On The Rhythms And Sounds Of Running

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Running in the New York City marathon a few weeks ago I had ample time to think about the rhythms of running, pacing and tempo, on-the-course sound, and fatigue. Along with some 50,000 other runners, I lined up on the Staten Island bridge and then moved through the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and finally, Manhattan. I was in Wave 1, which was full of cheery folks focused on keeping a sprightly pace.

For much of the race I held steady and thought about my tempo. While I took the Staten Island bridge too slow (it was cold and windy) and mile 2 too fast, I soon settled into a consistent groove. I compared my pace as measured by my GPS watch and the giant clocks every mile with my body’s sense of how the speed felt. It felt challenging. It also felt rather arbitrary–a pace determined by a hoped for finish time rather than by what felt agreeable moment by moment. And, depending on one’s temperament, so it should be: the marathon is a race against the immutable judgement of the ticking clock. Run boy, run!

Surprisingly, the bands and DJs playing music on the course did little to motivate me. Some of the bands (in parts of Brooklyn) were rhythmically rough around the edges, playing spirited but sloppy cover versions of songs like “Eye Of The Tiger” that annoyed even back in the day because such songs are rousing yet one-dimensional; other bands (in Harlem and the Bronx) played funk so super tight that I wanted to stop and listen. There was also a few too many bands playing doomsday hard rock music. Not the most inspirational repertoire, but maybe the power of this music motivates some runners? I don’t know. On the whole though, I didn’t pay too much attention to the bands. There was no time!

I did take notice of sound at two particular spots in the race. Crossing the 59th street bridge from Queens into Manhattan I heard the sounds of howling wind and runners’ footsteps. For that lonely uphill mile, running felt ancient again and I had an acute sense of the effort required to hold steady on a climb, fifteen miles into a journey. I also had the sensation of being a part of a strange tribe fleeing some unseen force, moving in sync and banded together in silent effort. A few miles later, in the Bronx, I noticed sound again as I came around a turn smack into the middle of a giant DJ rig whose volume was so loud I felt the music as an ocean wave carrying me forward on big beats and bass. (It was a Chris Brown song.) I instinctively turned on the jets, flying around the turn at an increased speed, so energized was I by the low frequencies. But once out of earshot of the DJ, I once again felt the physical demands of my pace more acutely. At mile 22, a thought: this is getting hard.

No matter what its soundscape, the last few miles of the marathon bring about a penetrating fatigue that alters one’s perception and chisels joy into something less euphoric and definitely…darker. Feeling this sensation I thought about the limitations of “training” plans for running, or anything for that matter (like preparing for a music performance, say). Training makes all the difference, but what it is needed is experience with the thing itself in context to truly understand the feeling–whether euphoric or dark–it brings about. With running, run for a few hours, then try to keep going fast on your depleted energy supply. The body says, “seriously?” Yet some people can do this with grace and speed. Amazing. In the final miles of the marathon, one’s body keeps going even while one’s mind starts conspiring. I found myself feeling time pass more slowly: When is this going to end? I’m slowing down a bit, glancing at my watch to calculate the time my reduced tempo might bring forth. Soon the race will be over, its finish its own reward.

For a phenomenology of running through images, sound, and text, watch my Running Music here.

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