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Running Near Cemeteries

Why running next to death makes me feel alive

I’ve started to run a 4.5-mile loop around my house during my Monday lunch break. We’ve had quite a few snowstorms this winter, but the past few Mondays have been gorgeous and full of sunshine. The route is nothing special — mostly modest houses and some business parks. There are a few sections without a sidewalk where I have to strategically cross while looking for cars. Another part continues alongside a busy road. It does, however, contain something I’ve grown to enjoy running by — a cemetery.

When I was sixteen, my best friend and I snuck out of her house in the middle of the night to meet our friends at an old, abandoned cemetery on the outskirts of town. We approached the entrance from a deserted, dirt road with our flashlights clutched firmly in hand. We giggled nervously as we pushed the dilapidated fence open. Once we were amongst the graves, we took pictures of each other with our digital cameras trying to capture “orbs”. If these blobs of light appeared on the playback, that was proof that we were in the presence of spirits. As stupid as it seems now, I reflect fondly on that night. Laughing with my friends among the dead, I never felt so alive.

There is no fence surrounding the cemetery featured on my run. The sidewalk butts right up to the headstone — well I guess 7 feet from the headstone. The first time I ran the quarter-mile stretch alongside it, my eyes darted away from the names. I focused instead on my feet and keeping my breathing under control. The next week I made an effort to read the graves. Smith, Reese, Davis, Rasmussen. I started wondering about each person’s life, creating little stories in my head about what their occupation was, if they had moved here from other areas, if their families were still around. I noticed which graves had flowers or trinkets in front and even witnessed an active burial. The mourners had already gone, and the coffin was being lowered into the ground. I became hyper-aware of my heart strongly beating and the air moving efficiently in and out of my lungs. That person was dead and I was alive. Life seemed very simple.

For most, death is usually hidden behind a heavy curtain. The burial happens once the family is gone. The body is disposed of by a stranger. Even in our diets, we have systematic measures in place to shield ourselves from the death our food endures. In one way, running next to death makes the line that separates life and expiration more distinct. On that Monday, it brought attention to the blood circulating throughout my body and to the slight muscular burn in my legs. I noticed beads of sweat pooling along my face and forearms, evidence of my own autonomic processes performing their job. I thought in amazement how only through a coordinated series of electrical impulses does my heart continue to serve as my engine. My running body seemed starkly contrasted against the rows of graves next to me.

However, in another way, running next to death served as a reminder that I am closer to death than I think. I am literally always running toward it. We’re all just glorified “meat-sacks” as running coach David Roche says — just a bunch of bones held together by skin and fat. As macabre as it sounds, that idea is surprisingly comforting and makes the heavy curtain just a tad lighter. Running near death helps give me some much-needed perspective.

One of my favorite books is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In Chapter 19, Harari discusses happiness and the meaning of life. I know — heavy topics. One passage I found quite interesting is that numerous studies have found humans are able to put up with quite a lot of negative experiences and emotions as long as we can see a grander purpose in our life. Scientifically speaking, our lives are meaningless. However, if we can assign a type of meaning to our lives, be it a child, a spouse, a religion, an art form, a company, or a community, we can find happiness in these convictions. Harari ultimately describes this thought process as depressing, asking the reader, “does happiness really depend on self delusion?” However, I don’t think of this notion as depressing at all. Instead, it feels freeing. Nothing actually matters, but we can assign value to something and make it matter greatly to us.

Running alongside this cemetery reminded me of this concept. Hitting my splits, completing my weekly goal mileage, or PR-ing my marathon time doesn’t matter. I’m still just a meat-sack. That said, I’ve been really freaking happy when I’ve done those things. I can put up with the discomfort, the muscle aches, and fatigue, because running also allows me to experience the most incredible highs and share them with others. Running doesn’t matter an ounce in the eyes of the universe, but it matters to me.

No one can avoid ending up behind death’s heavy curtain. One day, hopefully many years from now, someone might read Belles on my tombstone and wonder what kind of life I lived. My family might move away and forget to place flowers or trinkets by my headstone. A group of annoying teenagers might dance and laugh and take pictures on top of my grave looking for orbs. All options are fine by me. Right now though, I can run.

*This essay was originally published by Runner's Life on Medium.


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