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Devin Kelly

I Miss it All

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Devin Kelly | Longreads | July, 2021 | 17 minutes (4,874 words)

Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” “Out There: On Not Finishing,” and “Repetitive Stress.”

I hate the part of me that has become impatient. I notice it more these days. I notice it when I create a plan for myself and a friend’s schedule doesn’t fit that plan. I notice it in how I structure my days, even days supposedly given to leisure. How I’ll give myself an hour to read upon waking, an hour to exercise. How, if I’m going for a walk, I want to be outside by a certain time. How I’ll start to feel anxious if I’m not. I clench my jaw. I check the time. I run my thumb over my index finger and crack my knuckle. I want a drink. I straddle the edge, feel myself losing my cool, an ache in each temple. What uncertainty am I losing by being so structured? How many mysteries have gone unnoticed? Why do I feel, in a world that consistently, without fail, automates and compartmentalizes my time, like I have to do the same for myself? By structuring myself in such a way, do I lose grace?

I’ve spent the last eight months unable to run, rehabbing the damage done to my leg as a result of an osteochondral lesion in my knee. I recently underwent surgery to transplant cadaver cartilage into the small area on my femur where my defect was located. And I feel that same hatred of impatience today, as I nurse my leg post-surgery. I feel beleaguered by injury. Which is another way of saying I feel helpless. My father helped me up the stairs a week ago. My girlfriend brewed me coffee, laid out my pain pills, refilled the ice in the tiny freezer. I kept saying sorry. I kept feeling inconvenient, like I had no value. Worthless. Everything felt like something to be endured rather than loved.

Everything felt like something to be endured rather than loved.

During the eight months of injury prior to surgery, I thought I could strengthen my body back into working like it used to, and I bought a spin bike. Not a Peloton. Good lord, no. A Schwinn. A sturdy, entry-level thing to do my body justice. For nearly every morning since the end of last summer when I got hurt, I have hopped on that spin bike in my apartment and absolutely barraged my legs into oblivion. I made my own workouts at first, then, not knowing if I was pushing myself enough, enlisted the help of this British cycling team, GCN, and their indoor cycling workouts on YouTube. After exhausting myself of all of those videos and their perfect voices, I downloaded the Peloton app.

There is something about an exercise machine that speaks to every part of my personality I try to keep hidden in polite company. Prior to the pandemic, if I needed a day off from running or had to engage in something slightly less stressful to heal a running-related injury, I would go to the gym and walk on the stairmaster. I have a hard time admitting this to anyone. It feels wrong. But I would go, set the machine to scale the height of the used-to-be-named Sears Tower, which appeared as a pixelated Tetris-y block on the screen, and step until my socks dampened all the way into my shoes. There is a way that exercise machines enact the endless, grueling task of being alive in late capitalism. They feel almost Sisyphean, like how Hillary Leichter, in her novel Temporary, writes: “the world is infinite, and the work is, like, endless.” No exercise machine hides itself, or its true nature. You know this. You understand. When you step on a rotating set of stairs, or ride atop a spinning stationary wheel, or jog on a humming conveyor belt, you know that you aren’t going anywhere. And yet still, you go, even if sometimes, as Leichter writes, you feel “silly for expecting anything at all.” We feel mindless and used in our labor, and then we hop on our machines that go nowhere and perform the same kind of dance with our bodies. It’s so pervasive that it has become, in part, a cliché. We laugh about it. We say this is life under capitalism. And yet, sometimes I worry that, regardless of our ironic self-awareness, we lose a little bit of one another each day. I know I’m being sentimental. I’ll be blunt. Each day, we are losing one another. And by one another, I mean: everything. And by everything, I mean: in a world where it sometimes feels we have to jerry rig into our lives both what we love to do and who we love to do it with, where we have to apologize for the excesses of personality that are not the same as the excesses of production, where we have to somehow — I did not know this was possible, tell me if it’s possible — make time, we lose the possibilities of connection that make up so much of the inherent value of a life.


