Sarah Jane Bar­nett on how she be­came free again through run­ning


Is­tarted run­ning in my 20s. I’d never done any reg­u­lar ex­er­cise, so my first at­tempt in­volved run­ning the dis­tance be­tween two lamp posts, and then walk­ing to the next. The route I took on those first few runs was a loop start­ing from my par­ents’ house and out around the sub­urbs of my child­hood. At the time I was es­sen­tially home­less. I was stay­ing with my par­ents af­ter my first mar­riage had ended, af­ter my hus­band calmly said on the phone, ‘I don’t de­sire you any more.’ Look­ing back, I don’t blame him. I didn’t de­sire my­self ei­ther. Drag­ging my body through the dark streets was the only way to numb the pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing dis­carded, to ease the shame and grief.

Be­ing back at my par­ents’ house was a move back to safety, but it wasn’t a move home. When I first went flat­ting, I’d of­ten say, “I’m go­ing home” or “I’m call­ing home” when re­fer­ring to that 1970s white stucco house. I’d occasionally have night­mares that my par­ents had sold the house with­out my knowl­edge. But dur­ing the years of living in other ci­ties, the house had be­come my par­ents’ home. It was a long time un­til I found an­other place to call home. For the past decade I’ve lived in Wellington where my se­cond hus­band and I bought and ren­o­vated a house. We had a son and made friends. I planted a gar­den. I com­posted. At some point this city and house be­came my home.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, the feel­ing of home re­lates to be­long­ing and de­sire. Those first few runs around Christchurch led me to train for a 6km race, then the 12km City to Surf, and then a few half marathons. Even­tu­ally, seven years af­ter that mar­i­tal break-up, I ran a marathon. In her es­say on fe­male de­sire, Hunger Makes Me, Jess Zim­mer­man asks, “What would it take to feel safe be­ing vo­ra­cious? What would it take to re­alise that your de­sires are not mon­strous, but hu­man?” Like many women, I had a dif­fi­cult and con­fus­ing re­la­tion­ship with my body. Run­ning taught me my body was func­tional, strong and com­pe­tent. As run­ner J. Jeremy Wis­newski says, “Our body is our per­spec­tive on the world . . . We can­not ‘put down’ our bod­ies.” Run­ning al­lowed me to be­long in my body, and it’s a home that can­not be taken away.

What made me think about this par­tic­u­lar con­cept of home was re­mem­ber­ing a run while on hol­i­day in Barcelona. I’d been run­ning for 11 years. It was a Fri­day evening when I left my dank ho­tel and ran north from the Gothic Quar­ter. My legs were loose from walk­ing around the mu­se­ums, so I eas­ily worked my way up Pas­seig de Gra­cia and turned right on to Car­rer d’Arago, a wide leafy av­enue that cuts across the city. My feet skimmed the pave­ment. The night air touched my shoul­ders and face. It was al­ready dark and the street was busy, but I re­laxed with the anonymity of be­ing in a for­eign city. My stride length­ened.

As I made my way down Car­rer d’Arago, the build­ings changed from glass-fronted of­fices to or­nate stone apart­ments. The street lamps cast yel­low light over the city. Groups of peo­ple walked through the fra­grant evening. The plea­sure of this run was almost un­bear­able. I was alone. I had no work to do or peo­ple to meet. I was known to no one. At that mo­ment, in the ex­quis­ite city of Barcelona, I was run­ning en­tirely for my­self out of my de­sire to work my body.

Zim­mer­man ar­gues that it is un­com­mon for a woman to ex­press such de­sires:

A man’s ap­petite can be hearty, but a woman with an ap­petite is al­ways vo­ra­cious: her hunger al­ways over­reaches, be­cause it is not sup­posed to ex­ist. If she wants food, she is a glut­ton. If she wants sex, she is a slut. If she wants emo­tional care-tak­ing, she is a high-main­te­nance

Run­ning al­lowed me to be­long in my body, and it’s a home that can­not be taken away.

bitch or, worse, an “at­ten­tion whore”.

She goes on to say that women who ex­press de­sire will “worry about seem­ing ‘good’ — which means not too pushy, not too de­mand­ing, not too loud”. Damp with sweat, I didn’t care about be­ing good. I wanted to run.

I turned to­wards Pas­seig de Cir­cum­val­la­cio, a road that cir­cles a green area that con­tains the Par­lia­ment of Cat­alo­nia and Barcelona Zoo. My legs were light and my breath was slow and calm. When I hit the cir­cle road, I re­alised the street lights were out. The huge con­crete walls of the zoo curved up and away into dark­ness. Usu­ally I avoid run­ning along dark streets be­cause Wellington’s fe­male run­ners have a his­tory of be­ing snatched. This night, I ran fast and light. The glow from the city turned the pave­ment a sil­very grey, and mono­tone graf­fiti ghosted along the wall. I held my­self tense as I churned my legs for­wards. The air was thick. Each se­cond was the next se­cond. Each part of me worked in con­cert — my ten­dons and mus­cles, my lungs, my red blood cells. I was run­ning and I was run­ning. Then, sud­denly, I was on the cusp of an in­ter­sec­tion, noise and colour.

Other run­ners will know the state I’m de­scrib­ing. The ex­ter­nal world be­comes dull, and the bright essence of the self comes into focus. Some philoso­phers think the pain of run­ning di­rects our at­ten­tion in­wards, but for me these mo­ments aren’t painful. In­stead, my body slips away and I am left with an un­clut­tered and joy­ful sense of who I am. In her ex­is­ten­tial­ist es­say on run­ning, philoso­pher Heather Reid quotes what run­ning great Ge­orge Shee­han said of this ex­pe­ri­ence: “For when I run, I am

a hunter and the prey is my own self, my own truth.” I pre­fer Reid’s own less-ma­cho ac­count: “The time we spend run­ning is some­how the time when we feel most our­selves.”

