Friday, August 5, 2011

Born to Run, Not to Deconstruct

Just the other day, I was completing a nine-mile recovery run. Despite having completed a hard long distance run the previous day, and despite suffering yet another of Washington, DC's unspeakably hot summer afternoons, I felt great--strong, confident, assured that I'll break my PR in the upcoming Army Ten Miler. Heck, it even seemed like, finally, my chronic painful struggles with posterior tibial tendinitis had subsided (for now).

Then, mere meters from the front of my condo building, I was shoved off of the sidewalk into a lane of moving traffic. The pedestrian who shoved me did so accidentally. He was standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a group of his friends, facing the opposite direction. He was chatting with them about something--plans for dinner, plans for the weekend, whatever--when he suddenly turned around and quite forcefully stepped right into me. He didn't have time to see me coming, nor did he, for whatever reason, anticipate that by clogging up the middle of the sidewalk, he would force other pedestrians to walk around him and his friends. Even though I was dutifully passing on the left, he still wound up walking into me, and the result was that he propelled me out into the street.

(On a sidenote, this kind of thing is precisely why I loathe people who walk with their cell phones, iPhones, iPods, etc. pressed firmly and, it seems, permanently against their heads. This is also the reason that I particularly loathe shopping at this place. On any given day, a solid 85% of the store's patrons are walking about sealed off from the outside would via some form of auditory stimulation. In more simple terms, no one pays attention to where the eff they are or what the eff they are doing. And the store just isn't big enough for that kind of aloofness. The same goes, obviously, for most city sidewalks. Folks, it's dangerous to other pedestrians when you, as a pedestrian, are not paying attention. Get it? It's sort of like driving. But then, why do I suspect that you drive just like you walk?)

In any case, the gentleman who knocked me into the street was apologetic. At the time, I was a bit stunned, and a bit annoyed. I was also concerned because I was a sweaty mess, and I knew that I smeared myself all over what appeared to be his relatively nice outfit. So much for those dinner plans. In any case, I didn't respond to the man in any meaningful way. I merely got up, brushed myself off, and finished my jog. Sir, if you are reading this post, no worries. It was an accident.

It wasn't until later in the evening--perhaps not coincidentally, as I was walking home from a typically far-too-long shopping experience at my favorite supermarket--that I realized I could have been seriously, seriously hurt had there been a car or bus in that particular lane of traffic. As I thought back to my actions, I was pretty sure that I would not have attempted to pass that gentleman had there been cars in the street; in fact, I knew that the lane was empty when I made my move to the left side of the sidewalk. Nevertheless, the thought that, in an instant, I could have ended up in the hospital with at least several broken bones (at best) left me quite cold--and I haven't been able to shake the feeling that I was really lucky yesterday afternoon. Honestly, I don't like being lucky. I like being safe.

Perhaps what is more troubling to me is the thought that I would have been deeply upset had my running career been compromised. In all likelihood, given the speed at which cars and buses and trucks can travel on that particular street, my running career would have been permanently compromised, because a direct hit by any of those automobiles would have likely left me paralyzed to some degree. The man literally knocked me into the middle of the street, so any kind of hit would have been a direct one, right against my back.

Now, I suppose that it's completely natural for me to feel this way--for me to be simultaneously shaken by that experience while also feeling like I'd be really, really pissed if I couldn't run anymore. Not to mention, no one likes being hit by a car. Still, it's hard for me to reconcile my professional interest in, and passion for, disability studies with my longer, more ingrained (and frankly, more successful) stint as a competitive runner.

See, I've been running competitively since I was in the sixth grade. I was born to do it. It's the only activity for which I have any glimmer natural talent. Also, I love it. I love the aches in my legs the day after a brutal speed workout. I love blasting around a track, my lungs sucking in oxygen like some enormous carburetor. I love wandering around the city on elongated leisurely distance runs, finding my way home, stumbling on forgotten trails and tiny, hidden parks. Moreover, I love the competition--the pure unadulterated competition--of the sport.

Yes, I know I sound like an evil capitalist here. Honestly, that doesn't bother me too much. Heck, running, for most of us anyway, pits people against a clock of all things. The whole sport is about efficiency, productivity, and the like. It's also a sport that emphasizes rugged individualism. There aren't many people who want to run 13+ miles at a given time, which means that many of us--not all, mind you--end up running on our own. "What do you do when you're out there for all that time?", I am often asked. Typically, I respond snarkily, "I don't like people very much. Long distance running allows me to leave them all behind--literally." I'm not entirely joking when I say those kinds of things.