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When you decide that you want to do a Peloton workout, you can filter your wants down to the smallest, most specific extremes. You can ride for 15 minutes, 45, 90. You can spend the whole time going up a hill that doesn’t exist. You can decide if your preferred level of difficulty that day is 7.8 or 6.2. Whatever you want. You can choose your favorite instructor. When you ride, you can turn the leaderboard off. You become the curator of the museum of your experience. You don’t have to talk. You can live in the workout you demand. In doing so, you are no longer beholden to others, to their sweat, or a friend’s need for a bathroom break. You can even pause and then return. What remains, after all of this, are the only things Peloton deems a community good for: encouragement, competition, and independence. If you want to give someone a high-five, you can give them a virtual high-five. I once gave one by mistake and then fretted about it for a day. I had no reason to do it. It was an error, a stray finger. I couldn’t apologize. I couldn’t see the recipient’s face. I felt ashamed. The instructor peppers in encouragement throughout the workout. Birthdays. Milestones. Things that are holistic and uncontroversial. If it’s your hundredth time taking an on-demand spin class, you’ll get your name shouted out. If you want to race, too, you can race your community. Goodbye, friends. But if you want to go at your own pace, you can ignore the leaderboard. Either way, it’s your ride. You choose.

There is a way that exercise machines enact the endless, grueling task of being alive in late capitalism…you know that you aren’t going anywhere.

The illusion of community is at the heart of so much of our contemporary society. In his book This Life, Martin Hägglund puts it best when he writes: “If we are committed to capitalism, we are committed to commodifying more and more aspects of our lives.” One of those recently-commodified aspects is the very idea of community. In the recent documentary, WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, one interviewee discussed how the entire “We” corporation was “helping you live and not just exist.” The emphasis there is mine. Highlighting a difference between living and existing is central to the commodification of everything. It used to be the case that if you did not buy a certain singular product — the newest iPhone, for example — you were simply existing, not living. Now, it’s not just about product. It’s about community. If your experience of community isn’t individualized, fine-tuned to generate success on your terms, are you really living?

We know community is commodified because it is at the heart of an app like Peloton’s appeal. Even the word peloton refers to the main group of bicycle riders in a race, the ones who aren’t in the breakaway lead group or chase pack. But what is at the heart of such a community? A community where, even if you once attended a live class, the lights were dimmed low, and it felt like it was only you, your bike, and the leaderboard? A community where, if you attend from your own home, it is only you, and virtual high-fives, and the aching solitude of a screen? A community where you aren’t annoyed by people’s insecurities, by their detours, by their having-a-bad-day-can-we-take-it-slow-questions, by their endless talking, by their bathroom breaks, by the endless list of what makes a human, well, human? A community where, if you don’t want to, you just don’t have to deal with the other people in the community?

***

The sadness of the past year has been a sadness of isolation. When I got hurt and couldn’t run, I didn’t just miss being outside. I missed the sincere, unfiltered joy of being among the intricacies and inconveniences of people. Each morning, riding alone on my bike to nowhere, I nitpicked my intensity and length of workout down to the minute. I rode in intervals and rested in intervals and measured my heart rate in beats per minute. I filtered my life completely. I wanted to be out there, though, blowing hot breath on my hands as I waited to meet my friend Andrew, the cold sweeping over the Central Park reservoir while so many others ushered themselves past, each and every person part of the endless chatter and dance of things. I wanted to be inconvenienced. To have Andrew be five minutes late, or for me to be five minutes late. I wanted to arrive, and then be asked to go the other way around the park. I wanted to give in to someone else’s wants. I missed my friends. I missed them so much.

If your experience of community isn’t individualized, fine-tuned to generate success on your terms, are you really living?