Home is also the place where we feel most our­selves.

In the years fol­low­ing that trip to Barcelona many things hap­pened. I got mar­ried and had a baby. I wrote a doc­tor­ate and pub­lished two col­lec­tions of po­etry. My fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with prostate can­cer and then leukaemia. My grand­mother, a steady hand in my life, died. My hus­band and I saved, trav­elled and put a new roof on the house. These were painful years. I had to sub­sume my needs and de­sires for those of a child and the larger fam­ily unit. I had to at­tend to oth­ers.

Con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese writer Haruki Mu­rakami once said, “Pain is in­evitable. Suf­fer­ing is op­tional. Say you’re run­ning and you start to think, ‘Man this hurts, I can’t take it any more’. The hurt part is an un­avoid­able re­al­ity, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the run­ner.” To run is to be painfully aware of the body and its needs, both phys­i­cal and emo­tional. Through those hard years I made space to run at least three times a week. The woman of my 20s could not have done that. She could not have said, ‘I am im­por­tant’. I am sure other peo­ple have eas­ier routes to sel­f­un­der­stand­ing.

My son turned 5 this morn­ing. My hus­band and I con­structed a sur­prise in the living room: one small chocolate cup­cake with a lit can­dle, a shiny new bike, and a 3D printed skull of a sabre-toothed tiger. My son was ex­u­ber­ant. He climbed awk­wardly on to the bike, his long limbs at odd an­gles as he tested his body in this new con­fig­u­ra­tion. He sat at the ta­ble and leaned for­wards to blow out the can­dle. He was still dressed in his cot­ton py­ja­mas, the fab­ric thin and soft from wash­ing. I watched him com­plete a rit­ual of child­hood; and, tak­ing photos and scoop­ing one hand around his warm chest, I was com­plet­ing a rit­ual of mother­hood. I have seen

I’ve tried ... but I can never fully quan­tify what it means to be a run­ner; I can never ex­press how run­ning has saved me.

the fifth birth­day from both sides now, in two homes, once as a child and once as a par­ent.

Shortly af­ter the sur­prise, my hus­band and I had an ar­gu­ment. I was try­ing to work, to email a piece that needed to go out be­fore the week­end, and he kept on in­ter­rupt­ing. We whis­pered heat­edly in the hall­way. We were ag­gres­sively silent in the kitchen. When it was time for them to go out and meet friends, I lay on the bed and my hus­band went out­side. My son ran in to hug me good­bye. ‘It’s okay to be sad,’ he said, and then his cropped hair and black high-tops, his tiny nails and teeth, his fa­ther’s legs and the mole on the right-hand side of his back were gone out the door.

The black pres­sure stayed with me all morn­ing. I needed to write — this es­say, in fact — but I could not find the space in­side my­self. I felt self­ishly and ir­ra­tionally an­gry at be­ing both­ered. At be­ing needed. At not be­ing left the f*** alone. Over the years I’ve tried to write about these feel­ings and about run­ning but I can never fully quan­tify what it means to be a run­ner; I can never ex­press how run­ning has saved me. In his mem­oir Mu­rakami said, “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to ac­quire a void”.’ Zim­mer­man also men­tions the void when de­scrib­ing eat­ing dis­or­ders in young women:

Peo­ple fre­quently claim that eat­ing dis­or­ders, like any­thing com­mon to ado­les­cent girls, are just “a cry for at­ten­tion”. As some­one who was once an ado­les­cent girl, I sus­pect they are at least par­tially the op­po­site: a cry against hunger and need, an at­tempt to kick away that pro­foundly hu­man de­sire to be paid mind. To shut the door on the void.

I’ve never had an eat­ing dis­or­der, but I recog­nise the de­sire to shut away my needs. My ter­ror of the void, of feel­ing and be­ing seen — well, that was the rea­son I ar­gued this morn­ing.

Even­tu­ally I gave up thrash­ing this es­say and went for a run. I ran the 5km route that I al­ways take on week­day morn­ings. It’s an out and back that curves down my street with its gen­tle hills and clear view over the bush re­serves of Wellington. I have run this route twice a week for the past five years, so about 500 times. Each part of the route has a mean­ing. There’s the part where I stop to roll up my run­ning tights when I get too hot. There’s the old fence where I stretch my calves, and soon af­ter this, the house where I turn back. I of­ten sit by this house for a minute. If I close my eyes I can see each house and turn of this route like a movie in my mind.

The rep­e­ti­tion of my morn­ing route seems to echo the grind of my life as it sneaks to­wards mid­dle age. I am not sad about this fact. If any­thing, it’s nec­es­sary. Reid says: “The jour­ney to­ward ex­is­ten­tial­ist authen­tic­ity . . . usu­ally be­gins with a sep­a­ra­tion from day-to-day re­al­ity . . . The world makes se­ri­ous de­mands on all of us; we must work, we must fol­low so­cial cus­toms, we must be con­cerned about our so­cial po­si­tion. It is nor­mal to feel tied down, maybe even im­pris­oned or en­slaved by these se­ri­ous de­mands of the world . . . There is a sense in which we are all pris­on­ers.”

Run­ning is an ac­knowl­edge­ment of my free­dom to turn away from those de­mands, at least for a time. Or, to put it an­other way, to turn to­wards my­self. In these mo­ments, my breath in the air and the sky clear above the trees, I find a deep quiet­ness.

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