The (Lustiness of the) Long Distance Runner-Writer*: Metaphors and Erotics of Running and Writing

Not all of the women I’ve been talking to identify as writers—though, arguably, they are all writers in that they’re writing their own stories and sharing them with me in their narration.

(And really, we’re all writers, aren’t we?

I’ve been opening my Writing Center presentations to summer classes with the ploy of asking students how many of them would call themselves writers—and then [over]enthusiastically informing all of those who have not raised their hands that they too, in fact, are writers. Daily. Whether or not they have acknowledged it yet.)

Many of the female runners I’ve spoken with, however, do identify as writers.

Some of them are instructors and professors of English. Some work in university writing centers as tutors and as administrators. Some of them have published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Some of them are working towards MAs and MFAs in writing. Some of them are bloggers.

For years now I’ve been trying to articulate what I identify as a very strong connection (correlation?—see: ligament, see: tendon, see: tend on) between my running and my work—specifically, my writing:

I see running as a creative (writing) process. I see writing as embodied.

Is this relationship solely (pun intended) metaphorical? Alicia Ostriker defines metaphor as “that which joins, that which announces connection, overlap, shared essence, and yet retains the actual distance between whatever objects it brings together” (89). She calls it “the erotic element in language” (89).

Many of the runners who don’t identify as writers do claim that running helps them in their own work—whether that’s in helping them process and problem-solve, for example, or in simply giving them the energy and motivation to get through the work day. This seems to me to indeed describe a metaphorical relationship; the acts are distinct, and yet, connected.

At first running and writing seem to be diametrically opposed. They’re similar, metaphorically, in that both demand discipline and repetition and are stereotypically associated with a morning routine (and in that the mental health of both runners and writers is playfully questioned and damagingly dismissed, arguably because of their identities as runners and writers). But running is constructed as highly active, while writing is constructed as highly sedentary.

I’ve found in my own life and in these interviews, that running is also often quiet and meditative, centering—and even still—and that writing is also often incredibly dynamic and physical.

Ostriker encourages us to “[n]otice two things”: “The two objects which a metaphor erotically joins are always at some odd asymmetrical angle to each other; they are never mere opposites, for the juxtaposition of opposites is the figure of paradox, not metaphor” (91).

Running and writing share other similarities too, of course. One woman I spoke with talked about how she had recently realized that these two activities she loved most are also two of her most solitary activities.

Another told me that, sometimes, when she gets excited intellectually about something she’s read, her response is to go out for a run. This intrigued me: this channeling of intellectual energy into physical energy and movement/expenditure. And it led me to begin posing a question to participants that I acknowledge might seem a little strange: is there an erotics of running?

In “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Audre Lorde defines the erotic, for women, as “a considered source of power and information within our lives,” as “a resource,” as “that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge” (88).

Sitting on my psychologist’s sofa this morning I became incredibly defensive when we discussed how it would probably be healthiest for me to both continue to (very) slowly progress my mileage and also continue to make peace with the rational assumption that I’ll never again run the distances I ran and/or run them the way I ran them before the accident.

When I saw my psychologist last, a month ago, before I gave my scarred body to my chiropractor, before I bought new shoes, and before I remembered what it feels like to run for even just 25 minutes outside, this was something I acknowledged, even if I didn’t accept it, even if I hadn’t made peace with it:

I was probably never going to run significant distances again, certainly not marathons. And I was certainly never going to come back and take the three minutes and thirty-eight seconds that stood between me and a Boston qualifying time.

Visiting the chiropractor and considering PRP injections were on the list of last-ditch efforts I needed to check off so that I really knew I had tried everything within reason to "com back"  (efforts perhaps to be followed by seeking a second—er, fifth—opinion in Houston or New York if these efforts also failed to reduce my pain and restore my functionality, as I assumed they would).

But something has been happening after my walk/jog mile warm-up, after the sharp lateral ache in my knee fades beneath gradually more confident strides, after a few minutes of very consciously focusing on hitting the sidewalk forward of mid-foot, avoiding overpronation, and pushing off of the ground instead of slamming into it:

I’ve been running. I’ve been thirstily inhaling the morning humidity of south Louisiana and exhaling a bodily poetry to whose lexicon I thought I had been forever denied access.

And you know what? It has been positively erotic.

“When I speak of the erotic,” Lorde explains, “I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives” (89).

When I’m running, I’m creating something, I’m writing something.