In all my years of running with my friends, I have been met so many days with the inconvenient and the unexpected. Some days, I have been the cause of that inconvenience. As a walk-on runner on my college team, I often did not feel like I could manage even the pace of our easy runs. Workouts that were supposed to be gentle ended up feeling brutal. But we learned how to translate the difficulty into solidarity. When my college team arrived at Van Cortlandt Park for midseason track workouts, we heard the same refrain from our distance coach. It wasn’t some canned exaggeration about effort. Holding a takeout coffee in one hand and a stopwatch in the other, he said, over and over again: the time in the front is the time in the back. It meant something small, but important. Whether you were leading the workout’s most recent interval or being dragged along in the draft of everyone else, you all clocked in at the same time, even if you lagged a few steps behind. I guess another way of putting it is simpler: if you were faster than the rest, you were still slow. And if you were slower than the rest, you were still fast. There was no inconvenience. There was just each other.

I think about the beauty of being dependent on another’s whims so often these days. I think about missing the beauty that comes with such a long, extended moment. In Ross Gay’s essay “Inefficiency,” he writes about how he loves “just wandering,” before adding the sentence: “Maybe you’re with a friend, and maybe the inefficiency will make you closer.” I worry friendship is the next territory of consumption and commodification, to the point where you can no longer simply wander with a friend, just to see what closeness might occur. When we have been alone in so many ways for so long, I worry that we run the risk of losing the ability to find value in one another organically, in the ways people know best. The small, daily inconveniences of life. The long run cut too short. The short run ventured long.

Those small inconveniences begin with the ordinariness of a friend asking if we can do an extra mile one day. It’s not that such acts end as bigger values, but rather that such acts are of value. So often, our actions are tied to outcomes that are said to be of value, but what if the actions — as ordinary and inconvenient as they sometimes feel — are the things that are of value? When I’m running with my friends, I often think of how incomprehensible it is that we are friends. I’m a teacher who wakes up early to read. One of my friends hasn’t read a book in years. And yet, because of how often we have moved together through inconveniences, how often we have breathed side by side, or how often one of us has paused while the other has tied a shoe or sprinted into a bathroom or stopped for a drink of water, we have learned the value of connection brought on by vulnerability, the love required to go by the same stopwatch while moving, sometimes, at different speeds, each of us with wholly different needs. My friend who doesn’t read still reads everything I write.

Perhaps one central question of our daily politics is what am I open to today? It’s why I love Ross Gay’s assertion in another essay, “Loitering Is Delightful,” that “laughter and loitering are kissing cousins, as both bespeak an interruption of production and consumption.” That interruption of production and consumption is central, I think, to our experience of meaning in life. Lately, my interruptions of production are solely my own. I teach remotely because of my surgery, my leg propped up and braced beneath my laptop. In breaks between classes, I walk with my cane to the bathroom. I come back. I sit down and pick up my cane and pretend it’s a shotgun. When I can’t reach something I blow it away. When I’m frustrated, I shoot a big hole in the wall. I browse various online communities and feel at once enthralled and alone. I read. I say the words aloud. No one responds. I crave a cigarette. I get back to work. In each of those actions, I am alone. I feel helpless alone and scared alone and at work alone. The thing about laughter and loitering is that we engage in such acts among people. And the thing, sadly, about production and consumption is that our culture has fashioned it so that we can engage in such acts alone, even when we are in a room full of people. We browse alone. We buy alone. We are so close to living and dying alone.

***

Prior to being injured, I ran with my friends Nick and Matt across the state of New York. It took a week. We averaged almost 60 miles a day, through towns I don’t remember, each day beginning with these dark, foggy river valley mornings that morphed into sweltering blacktop infernos. Perhaps, reading this, you might think that there’s some greater story there. Maybe you’re thinking he should write an essay about that. The truth is, the product of our run — all those miles — meant little compared to the sidetracks. The hours spent in the crew van with the AC on full blast, eating turkey sandwiches and waiting for the heat to die down. The bear we had to slow down for, letting the big guy cross the road and then worrying for miles about him bursting out of the tree line to devour us. The detour through Pennsylvania after we found out it was illegal to run on a state highway. The morning Nick tweaked his ankle and had to stop every mile, and how we tried everything — wrapping it, kissing it, rubbing it raw with our sweaty thumbs — to make the pain go away. And how the pain didn’t go away. And how Nick had to stop. And how we had to talk, for a long time, about how it wasn’t about the miles and the daily monotonous trot of progress, how it was about us. And how that was hard.