Despite how horrible all of that might sound to some, I'll defend it rigorously until arthritis sets in. And even then, I'll still probably defend it. That kind of thinking is hardwired into my consciousness, and I doubt that much of it will change as I continue aging. Granted, I know that not every long distance runner thinks this way. But I do, and that's fine with me. (Also, for those of you who loathe capitalism, you might ponder the significance of countries like Ethiopia and Kenya--places well outside of the "first world"--absolutely dominating this sport.)

The point is that had something disabling happened to me, I would have been angry--for a long, long time. I just started racing ten milers a few years ago--graduate school held up my racing career for a bit--and after just a handful of them, I've whittled my time down to 1:00:26. The goal is to get under that hour. I think I can do that in the fall. I've been working hard to do that since last fall, and if my training were permanently altered because of a car accident, I don't know what I would do with myself.

It's for this very reason that running is a perfect case study for disability theory. Runners of virtually any distance are terrorized by the thought of injury--let alone actual injuries. We spend a good portion of our athletic lives worrying about injuries, performing all manner of preventative exercises--from regular icing to stretching and core strengthening--to prevent injuries, and, usually, treating injuries. The great thing about running is that it is a sport in which people can engage well into their adult lives because it only requires a pair of shoes. One of the downsides to that longevity is that the further runners get away from formal institutionalized performance spaces--organized official teams, training facilities, etc.--the less access we have to the kinds of resources, like trainers and physical therapists, we need to maintain the kind of consistent running that is required of any training program. And believe me, paying for those services out of pocket, or even convincing your primary care physician to write a referral for physical therapy, is just about as painful as being injured.

The point is that running and injury are largely intermingled. They are not, as it would seem, mutually exclusive. Though, disability writers like Alex Lubet have started to look at the ways in which professional musicians are similarly terrorized by the threat of injury (and the difficulty of receiving dependable, affordable treatment for those injuries), from what I have seen--and, of course, I haven't seen it all--disability studies has not looked extensively at athletics in this way. The bulk of disability scholarship that I've read tends to pathologize athletes, contending that athletics prioritize able-bodiedness, while marginalizing the disabled to the denigrating realm of "special" competitions. These claims certainly have sizable teeth. However, I think a more nuanced approach, one that looks at how most (able-bodied) athletes already understand themselves as disabled, is necessary.

Moreover, I've always felt that disability studies moves too quickly to a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it-? position. Since the field was born out of absolutely necessary social activism that needed to contend for access and civil liberties of virtually all kinds, I absolutely get that position. 1990 was far too late in America's history for these matters to come to the forefront. In that light, it's absolutely necessary to force the powers that be to answer the question: what are you going to do about it? Nevertheless, I've consistently maintained that disability studies needs to leave room for mourning--that it needs to leave room for disabled people, particularly those who become disabled at some point in their lives (which is, of course, one of the central claims of disability studies--we'll all be disabled if we live long enough), to mourn the loss of their bodies. It doesn't particularly matter how illusionary the wholeness of any "able body" might be. The point is that the loss of a particular kind of embodiment, and the daily activities that go along with that kind of embodiment, can be painful, perhaps even more so than the event that caused the disability. In my case, for instance, I know that the elongated trauma of having to let go of my ability to run would far outlast the physical pain of the potential car accident I almost suffered. There has to be some way for disability studies to validate that position.

As I was pondering all of these imagined scenarios, and certainly as I've been typing this post, I knew that one obvious response would be the following: "Well, you said you always wanted to race ten miles in under an hour. Even if you were paralyzed, you could still reach your goal." Believe me, I know that. Yet, I still can't seem to blend comfortably the thing that I was born to do (run) with the thing that I learned how to do (deconstruct). (Also, as I've already mentioned, I'm better at running than I am at deconstructing.) All of which is why there is a handy comments section below. That's the place where all of you can run your mouths on this matter.


  1. Nice to see my work discussed here, much appreciated. And I couldn't agree more about "mourning." In that regard, I highly recommend Tobin Siebers' Disability Theory, which, among other things, explores the limits of social model theory.

  2. Alex, thanks for stopping by! I'm trying as best as I possibly can to begin working on a book on music and disability. Your book was quite helpful, I must say. I just have to set aside some writing time. Right now, my running is getting in the way.

    I'll also be sure to check out Tobin Siebers' book. I haven't quite gotten to that one yet.