I acknowledge that not all female runners feel exactly this way about the act (running, that is). They certainly have not all found running to be an analog for writing, even those who do identify as writers. But many of them do recognize running as a kind of creative force, a force that’s simultaneously bodily, spiritual, and mental—intellectual, I’d argue.

Lorde argues that just as “it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political….we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing” (89). This is not how she defines the spiritual, though: “[N]othing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self-discipline but of self-abnegation” (89).

And in opposition to fear and immobility, of course, are courage and mobility.

I use “mobility” carefully here, recognizing that we are neither all born with the same mobility, nor do we all recover from trauma equally mobile as others are or as others do, or equally mobile as we were before injury.

I recognize that there are many ways to move—our bodies, our spirits, our minds, and our words. I also recognize that the way I move when I run is bodily, spiritual, intellectual—erotic—and maybe even—dare I suggest it?—sexual.

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I’ve been very carefully, perhaps too carefully, trying to articulate the sexual dimensions of my injury and losing and grieving running.

Maybe “erotic dimensions” more accurately describes this realm of inquiry than “sexual dimensions.” (Thank you, Lorde.)

What I (think I) mean is that what happened to me happened to my whole body, happened to my whole being, my gendered, sexual being. This is difficult to articulate in language, and Ostriker’s reflection on writing her poem “Mastectomy” resonated with me in the way it confronts the limits of language to articulate such embodied loss:

It [“Mastectomy”] is the fourth in a series of poems telling the story of my surgery and recovery, published in my book The Crack in Everything in 1996. It took six months of healing before I was ready to begin these poems, but once they began I was determined to revise and polish them scrupulously because I knew if I could make good poems out of them they would be useful to others. To a great extent, this meant finding the right metaphors, finding language that would somehow capture the complicated and very mixed emotions accompanying the trauma of losing a breast. (Ostriker 95)

What I haven’t directly asked the women I’ve interviewed (yet) is this: is there something specifically feminine or linked to your identity as a woman about the body part(s) you injured or lost?

For me, the answer is “yes.”

My knee is fraught with femininity and sexuality.

Its scarring represents the complicated consent I gave to multiple entries.

I learned shortly after my first surgery, when the numbness of the skin surrounding the surgical site became sensate again, that there was something erogenous about my response to the touch of the scar tissue that marked where part of my patella tendon had been harvested and repurposed.

Not orgasmic, no, but erogenous, yes. Erotic.

My senior year of college my girlfriend directed The Vagina Monologues. My best friend had directed it the year before. That time, that place was an opening, a wound I’m still healing because we all tried so desperately to love each other and our own bodies, and each other’s bodies.

(And I know they have wounds too. I touched them. I opened them.)  

As years and geography distance me from that time and that place and those bodies, I’m not sure if we succeeded. I know I loved them. And I know I failed them—those women and those bodies. I know that they’ll always be important to me—those women and those bodies.

A talented student photographer did a photo shoot for the production, taking photographs of cast members to use for the promotion posters. Most of these photographs depicted sections or parts of our bodies; they were pictures of us, parts of us.

In the photograph taken of me, I’m sitting on the floor, knees bent, legs spread slightly. You can see from my ankles (or is it from my feet?) to my waist (or is it to my chest, or my neck?). I’ve rolled my jeans up just above my knees, so the center of the image is a (classy) crotch shot, but the focal point is the scar from my first ACL reconstruction. My best friend told me it was her favorite photo from the shoot, the photo that she felt best exemplified everything she believed the Vagina Monologues was about.

The cast signed copies of the poster featuring this photograph and gave them to my girlfriend and my best friend the morning of the show. I remember feeling a pain (Is it dull or stabbing? Is it achy or throbbing? Does it wake you up at night?) as I watched them recognize my body in the unwrapped frames. (I imagine there was also a pain in their own recognition.)

I remember also how angry and violated I felt when I took my pen to sign the posters and saw that another woman had signed along my scar on both copies.

It wasn’t hers to touch. It wasn’t hers to sign. It wasn’t hers to name.

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I assigned Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” to the students in my “Readings in Literature by Women” class this past fall, and just as Lorde insists on a kind of precision in using the term “erotic,” in that she’s careful to distinguish “pornography” from “eroticism,” arguing that they are “two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual” (89), I pushed my class to consider further the nuances and possibilities of the “erotic.” Can acts other than sex, or acts that are not explicitly sexual, be erotic? I asked them. We were largely in agreement that the answer to this question was “yes,” though it was difficult to articulate and define, then, the erotic.