That conversation was hard because we were confronting the decision of whether we valued the sum of our experience — the cumulative miles run, the ability to say we ran across a state — or the dailiness of our experience, the time spent among one another. The truth is, it’s hard to value the latter, because our culture gives us no way to commodify that value. “If I am really / Something ordinary,” the poet Larry Levis writes, “that would be alright.” Our culture doesn’t agree. Saying that it was okay to stop was saying that it was okay to be among one another in a different way, that we valued the dailiness of our lives together more than being able to brag that we achieved some goal. It was hard, though. Because we had to learn how to say that.

A day after Nick stopped, I stopped, and only Matt ran on the final day, from Rochester to Niagara Falls. If I could have fashioned it in my mind, I would not have fashioned it that way. We would have all run together, the entirety of the state, with joy blitzing out the sides of our mouths. But when you are among people, even and especially the people you love, you don’t get to fashion it your way. And that’s okay. The beauty of people is that you become beholden to the fragility and waywardness of others, just as they are beholden to you. I know this because I have inconvenienced many a friend. I forget every birthday. I’ll take a week to respond to a text message. I used to get sad at parties and make people stand outside with me while I smoked. I don’t know how to drive. Everyone drives me everywhere. Being friends with me is like being friends with a tiny king who hasn’t found his kingdom.

The beauty of people is that you become beholden to the fragility and waywardness of others, just as they are beholden to you.

And yet, there are people who love me. Do you know how hard that was to write? So fucking hard. I deleted it the first time I wrote it because I was scared of saying it, as if those people themselves would walk through the walls of this room where I’m sitting and say no, we don’t and then disappear. I deleted it the second time, too. And the third. But there are people who love me. People willing to walk slow with me as I amble with a cane. People willing to try to run with me across a state. People willing to wait when I am late. People who send me things to read. People who read the things I write. People whose time I’ve wasted. People who ask me how I am, even still, even still. People, though, not products or machines. And there are so many people I love.

***

In an archived interview featured in the documentary WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, WeWork’s co-founder Adam Neumann says, “Through helping each other, we can become more successful.” It’s a relatively innocuous thought. And it makes sense. But when considered through the lens of a company that sold the very idea of community as a means of achieving economic value, it makes you, well, question everything. At the heart of the notion of co-working is the idea, quite simply, that if you gather a bunch of smart, hard-working people in the same glass-paneled room, you can commodify every aspect of their interactions. Their leisure time spent at the communal WeWork coffee shop could become a conversation that might lead to the next unicorn startup.

This isn’t dissimilar from an app like Peloton, where you can choose the experience of community that you prefer. In both options, people can be discarded if they don’t fit your own personalized idea of success, if the experience of being with others is not aligned to the best version of yourself, as Peloton’s mission statement puts it. In his letter to potential investors, Peloton CEO John Foley wrote that Peloton “prioritize(s) culture as much as any other business objective.” Prior to that, he wrote: “Peloton sells happiness.” What does happiness mean? Why does it need to be sold? Our society has been in the business of buying and selling such things forever. Why trust corporations to determine the value not just of happiness, but of community? When he left WeWork, Adam Neumann took a 1.7 billion dollar exit package while the company laid off many of its employees. Through helping each other, we can become more successful. Okay. Why not rephrase that? Through helping each other, we, simply, find value in each other.

