Hotfoot

Hotfoot

NB: Hotfoot is a personal essay, not so much short fiction. It was my submission to the Calibre Essay Prize for 2024. It was unfortunately unsuccessful so here it is in the public eye this way instead.

Still, enjoy.

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When you start running a lot everyone asks what you’re running from. They’re joking, by and large, but it’s true that you don’t start without motivation to either find or escape something. How, though, do you get to a stage where you’re running towards something instead?

When I left Siobhan I was in the earliest throes of training for the Gold Coast marathon. Someone else suggested the idea after I finally got to a 21 kilometre run for the first time. I listened to that someone about a lot of things that I should not have, but the marathon was a sensible idea. I ran it in July 2023, eventually, still very much running from something and struck partway through it by a stress compounded by leaving just about everything else on the table. So it was easy while I trained to say that I was running from “a separation” as I threw myself down the Bardon hills towards the Brisbane River over and over, four times a week, up to 33 kilometres at a time. I didn’t have to tell people that’s what I was doing, dating then just for sex, unable to commit, because they put it together with a bit of context. It was the running afterwards that mostly got questions going. Let’s not pretend that endurance running isn’t something like a vice itself. Self-improvement, sure, that’s true, but when running stems from restless dissatisfaction it can become an endless cycle of unsatisfying body dysmorphia that the relaxed among us are willing to release when they’re happy, when the routine works on its own, when the numbers on the scale come down. But I haven’t stopped.

I started running as a habit in the COVID lockdowns in the UK—to which Siobhan and I moved together in 2019. We had a one-bedroom flat in Balham in London’s south-west. Just about equidistant from us were the three Commons at Wandsworth, Clapham, and Tooting Bec. We were allowed out of the place together as a household during these restrictions, so we ordered new shoes online then bolted out the door. These escapes were more energetic meanders than real runs, talking more than we ran, but it was a new everyday lunch break routine from which we escaped the over-and-over of our both working from home for months-long stretches before we high-tailed it out of London later that year. We swapped one uncertain cage for another certain one, cosy compared to others, in two weeks of hotel quarantine during which we didn’t have an opening window. We could call to get on a list for police to escort us to an open space beside the pool, agonisingly clear in the 30-degree heat through which I had run in circles in a mask for 30 minutes just to get something like a hit of movement.

When we made it out I kept the habit up. We were back on her parents’ acreage in the southeastern corner of Greater Brisbane, inland from the Bay, on the edge of Mount Cotton. The circuit of the street to the arterial road that connected us to everything else was three kilometres. Over these continued lunch runs, these runchtimes, I stretched the distance from three kilometres to four to five to six, from 25 minutes to do three to 45 minutes to do six, getting something close to what I’d say now is good. Running picked up in early 2022 for only the second period of my life during which I got up early with anything like consistency—and this was the only time alone—which soon saw my joining a local Loganholme run club up a landmark hill, running from 5.45am before it got too warm, then progressing later through the hours as winter darkened the mornings for a little longer. We alternated routes; the first Wednesday began up the steep incline on the near side and came down the still-steep-but-softer levelling off on the far side and then across the flat past the shopping centre on the way back. That was six kilometres just about even, my regular route then, but with the added challenge of 200 metres of elevation. The endurance part up front, the clarity and the running from that pain right after. First dragging myself and then falling through time. If I knew then what I know now I’d have come every second week with something to try and work out before I turned onto the path. When you’re not used to that it’s hard to put any good thinking together along the way, but the breaks come.

Then we bought a house just on the other side of the highway. Four kilometres, give or take, from where those hillside runs began. They gave way to what became Sunday runs—Sunday rundays. We were going to the gym together then and we would warm either up or down on the treadmills for a few minutes. That’s where I got the first rough start of the idea that cardio belongs outside the gym.

I appreciate that this is a male perspective. That I can run outside after dark without fear, without having to worry about it. To be able to enjoy the clear head of an outdoor run where the fresh air gets you going and keeps you going like it doesn’t in the heady, sweaty, strength-inclined environment of a Snap Fitness no matter how many treadmills, bicycle machines, ellipticals, or StairMasters there are. This is maybe the kind of romantic notion that got me all undone from a paper-perfect life in the suburbs with a mortgage and offset accounts and a long public transport commute. All the right boxes ticked.

A weekly salary like the consistent pace of the whirring machine beneath your feet in the gym doing half the work for you. A diamond ring, a four-bedroom home on 600 squares, a pool. A carport too tight to feel comfortable enough to be a real garage. Like running on the treadmill, it should have been enough because it was spacious, renovated already, stylish, and far bigger than the one bedroom I’m now waiting to move into. Now I’m an unwitting landlord and realising that running on the treadmill in the gym is an efficiency play, the same way that you work out future rental yield when you spend a few hundred grand on a home-turned-investment instead of just looking for somewhere you want to sleep, near the places you want actually to spend your time living. No one’s putting 42.195 kilometres down on a treadmill over four hours, even though you could.

It’d maybe even be easier than running a marathon outdoors. I could just set a pace and just go and go and go but I’d have to be able to endure the worst part of it which a marathon proper does not contain: the boredom. The same lawn to mow every two weeks, the same 555 route in, the same copper—not algae—blooming against the pool lining because of the rusty water that fell in when we left an awning unfurled in the rain.