Lorde’s work to define the erotic in her essay certainly helped me and my class to better articulate it in our discussions, as did some of the other reading we were doing that semester, specifically Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Bechdel helped us to talk about the language of the erotic, as well as the erotics of language. In her graphic memoir, she writes that, at sixteen she “didn’t know…that there was a word for the oddly gratifying motion of rocking back and forth in [her] chair as [she] drew at her desk” (170). At this time Bechdel lacks the linguistic signifier for this act and what it produces, but she’s accessing a creative, bodily, erotic language nonetheless. She reflects on the power concomitant with this production: “The new realization that I could illustrate my own fantasies filled me with an omnipotence that was in itself erotic. In the flat chests and slim hips of my surrogates, I found release from my own increasing burden of flesh” (170).

[Significantly, the frame below this second sentence depicts Bechdel’s drawing of a lean, masculine basketball player dunking a ball. My own surrogates also have flat chests and slim hips, but they’re running their bodies, miles and miles and miles.]

The frame in the middle of the next page depicts the appearance of “orgasm” in the dictionary, and Bechdel remembers recognizing the word and connecting it to her own experience: “When I accidentally ran [emphasis mine] across this word in the dictionary one day, it was instantly familiar, before I even got to the definition. I didn’t need to know phonetics to recognize the approximant liquid of that ‘or,’ the plosive ‘ga,’ the fricative ‘z’ or the labial, nasal, sigh of the final ‘um’” (171).

The word itself is embodied and erotic! (Picture me leaning my crutch against the chalkboard and shouting this excitedly on my one “good” leg in front of the classroom, spilling coffee all over the floor.) This is the erotics of language!

Toni Bentley argues that “[s]tories seduce a different part of the brain [than sex does]—the one that, er, thinks” [emphasis mine] and that “[t]he real triggers of lust are rarely the food of great literature, an experience of word-to-mind” as “sex is body-to-mind” (“Let’s Read About Sex”), but I’m wont (and wanton, wanting?) to challenge this as an oversimplification. I think there are experiences of word-to-sex and word-to-body, as well as experiences of sex-to-mind and sex-to-body. I think the part(s) of the brain involved in sex do think.

Furthermore, I’d argue that language, body, mind, and sexuality converge in eroticism outside of sex. Lorde explains this far better than I can, I think, so though a recent critique I received of an article I submitted kindly (and justly) exhorted me not to rely so heavily on quotation in my writing, I’m going to offer you Lorde’s words:

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. (89)

When I run, my body “opens into response…so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience.” I’m whole and holy and wholly mobile and motivated, and I’m writing. I’m revising.

I’m reviving. And I’m connecting—to others and (back) to myself.

Lorde concedes that “there is a hierarchy,” that “[t]here is a difference between painting a back fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity,” insisting that she finds no difference “between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman [she] love[s]” (90).

Allow me to close with the radical argument that when I run I am writing a good poem, and that I’m moving into sunlight as the body of a woman I love—myself, as a body I can love, as a woman I can love (to be).

I wouldn’t call that narcissistic or masturbatory, and I wouldn’t call it explicitly sexual.

I would, however, call it creative.

I would call it erotic.


*This is, of course, a play on Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” What I didn’t get to tie in here (but likely will later) is Susan J. Leonardi’s compelling critical analysis of three stories about long-distance runners: Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” and two responses to it/revisions of it: Grace Paley’s “The Long-Distance Runner” and Sara Maitland’s “The Loveliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” Leonardi also offers her own response/revision, “The Nunliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” which I think will be instrumental to me in my theorizing of the queer/lesbian running body. (Stay tuned.) Leonardi’s “The Long-Distance Runner (The Loneliness, Loveliness, Nunliness of)” appears in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 13.1 (1994): 57-85.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: First Mariner Books, 2007. Print.

“Let’s Read About Sex.” The New York Times. 3 October 2013. Web. 17 June 2016.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader. Ed. Karen E. Lovaas and Mercilee M. Jenkins. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007. PDF File. Web. 24 September 2015.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Metaphor and Healing: Or, Why Metaphor is not a Bandage.” Tell Me Again: Poetry and Prose from The Healing Art of Writing. Ed. Joan Baranow and David Watts. San Francisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2014. 88-96. PDF File. Web. 24 October 2015.