Corrie Tan: Running for the love of it

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My dad started us on running in secondary school. We lived by East Coast Park, and three times a week, he would go running with me and my younger sister.

We were neither particularly fast nor gifted athletes, but my parents were fervent believers in developing fit and healthy teenagers. So we ran. Short distances at first, but soon we were hitting 6 or 7km without too much of a strain and without ever having to slow to a walk.

It never occurred to me that we were doing anything particularly strenuous - in fact, I've never associated running with pain or punishment. Running was simply an extension of everyday life, woven into our daily routines.

Some of my friends find my love of running very puzzling.

"Don't you get bored?" they often ask, incredulous that I might sign up for a 10km race. Or even attempt to run that distance. I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore runner - I've never run a 42km marathon and do not enjoy running in a dense crowd.

But the feel of my feet against the tarmac, the rhythm of my breathing, there's just something about it that uncoils a tightly wound spine, one that has hunched over desks, over computers, over books, for hours on end, and opens it up.

I don't like to listen to music when I run. I like to do it hands-free - no smartphones, the way some joggers strap it around their arms to measure distance and heart rate - no watch, no keys, no encumbrances. And while I have run with friends, and have found these group runs enjoyable, I always eventually return to my solo jaunt.

Some days, it is the closest I get to about half an hour of unmediated real life, with absolutely nothing to distract me from the fact that I am moving.

In fact, I'm not quite sure what I think about when I'm running. Sometimes I rehearse my schedule for the next few days, turning it over in my head and slotting errands and events into place. But these thoughts usually flutter out of my head, until I realise I've run 3km without even knowing what I've been pondering.

When I read Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's memoir-novella, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, several years ago, I felt a strange surge of validation.

Murakami is a champion runner, someone I don't think I can even aspire to be (he runs daily, and he has completed a 100km race, which doesn't even feel human).

But there is a meditative quality to running that he revels in, and which I realised that I subconsciously had started to enjoy as well. The chaos and white noise of everyday life filters out of my head with every step, and I almost feel light, weightless - and simultaneously alive and grounded. And whenever I am upset or stressed with work, a quick run outdoors almost always does the trick, unravelling that knotty dead weight of emotions.

These days, I don't run as often as I would like - or as I used to. I try to clock in about twice a week, but an unpredictable working schedule sometimes throws a wrench in plans. I've started to do a bit of yoga to stretch out the muscles in my shoulders and back from hours spent clipping a phone between my shoulder and ear and talking to interviewees at work.

But for some reason, I've always come back to the track. In a sense, running asks very little of you in a life that demands so much. All you need are a pair of shoes (proponents of barefoot running might even argue that you don't need any), and the open road is yours. You're not limited by machinery, membership fees or technical glitches, and you don't even have to take a yoga mat along. But running gives back plenty in return - you are rewarded with an endorphin high, a clearer mind, and if you run at the right time, the sun rising or setting perfectly as you trot home.

Some of my running routes aren't especially interesting. I often wind through the same residential areas and park connectors, and I often wonder why I'm not bored of them yet. But I think, if anything, the act of putting one foot in front of the other gives the gentle thrum of stability to a life that is anything but.

I suppose I run because I don't have to prove anything when I do; I run because I can.

corriet@sph.com.sg