The thing is, I don’t really care anymore about the best version of myself. That idea changes too much. It feels fickle. And the thing is, it often takes my friends to remind me that who I am is worth something at all. They see the ordinary parts of me that I feel, sometimes, are useless. “Saint friend,” Carl Adamshick writes in the opening poem of his book Saint Friend, “carry me when I am tired and carry yourself.” I have the book in my lap right now. It’s 9:43 PM. My girlfriend is asleep, and I’m listening to an album by Chuck Johnson, a slide guitarist whose reverb-washed instrumentals sound like you’re eavesdropping on the music director of a small hillside monastery as he plays something he thinks only God can hear. I keep the music turned low so it feels intimate, like it might be coming from another room, where someone else is listening to the same song as I am. Hi, imaginary friend.

I keep the music turned low so it feels intimate, like it might be coming from another room, where someone else is listening to the same song as I am. Hi, imaginary friend.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of an ordinary weekday two years ago, when I called in sick to work. When I told him this in a passing text, my friend George asked if I had a thermometer. I said I didn’t, and he immediately took two trains to bring one to me. That was it. He came up my stairs, took my temperature, left the thermometer on the table, and went back home. I’ve been friends with George for years. We’ve done so much together, but I remember this the most. This inconvenience I caused him, and how it let him show his love.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of my friend Hannah, who, when they heard I had to walk with a cane, brought me a miniature cane that they bought at a store that only sells tiny things. It’s 2 inches long. I have it right here between the fingers of my left hand. What value would such a thing have out there in the world where things are bought and sold? A clumsy mouse would break it. But I cherish it. It reminds me that someone cares. It feels sad that I need that reminder. But I do.

When I think of that phrase, Saint friend, I think of sitting with Nick and Matt, learning together how to say it’s okay to stop. It was a new phrase for each of our mouths. Tonight, sitting here and remembering that moment, it’s still a new phrase. It sits heavy in my mouth. It’s okay to stop. I’m not going anywhere right now. I’m pretty fucking immobile. It’s okay to stop. It’s still hard to say. But I owe it to my friends for helping me learn to say it. Adamshick writes that life is a “destination / different than expected. So many paths. / So many apologies. So much gratitude.” Our gratitude is cultivated in small ways. This tiny fucking cane that cannot help me walk makes me more grateful than the cane that does.

It makes me sad that there is a distinction between living and existing. That people have to place a “co” in front of a verb like working to highlight that it’s done with people. Living does not need to be qualified as time spent producing, time spent buying, time spent playing, or time spent planning. Living can simply mean time spent among. I find value in this. In the time spent among one another. Not just with, or next to, but among. To be among those who love us means to be among the all-ness of those who love us. To be among the dailiness of us. Our minor squabbles, our pettiness, our arguments and frustrations. It means to spend time. The kind of time, these days, that we are told is better spent producing or consuming. The kind of time, these days, that we are told is better spent alone. Maybe with. Maybe next to. Still alone.

If friendship becomes commodified and the experience of community becomes increasingly eliminated of the various intricacies of being among people, we lose the sometimes hard, sometimes surprising, sometimes fucked up, sometimes beautiful paths that are not simply the same path each day. Maybe we lose learning how to apologize. Maybe we lose learning how to say thank you. We lose, almost certainly, many moments of gratitude. We lose friends delivering thermometers. Tiny useless canes that end up meaning the world. We lose our various saint friends. Those people in our lives who carry themselves while they carry us. I don’t know what they’d be replaced by. I do, though. Fake high fives. Co-working spaces with glass-paneled offices. Product-driven social networks. Guided workouts attended by so many people, each in a room by themselves.

***

Prior to my surgery, when I would sit on my spin bike and choose the day’s workout, I considered the time I had to squeeze whatever effort I wanted out of the morning before the rest of the day’s tasks set in. Before I had to commute to the school where I teach. Before whatever commitment I made for the weekend, whatever augmentation of time, whatever penciled-in-thing. I said I am carving out space to be my best self, and then I put my headphones in, tilted my phone sideways to get a bigger screen, and sweated in isolated silence for an hour listening to a gesticulating, smiling person somehow bathed in the perfect amount of sweat offer mantras and congratulations and attempted joy to a few hundred or thousand people I did not see.

