Today a marathon is running through my neighborhood. Lance and I watched the lead runners pass the 14-mile mark. The lead female runners—two unbearably skinny women—one right on the heels of the other, came just a couple of minutes after the lead male runners. The gap is closing fast. They were all running sub-five-minute miles.
When I watch these elite runners go by, it seems I am in the presence of super humans. The cyclists buzz all around the front runners to make sure nothing happens to their delicate ankles on the course, I guess. The guys on bikes have to pound just to keep up with the athletes on foot.
I enjoy watching these elite runners because they run on ordinary streets in my ordinary neighborhood. It’s a very different experience than seeing the Olympic downhill skiers race on TV. Or even being in the Dome for a Saints game. In the latter example, although I am technically seeing these athletes in person (definitely more exciting than TV), there is so much distance, noise, people, equipment, rows and rows of stands, cameras, coaches staff, between us that we might as well be on different planets. In those instances I don’t get a lived sense of the athlete in the way I do when I stand on Esplanade Avenue at 8:00 in the morning and see a sinewy man run really fast. His quadriceps bunch, the sweat flies from his chin, his face twists in a grimace. Is it ecstasy? Pain? Hard to be sure, but it’s definitely something out of ordinary human experience. He moves at such a clip that the men on bikes have to hustle to keep pace, and I have to drink in every detail of his exertion in a flash that goes so fast, I almost wonder if I really saw it.
Esplanade Avenue is mostly empty, save for me, Lance and a man taking pictures as he waits for his wife, running in the half-marathon to come by. She will arrive much later in the pack. Most of the people who live on Esplanade Avenue are still asleep, I imagine, or just pouring their coffee. They may never know that some of the fastest men and women in the world have just run past their sleepy bedroom windows. I am reminded of the purity in a good run. You don’t need anything but a pair of sneakers, the road, two good legs . . . decent weather would be nice.
Humans in motion. No, I mean super humans in motion. I can make an effort to finish a 10K without dying. That makes me merely human. When I watch these magical, ropy, ephemeral creatures, I witness a moment of grace. There I see what may be possible in human form. (Not my human form, mind you.) These runners display something extraordinary. They vaguely resemble us fellow humans, our general shape. We have the same number of arms and legs. Yet, they transcend the regular definition of being human. They defy physics and overturn the usual expectation we have of our bodies. They leave us onlookers momentarily amazed. “Look!” is all we can say and point. Quick, before this grace passes. You can miss it, if you’re not paying attention.
Here is a note from Emily.
#787, c. 1863
Such is the Force of Happiness —
The Least — can lift a Ton
Assisted by its stimulus —
Who Misery — sustains —
No Sinew can afford —
The Cargo of Themselves —
Too infinite for Consciousness’
Emily says, and I agree, that super humans, like those running at the front of the marathon, transcend ordinary physical limits because they have contacted something non-physical. Or extra-physical. Emily calls it happiness. The force of happiness makes a person super human. Anything is possible once the mind finds joy. Or as Huggy Bear once said on “Starsky and Hutch” (my favorite TV show when I was a kid), “When the spirit is willing, the flesh can do all sorts of groovy things.” I don’t know if the philosophy of Huggy Bear was informed by a close reading of Dickinson’s work. I do know that happiness has as much power in the world as a gun, or a car crash, or an earthquake.
The only note I’d add here is that we tend to think of happiness as an accident that happens to us, rather than something we actively create on our own. Thus we remain powerless and weak in despair when considering happiness and its force in the world. In that brain wrinkle, happiness is something that happens to other people, if they’re lucky.
Then I see a runner like the ones I saw today. They get that way by putting on their shoes every day and hitting the road. Happiness or the state of being super human is a practice. It is a cultivated state that accumulates force over time, preparing the body to receive that grace. Unanticipated grace is the other part of this equation, sublime and quickly passing. When a habit of mind meets a world disposed toward movement, anything is possible. You have to be ready.