Ah, yes: “distance run…”
I’ve been a runner (a slow shambler) for years. I can’t remember when I started. I know I was already running when I taught English in a developing country, 23 years ago. I guess this suggests a deep-seated dissatisfaction with myself that pre-dates the eating disorder by many years: I ran to improve myself, or my situation.
Now my drive to be effective was easily channelled into taking exercise. Running is a purposeful activity. It could fill in the gaps between more meaningful undertakings. It could compensate for idleness and lack of ambition, because it satisfied, and exhausted, a need to be dynamic and effortful.
Its immediate goals provided a substitute sense of achievement. And success could be easily measured in progressively lower weight and the urgent hunger it brought out. Its difficulty pre-occupied and absorbed, so I could avoid confronting the vast yet insubstantial terrors of existence.
I think running has always been, for me, just very impatient walking. Since I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I’ve been afflicted by the sense that I needed to get on with it, that I was procrastinating. I didn’t have time to waste strolling around, taking the air! Exercise needed to get done as quickly as possible, so the urgency has always been there, too.
It helped that running is not a pleasurable experience. It’s bloody hard work. It is an ordeal. I force myself out the door every morning and the first ten minutes are awful. I spend it cursing myself for being such a fool. This makes it ideal to act as a penance and a useful chore. Of course, working hard runs absolutely against the grain of my natural inclinations, so overcoming that, day after day, proved my grit and determination.
After a while, though, you get into a meditative rhythm. Running has a concrete simplicity to it. Your goal is clear and specific: you need to complete the run – a time or a distance. The benefits of this activity are also clearly defined and easy to understand: aerobic, bodily health; mental health, and, of course, weight loss. You can lose yourself, burrow into a comforting, limited and achievable activity, just as you could with your eating project.
I suppose it’s really a self-calming technique. You feel anxious: you go for a run. The sheer effort makes you focus on a simple, rhythmical, achievable task, which demands controlled breathing and releases endorphins, and you feel much calmer. This makes it feel like running is the answer to the problem. In fact, it’s a simple, bio-chemical correlation.
 More than half the population still relied, at least partially, on some sort of subsistence farming to make ends meet. For them, thinness was a sign of defeat – it meant you couldn’t find enough food, day to day. Corpulence was a sign of success and importance. These people would never run for health or pleasure. They got quite enough exercise just surviving. When I met someone, in the early morning, they would look wildly behind me, to see what I was running away from – packs of wild dogs, wolves or the police, all three of which roamed the country, were utterly savage, and would hunt you down.
 I think runners are often considered to be displaying will-power. In fact, we’re probably all cowardly deserters from the mind’s battlefields. Running is just the haystack we’re hiding in. (How about that for a confused image?)