Running in slow motion
The wind is beautiful, a breeze generated by my own speed that splays my hair back over my shoulders and cools the sweat emerging across my chest. I’m running full tilt, torso balanced and dynamic, head relaxed, floating at the apex of my spine, arms and legs churning perfectly in unison, each reaching out at full length, hands grasping at the air, feet driving, gripping, pushing off the ochre-coloured rubber surface of the running track.
I’m at my limit, muscles stammering, breath flowing in and out, gulping tides of oxygen. I’m hammering into the straight and feel the ruffles in my silken singlet, the gentle rhythmic flap of my shorts and the snug wrap and flex of my racing shoes. With each stride I’m airborne, self-propelled flying. The freedom of it all could make you weep.
The air is thick with the smell of west coast firs and cedar, resinous in the summer sun. It’s hot, the kind of rare Canadian heat you only experience on long summer days, stinging with an intensity you can’t get used to in far northern latitudes. Car noise hovers in the background, kids squeal and yell at the nearby playground, a plane roars on take off from the airfield at the end of the road, but these are distant murmurs that barely reach through the focus I have on the five meters of white-lined track in front of me.
My coach Mr. Cardanzo is pacing from one side of the running oval to the other, yelling at me, not aggressively but at a volume he’s confident will pierce my bubble of concentration.
‘This one faster, sub-60 come on.’ His hands make little windmill gestures as if to spur me on.
He has that touch of a Spanish accent and I have no idea where exactly he’s from, but know it’s not this tiny logging town on Vancouver Island. He’s an immigrant, I’m an immigrant, we’re all immigrants on this huge continent. We arrived here on foot from somewhere else, indigenous people across the Bering Strait, myself walking off a plane from Belfast. All of us whether 12,000 years ago or six years ago were following a story that promised something better, more land, more food, more money, more security; intentional movement brings us to better places.
That’s why I’m running, because it makes me better, gives me a sense of who I am in the tumult and confusion of a teenage existence. At school I’m that guy who’s good at running, who’s fast over long distances, and so I’m excused for being skinny and having long hair and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with some running race logo rather than a checkered flannel lumberjack shirt. I’m the freak who never goes to parties because there’s a run on Saturday morning and there’s more to love in that than spending another long freezing night shivering around a beach bonfire, drinking cold beer and listening to friends moan about how they can’t get laid.
There’s freedom in running and not just in the motion, but in the spaciousness that the combination of perfect body and synchronized mind miraculously produces. Synchronicity, I realized at a young age, happens when you work hard, keep your mind open and move towards something bigger.
Four hundred meter intervals on the track, that’s what I’m doing now, they’re the toughest but I know that in the narrow zone just through the pliable skin of pain there’s a gateway to the addictive place beyond time and space.
Early on in the set, I’d felt as human as I could imagine, because running is the most natural thing we can do. I’d filled out my being with the task at hand, I was moving with purpose and a goal and in the beginning there’s always that springy gazelle-like bounce to your gait. Innocent, that’s the way you feel when you start a series of sprint intervals. Full of potential, ready to go hard all the way to the end; bounding, bounding around an oval that at first seems to hold you in but as you accelerate and lean hard into the curve and feel the centrifugal force drag you to the edge of your lane you realize that the circle could be anywhere, and that unbridled joy of running as fast as you can has been with us since we moved up onto two feet and will continue until these legs evolve into antennae or stumps or digital interfaces.
When I hit the thin red line of pain I imagine I’m somewhere else, moving fast with purpose. Sometimes I’m on the savannah tracking an antelope through tinder-dry knee high grass. Other times I’m at the Olympics striding out on the homestretch with the crowd on their feet. In that session of four hundred metre repeats I was imagining a crumbling dystopian city, black and wet, a Blade Runner scenario. I’m Deckard, chased by Roy, running for my life across rain-slick rooftops, making manic leaps between buildings all the time keeping one step ahead of a replicant assassin. In my run Roy never catches me, but that dreamy electronic Vangelis soundtrack is there, the haunting lilt that seems to come from the place between this world and the next. When the running is right, it doesn’t matter where you are.
Deckard was hurting in that run and I can associate with that because the intervals get more painful the farther you move into the matrix of suffering, but that’s a special place too, the elastic space of numbing pain and me running as hard as I can, hoping I can hold the pace until I pop out the other side.
I’m breathing harder and faster but I know its no use because my body has pushed beyond burning oxygen. Lactic acid is seeping into my legs and arms, even up my neck and into those fragile muscles just behind my ears. There’s a pulsing numbness, chemistry working against me, biology shouting at me to stop; but to win, to move beyond the hurt you have to ignore nature’s pleas and rush on.
And it’s in that stuttering zone of aching muscle, just before the bust out, where the body drops away from its imagined efficiency; a simple twist of the wrist, a slight drop of the head to the left, a screw of the shoulder. In a race these unconscious, superfluous movements are crucial, they are the physical evidence of your passage into the abyss and when you see them in your competition that’s when you have to strike.
