Running Without Music

After years of running to music, I recently began running without it. Now I find I probably should never have been listening to music at all, at any rate not while running.

Without headphones, without an iPhone or iPod, I listen to my lungs and their rise and fall, or in and out. Just so long as it isn’t up and down. Instead of melody there’s an innate but struggling rhythm, a rhythm that tries to establish and regulate itself into a nearly synchronized duet of deep puffs. (The right lung, which was operated on last summer, tends to feel as if it wants to hang back. It’s become something of a wallflower.)

And the sound of my feet as they land—that’s a deeper, more resonant sound than the mere squeaking of my sneaker soles, which I could always hear through headphones.

Feet, feet, oh feet! I have the feet of a peasant. Their natural preference is to remain low to the earth: They don’t lift very willingly, and pronate only if the senses are fully committed to and engaged in encouraging them. The distraction of music, I believe, allowed them to slacken. I would say their contact with the ground falls now somewhere between skimming and thudding. Or perhaps they’re like two bricks being thrown in gameful advance up the street. This is better. They’re working, at least.

City sounds, of course, those I hear, cars and yells and the unexpected blast of construction projects, and whatever brief snatches of natural music are in the air, birds, dogs, trees, the air itself. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably wiser to hear cars and bikes than not. Especially in Brooklyn, where many drivers don’t seem to realize I’m not some phantom in shorts who materializes at the moment they’re running a stop sign.

So: Overall, yes, my running has definitely improved. Not drastically. At this point my ankles never really lose a chafing pain, something like what a gate must experience when it swings open and shut on rusty hinges. On rare occasions I pass other runners, and that’s certainly an ego and adrenaline boost. Then again the runners I fail to pass, the ones I trail at a consistent lag of twenty meters or so, thirty meters or so, appear to be going terribly slow. Which means that the runners I actually pass most likely are stationery.

But my endurance has improved, and that matters the most. I just want to be able to go, maintain a reasonable pace and not quit until my body is fatigued, even exhausted, but still at a comfortable remove from death.

Without music my mind makes more sense of, and takes more pleasure in, the distances traveled and measured, whereas with music distance was something experienced as a burden—as if my head were a melody-filled balloon while the body below the neck was being hauled along like conjoined sacks of potatoes.

Now my body is aware of itself as a thing doing a thing. I’m an organism, filled with organs, all of them working in alignment and tacit agreement to push themselves to do better. And, hence, make me do better. This may be less stimulating than triggering small spurts of energy by playing the right song at just the right moment. Which, in my case, tended to be Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” and, less often, Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.” (Don’t judge. There’s no need to judge.) But it’s more satisfying, and more meaningful.

One really should try to be present when running. Perhaps this encourages one to be present when sitting, as well, or ordering a sandwich.

I assume my heart beats better and stronger, but I have no point of comparison on that. I don’t think any song ever penetrated so deeply into my bio system and tissue that my heartbeat adapted to it and improved. I don’t know: Does music do that to the heart, anyway, in any way other than a poetic one?

On occasion I attempted to run to opera, and it was like running with the brain cavity filled with gently sloshing syrup.

At the very least, the benefit of running without music has been a nice surprise. And nice surprises count for more and more as life goes on. They come to feel like a generous gesture in the face of everything else.

Self-portrait while running and being passed by cat.