realtor, would stream across the entryway with over-the-knee boots and enough botox in her face to float to China and stick us to the walls in her syrupy voice. Instead of going to church on our Sunday mornings, selling the house became our prayer, our crusade, our hell. My mother led the charge.

Clean your room, walk the dog, mow the lawn, move the furniture, dust the cabinets, stop being a goddamn slug, vacuum the rugs, repaint the walls, light candles, put on nice cloths, don’t you dare talk back to me, take your brother to practice, be grateful, tell your father to get off his ass, ask him why he won’t help me, get him to help me, help me, you’re doing it wrong, pick up our divorce papers, do it better, you’re an ungrateful bitch, do it perfectly, will someone in this goddamn house do something for anyone other than themselves for fucking once in their goddam lives?!

We were going on three years of this shrieking, every Sunday morning, and the house hadn’t sold. I looked at my hands. They looked swollen, puffy, like the rest of me. I touched my thigh and winced. I was repulsive. I was repulsed.

            “I’ve got to do something,” I said finally. The light turned green. I couldn’t be in that house anymore. I couldn’t stand the screaming. I couldn’t stand seeing my mom collapsing in a heap on the floor, gripping a mop like a cross, sobbing everything she had onto the hardwood, begging for something that none of us could give her. She didn’t want to give up her home. None of us wanted to give up our home. My brother and I wanted to turn back the clock and go back to Sunday morning pancakes and throwing baseballs around in the park. We wanted to go back to when my dad had a job, and when my mom knew how to smile, and when my brother played with Legos instead of pipes. We were all so miserable and scared and lonely, all on our own. Instead of reaching out to each other, all anyone could do was shove away. Every single Sunday, not just pushing, but slamming as hard as we could against each other—away, away, away. Our situation went unchanged, and we remained stagnant. Now, at another stoplight, I had to get moving.

            “I’m going to go on a run tomorrow,” I said abruptly. My friend turned to me, eyebrow raised.

“And eat some salad,” I continued, and she chuckled. I hated salad, and she’d been in my P.E. classes long enough to know that I could barely finish my mile around the track. Something in my tone, however, resonated.

“Keep me honest. Please?” I asked. I remember the words, although small, echoing as we rolled into the intersection. I was too exhausted from battling our circumstances to continue hating myself too. I couldn’t change our Sunday mornings, but I could change myself. I could start with taking care of my single ship, in body and in mind.

The next morning, while my dad watched 49ers reruns and my mom screamed in the kitchen and my younger brother smoked pot in in the yard, I took off. I went until I couldn’t, and then kept going. My feet hurt and my knees creaked and my lungs burst, but I kept going.

            I ran until the house sold. I ran until I got into college. I ran until I graduated from high school, then until I left home for Vermont. I ran until I started making friends, and until my parents began to rekindle their relationship at home. I ran out of one of the darkest periods of my life in a cotton t-shirt, outdated sneakers, and a watch I dug out of a cereal box. I kept my head up. I had taken a 180, and the right track was finally in sight. It trembled in front of me, glimmering, hopeful. I ran faster and farther. I was still running, three years later, when I found myself in the sticks of Tasmania, Australia, with Lena Miller.

            Lena and I tuck into our pace and continue along the side of the valley. Towering to our left, the giant trees of the Big Styx Nature Reserve sing toward the sky like a cathedral, twittering in bird song and rain-snow fall. Down the valley to our right, the Styx River warbles, hidden behind the temperate rainforest that lines the road. As we turn, the undergrowth covering the slope to our right breaks just for a moment, revealing the valley sprawled below. I breathe into our pace and we slide on along the guardrail, eyes to the sweep of greenery and the sky that opens up like a great window beyond. The view is ours and ours alone.

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