And yet, while on the bike going nowhere among people I did not know or hear or smell, I often imagined something else. I imagined being with my friends. Next to my bike, I hung a framed poster for the New York City Marathon, a race I’ve run now countless times, each time with the company of others. There was the time Matt came to New York from a wedding on a 10 PM train and arrived at my apartment at two in the morning, just a few hours before we had to leave for the starting line. We slept in the same bed, woke bleary-eyed and groggy, and stumbled to the train in the dark, and fumbled toward the start line in the just-arriving sun. I miss that moment. I cherish it. My current injury has an uncertain recovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever run a marathon the way I used to, or if I’ll ever run another marathon at all. But on the bike alone, in a digital room of invisible others, I never imagined myself alone. I never imagined myself without the company of my friends. I put them beside me in my mind. I could hear their breathing, the janky, staccato rhythm of a bunch of various footfalls. I could see us together, such strange and perfect companions, and how we felt beautiful.

That is what I miss about running. That is what I miss about my friends. That is what I miss about running with my friends. I miss the surprise of it. I miss the run we saw Hangover Duck, this red-eyed marvel of a bird who, depending on who tells the story, opened its mouth and said something different each time. I miss the run Ben introduced us to the leaf game, which began every fall and ended come December, when we could no longer sprint to catch falling leaves mid-stride. The run when Matt had to stop and really didn’t look okay and then we asked him, we said are you okay, and he said I’m okay, and then he was, he ended up being okay. Unbelievable. I miss what feels unbelievable. And the run Ben almost shat himself. I miss that. The run Julian and I got in a fight. I miss the run when a man washing his car sprayed us all with his hose. I miss each long run on a Sunday morning when no one talked for the first mile. I miss that silence, and what filled it: our bodies, still together. I miss the run before the funeral. There was that, yeah. And the run before the wedding. That, too. I miss the way the running — and all of its detours, its pit stops and unlaced shoes — taught us how to slow down for one another, how to have grace, how to find value in what we once thought had no value.

***

Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Repetitive Stress

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Devin Kelly | Longreads | February, 2021 | 24 minutes (6,376 words)

Read Devin Kelly’s previous Longreads essays: “Running Dysmorphic,” “What I Want to Know of Kindness,” and “Out There: On Not Finishing.”

It wasn’t the pain on the lateral side of my right knee in March. I kept running through that. It wasn’t the throbbing of my right shin in July. I kept running through that. It was one morning, waking up, when I couldn’t bend my right leg at all. If I could’ve run, I would’ve. I just couldn’t. 

I should tell you before I say anything more that I am writing this from a place of injury, not recovery. There will be no conquering here, no overcoming. Nothing will be fixed by this essay’s end. Not long ago, I was diagnosed with an osteochondral lesion in my right knee. This, after multiple office visits and an MRI. This, after a year spent running over two thousand miles. After another year spent running over two thousand miles. After another year spent running over two thousand miles. And so on. And so on. And so on, and on.

An osteochondral lesion is a break in the cartilage that spreads itself over a bone. In this case, the fracture is in the cartilage covering the base of my femur. That cartilage does so much. It is, essentially, like a bone being fractured. The diagnosis is uncertain. I can walk fine. I present well. I do push-ups in the morning instead of going out for my usual run. I pace the apartment like a jaguar. I spend a whole day wishing I was someone else. They say I can’t run for months. They say something about surgery, maybe. They say don’t think about it yet. I stay up in bed and wonder if I will ever be the same. 
Read more…

Out There: On Not Finishing

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Devin Kelly | Longreads | September, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,304 words)

Read more by Devin Kelly! Check out his first Longreads essay “Running Dysmorphic” and his second, “What I Want to Know of Kindness.”