But in training you can relax and let the idiosyncrasies evolve because beyond them, on the downside of suffering’s mountain your body tosses those aberrations aside and pulls into the loosest, most efficient stride imaginable. In that nexus between pain, focus and natural motion we become hyper efficient, self-propelled flying extends and lets us float at speed. It’s in this state of spacious power and stretched reality that you dream of seeing the finish line.
All good interval sessions come to an end and I remember the day Mr. Cardanzo called me to join him on the inside of the track. My legs were wobbly, I’d been sitting for 30 seconds trying to catch my breath and hoping that the lactic acid didn’t freeze me up too much.
‘I want to show you something,’ he said.
I stood and hobbled over. He had been videoing me, and it was the first time I’d seen myself on a TV screen. The camera was a huge black, insect-like thing on a tripod and the viewing panel was 10 centimetres square, but there I was charging down the home stretch. Mr. Cardonzo slowed my progress down until we could see how I looked through individual phases of the running cycle.
It was difficult to look at myself frozen in time. The feeling of running had always been so seamless, even the pain-induced technical flaws were part of who I was and to see them stopped and highlighted, then dissected and analyzed felt almost sacrilegious. It was as if someone had taken the story of Jesus or the Buddha and stripped out the mystery, eliminated the miracles, the wisdom and the compassion and focused on the apparent troubles in those prophets private lives.
Mr. Cardonzo was going on about straight line force applications and lower leg velocity but I was trying to block him out and stay with the feeling, the active magic that had led me to those transition moments from pain to radiance. I didn’t want to let them go, I didn’t want to know too much, I needed the wonder to linger.
Maybe that’s how the world felt in 1878 when they saw the pioneering series of stop motion photographs Eadweard Muybridge had taken of, first a horse at full gallop, and later of running, walking and jumping humans.
Muybridge was an Englishman transplanted to America at age twenty. Eventually he settled in California and made a name for himself as an innovator in the new field of photography. It was Leland Stanford, the railway magnate and founder of Stanford University, who employed him to study horses in motion. (Phippen, 2016) Horses until the turn of the twentieth century were the epitome of power and Stanford had a stable of over eight hundred. The railway man believed the best way to improve his horse racing stud was to analyze and improve the horses’ gait and the way to do that was to approach the animal as if it was a machine (Solnit, 2003, p.183) Muybridge was the photographer tasked with inventing the technology for capturing images of the horse in motion.
It took five years but on 15 June 1878 Muybridge developed a series of twelve glass plate negatives in front of a group of journalists (to prove that the photographs weren’t altered) that showed the horse’s true range of motion. With these motion picture studies ‘It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over. Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone’s before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness…’ (Solnit, 2003, p.3)
Muybridge went on to photograph hundreds of different animals and activities but it’s his studies of human motion that I come back to again and again. For millions of years humans had had an image in their mind’s eye of what walking is, what it looked like. In cave art around the world humans and animals are portrayed in motion. It is an archetypal vision, but Muybridge undermined that idealized imagery because his pictures proved that ‘What a high-speed photograph showed and what the eye saw were in conflict…’ (Solnit, 2003, p.197)
Muybridge was interested in breaking down the barriers to realistic interpretation. ‘Past a certain point everything, anything disappears into the visible imperceptibility we call a blur, a veil of speed covering up the erotics of motion. Muybridge would bring the blurred back into sharp focus and it would turn out that stripping speed of its veils had more far-reaching possibilities than anyone imagined. (Solnit, 2003, p.179)’
With his early studies Muybridge halted motion, for the first time ever people were able to see walking and running and human motion frozen in an instant. ‘By imposing stillness (through single images) on its subjects, photography had represented the world as a world of objects. (Solnit, 2003, p.194)’
Muybridge’s masterful development in his later work was in linking multiple images of the gait cycle back together, ‘now in Muybridge’s work, it was a world of processes again, for one picture showed a horse but six pictures showed an act, a motion, an event.’ (Solnit, 2003, p. 194)
This objectivity cast walking in a completely new light, all of a sudden our most natural motion was abstracted and removed from our bodies, we could conceive of it beyond the self. This representation of walking for walking’s sake was the starting point for a new relationship with human locomotion.
Muybridge’s photography brought people to reflect on walking in a more detailed way than had ever been contemplated before. He displayed his photo series on grid patterns around America and with this he created,
‘a metaphorical museum case holding a single phase of motion; he had collected motions themselves as specimens, and in so doing had performed the alchemical feat of transforming energy into matter… Those who paid the fifteen dollars for the six cards (on which were printed the first twelve images) could hold… a handful of time…’ (Solnit, 2003, p.195)
Muybridge deconstructed walking and running and made the world reconsider their relationship to our most basic motion. Walking could no longer be taken for granted, he proved it was complex and messy and more beautiful than anyone could ever have imagined and from that point on walking itself, not what it could produce and or where it could take you, was an aesthetic influence to be considered.