Running outside the gym at least there’s something to that idea about never stepping in the same stream twice because you’re not the same man. Even if the route’s not altogether physically different it does change every time. The heat of the day changes it. Wet weather too. People about you and around you on the same paths, having to share your routes, weaving past cyclists, whether parts of the paths are closed for construction or a neighbour’s doing some maintenance of their own with witches’ hats setting an obstacle course. Whether you’ve eaten enough, whether you’ve eaten at all. When you run outside you have to take the world as it is and not as you’d like it to be.

This is something I feel like we never got right: the balance between the assumptions we’d made, the track we planned, and the willingness to roll with the weather when, of course, things didn’t go according to plan. We were as bad at that as each other. Although the plans were helpful, that’s true, or I’d have just kept rolling the dice with both of our lives for something like forever I reckon. Not recklessly but more like aimlessly. Shooting from the hip.

Sure, whether you run outside or on a treadmill, you run for however long you mean to and then you wind up at home. But outside you can’t just jump onto the sides of the thing and let the tread weave past (but running the risk of still tumbling off the machine like in those videos gym franchisees must hate when you can see logos). But indoors and outdoors are not the same. A conveyor belt is not a road. Even when you come home in the suburbs feeling much like the same person you were when you left you can’t quite just jump onto the sides, but you can, like I seem to have worked out too late, at least defer some part of that to your better half. ‘Better half’ is not a name that comes from nowhere. It’s the way we lean when we don’t feel, ourselves, enough.

The road to the house was just short of the crest of a soft but steady hill. We were on the right-hand side going south, just before it peaked, and if you stood atop you could see down across the Pacific Motorway reaching towards the Gold Coast. A familiar stretch, a familiar drive, paid for with a lot of money and a lot of fighting over other places that were better, more perfect, far more expensive. The only way to buy a house is to bid more than anyone else, unless you’ve got better conditions, and we had to have both. But what I didn’t realise before we bought it was how close we were to the house in which my parents lived when I was born—having lost the specifics of what should be memories, aware of them in the ether but not grounded to an address. Go down Selangor Court where we were and take not the first right into a cul-de-sac but the second and, there as the diving bell shape of the road starts to curve as a circle in which you can u-turn, you’ll be able to see the Mersing house on the left. My first home as literally as that comes. Google Maps reckons it’s 90 metres away. I could run that in 30 seconds. Or, to take the long way around, 29 years.

So I brought it all down to fend off the boredom, the idea that I was simply just again who I’ve been before. Perfection in the wet signed paperwork but a frustration at home I can’t quite work out, and the responsibility I shook off for ease when I walked out one day with my stuff in a gym bag, and then all packed up for me when I came back 48 hours later. Running for months from what could have been, from what I left behind. Not just words but the flourishing of lives that weren’t even my own. Fatherhood ahead beyond the ring that comes after the big diamond one. Dates locked in. Invitations on fridges. My friends’ wedding toasts to their new wives taking me all the way down and out. Then assigning myself something like the role of House Dad in this sharehouse where I’m counting my remaining days and all the things I’ve not yet done.

Running outside the gym can be a rote exercise when you’re maintaining habits more than you are training for something. The goal not so much to discover something new about yourself but to reconfirm what you already know. That you can do it, that you are capable. Even as I struggle back through the last few kilometres of the half-marathon that I’ve tried to run every week since I did the marathon proper, I know at least that I can do it. Distance and speed don’t need to be things I hit every week, nor do they need to be the goal at all. The point is largely to be in control. To know that you’re on the way, that you’re doing it. That I’m doing it and getting it done with that consistency. To be clear, I’m starting to get back to something like the marathon training I was doing about this time last year because it was useful once so it will be useful again, I figure, even as the purpose of it seems to be receding. It’s not that I’m losing the joy of the run. But maybe I have burned off the thrill, the panic of it all? Yet the drive is not disappearing altogether because I do still make it to the gym and I do still get the runs done, but they’ll shrink again to the smaller lengths, littler routes, not so far but more often. Maybe this is for the best in order to find some way to work through what was otherwise a period of “intensity.” The goal of running of course is now to get it done so I know I can get it done. If I can run half a marathon each week then I can write that email, make that call, get that sorted, take the meeting. Say it again even. A sense of control over yourself that maps to just about everything else.

But what happens when that’s all it becomes? When you’re training well and you’re running well and you know definitely you can get it done? You have to start running again to something like a purpose. This is easier said than done.

Of course, you have to let go. But I reckon the purpose is best found outside the gym and I reckon you find it, in the ways that you find everything really, when you don’t expect it, on a good run one day that’s otherwise unremarkable. Running through the fresh air with a blue Brisbane sky overhead, and the gem of Queensland beautiful and aspirational before you, and what you’ll have for the whole thing is not a plan. You just breathe deep and in rhythm, along for the ride more than driving the whole thing. Maybe I run not from regret, but run to find a way to saying, “I love you” again, putting the kilometres on the board such that I decide one day it’s there and ready, and I’ll be the right man in the right stream.

Substitute “running” here as a phrase for your preferred habit, provided it’s a good one that clears the space in your head. Clears the space in your heart. Maybe instead it’s the rigid habit of running outside with consistency that creates the kind of self that attracts the special someone, an ancient cliché that will never leave us for its truth, for whom it just becomes, one day, true. And that won’t happen running, probably, but in a moment of stillness. It might be over a lager, a black coffee, a dumpling dinner. Something, anything, done just together, powering that cardiac sense that you’ve been preparing for this for a long time. Like when you’re running and you’re pushing, you just then have to keep going and to choose to continue. Much of it all mental. My legs can get me pretty far. It’s my head that’s been training to run, training to rest. Running to the arms of someone with whom I can move and, after all, be still.

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