Voices in Your Head

I decided the time had come to make a statement to the public. Prudence be damned – rumours were flying, the slander accumulating like blowing snow. If I didn’t speak out, and speak out now, my enemies would know me to be weak.

I stepped up to the microphone. Camera shutters whirred like crickets.

“Perhaps you have heard various scurrilous rumours about my behaviour, about statements and actions attributed to me,” I said. “It may have struck you that these statements and actions were not characteristic of the Peter Sagal you’ve come to know. And you may be wondering how this could come to pass. There is a simple answer.”

I paused. Great public speaking is as much about silence as it is language.

“They are all LIES!”

To my left, a woman walking her baby in a pram whipped her head around and stared at me. Holy moly, I had actually said that out loud. I gave her a wave, and sped up until I hit the next corner and vanished, leaving behind just a rumour of a bald man running down the street and shouting to himself.

I have a friend who wears headphones on long solo runs because, he says, “I can’t spend that much time alone in my head.” I disagree. Spending that much time inside one’s head, along with the accumulated dust and the bats hanging from the various dendrites and axons, is one of the best things about running – at least one of the most therapeutic. Your brain is like a doona – every once in a while, it needs to be aired out.

I am conciliatory by disposition and funny by profession, and like the unpopular flavours of soft drinks, my darker, angrier, and more earnest thoughts tend to accumulate in the dispenser and gum up the works. When I decide to run alone, with nothing in my ears but the air and the occasional mosquito, it gives me a chance to rehearse the things I’m too shy or self-conscious to actually say, and to express them as rhythmic prose with the help of my constant left-right-left metronome.

Often, my inner monologues are serious responses to the daily news my day job forces me to joke about – speeches delivered from presidential podiums or witness stands that the actual people in question just aren’t smart enough to give. They should consult me; in my inner news channel, my speech-writing always works and often inspires a standing ovation, grovelling apology, or both.

Sometimes my monologues are quite personal. Even when I leave my iPod behind, I still carry my mistakes with me, and my anger at those who hurt me, and my regret for those I have hurt. The words – of retribution, of apology – seem to flow a lot easier when there is no one around to catch them and throw them back in my face. Perhaps some of these words should be spoken to the people they’re addressed to, but until I have the courage for that, the air will have to do.

And every time I let off this toxic steam – rising and evaporating with the other noxious gases from my sweaty self – I can feel the tension leave my arms and legs, my gait become looser and freer. I come from a long line of shoulder-hunchers, and as I run and rant, I can feel my back straighten and my head rise. It’s as if the dark thoughts I give silent voice to are quite literally holding me down, weights tied to my neck and collarbones, and as I indulge them, I cut them loose and let myself rise again.

And then, as my vents clear, I begin to think about running. Our sport seems mindless to people who run only involuntarily, who break reflexively into a gasping sprint when their bus starts to pull away ahead of them. But the only way to succeed as a long-distance runner is to do it mindfully, to be aware of the body and the world it is moving through.

I think about my motion, and my breathing, my muscles and their state of agitation or stress or relaxation. I note my surroundings – the downward slope I would never notice driving this street, the pigeon’s nest I would never see for lack of looking up, the figure in a window caught in a solitary moment of his own. I think about the true meaning of distance – about the learning that comes from running a kilometre in your own shoes. I think about blisters and bliss, and the voices quiet.

A short while ago, I was hosting a small 5K, and the runners looking up at me from around the park were mostly newer, younger runners attempting their first race, and many of them had iPods and phones clipped to their belts and arms, with headphones dangling.

“Take off your headphones,” I said, struck by a bout of righteousness. “This race is five kilometres, and let’s say you run a 6:15 kilometre, so that’s about half an hour. You can spend half an hour without distractions. Pay attention to what you’re doing, pay attention to your body, pay attention to your breathing. Some of you are about to run your first race ever – be here for it.”

Some of them took my advice, taking off their headphones and stowing them in their bags. I watched those people as we all shuffled to the line, and started to look for the first indication of someone caving into the darkest depths of their own head: their lips starting to move, as their own inner monologues emerged from storage.

I moved my own lips, silently, shaping out the words, “I told you so.” And then we were off.

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