I started to come apart sometime after midnight. I was cold, shiver-sweating, and shuffling alone on my 35th two-mile lap around a farm 40 miles west of Savannah, Georgia. I’ll back up in a second, and offer some context. But, for now, let’s remember the loneliness, and the absurdity. Let’s remember the darkness and how the stars looked like light shining through a thousand pinpricks in the vast blueblack tapestry of the night sky. And let’s remember how, when I shifted my head-lamped gaze from the few feet right in front of me to the big sky above, hoping to have a moment with the stars and witness something beautiful, the headlamp erased them, and I became a single low beam of light caught in the act of disappearing. Let’s remember how that felt: to expect something so great and be faced with its opposite.

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What I Want to Know of Kindness

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Devin Kelly | Longreads | May 2020 | 14 minutes (3,897 words)

This is the second time we’ve been lucky enough to publish Devin Kelly. Read his first Longreads essay “Running Dysmorphic.”

I remember that I was in a 6th floor classroom of the high school where I used to teach when I got the text. I read some words: Nancy…about to happen…they moved her.

I remember leaving the classroom and all those kids, finding my department head, and huffing out a rush of phrases.

My friend’s mom is about to die, I said. She’s like my aunt, I said. No, no, I said. She’s like my second mom.

I remember how bright it was outside as I walk-jogged to Grand Central to catch a northbound train out of the city. I remember the polish on the shoes of blue-suited men, and the tinny clack they made as they slapped along the sidewalk. I remember thinking how odd it was, and how much I felt alone, and how the world felt stilled and tilted on its axis, but that I was the only one who felt it, like I was leaning sideways while each other person I passed stood upright.

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Running Dysmorphic

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Devin Kelly | Longreads | December, 2019 | 15 minutes (3,955 words)

I’ll begin this essay the way I introduce myself to a fellow runner when meeting them for the first time: By telling you that I’ve run two 4:48 miles back-to-back. That I’ve run five miles in 26 minutes, 10 miles in 55. That I’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon five times and ran my fastest marathon — 2:41 — into a headwind there in 2015. I’ll begin the essay this way because I don’t love myself, because when I see another runner seeing me I assume they see me the way I see me: all baby fat and bone stock.

I won’t introduce myself by telling you that, on days I don’t run, I have to do 200 sit-ups right before dinner if I want to allow myself to eat. That, in the times I’ve had company over or have eaten at someone’s house, I’ve done those sit-ups in other people’s bathrooms. Or that I’ve been known by roommates to, minutes before dinner, rush out the door and run for 15 minutes if I haven’t run at all that day. Or that in college, I bought a scale and a journal and weighed myself three times a day, documenting my weight to the decimal point each time. For a long time I’ve told people that this was about running, that it was about feeling the breeze, beautiful and sun-scorched, for just a little while. But really it was about eating. And permission. And wanting a different body to do all that running in.

I come from a family of runners. My uncle ran a four-minute mile relay split at the University of Missouri. My father ran three miles in 15 minutes as an AAU trackster in Western New York. My brother runs for a track club in Washington, D.C., and has plans to break 70 minutes for a half marathon. He will. Growing up, I ate the same things as my brother but never grew the extra inches. In fourth grade, my nickname was “Marshmallow,” my body Irish white and puffy at the edges. In fifth grade, that same body, some choice lost teeth, and an unfortunate haircut made my nickname “Gopher.” The next year, my brother ran the unofficial middle school record in the gym mile. I smiled through the nicknames and picked up running because I wanted to be like him.

It’s odd to have one of your coping mechanisms become the thing you abuse to seek approval. What I mean by coping mechanism is that I began running because I wanted to, and I kept running because it saved my life. In fifth grade my mother — an alcoholic, a bulimic, an addict, the most beautiful person I know — left my father and my brother and me. Those years, I ran often with a Walkman cradled in my palm so it wouldn’t skip on my downstep, listening to CDs I burned with odd, jangling, melancholic playlists ranging from Jack’s Mannequin to Joni Mitchell. I kept running because it felt good to run away from home and then come back on my own, with no one chasing me, all of it up to my own two feet, my own volition. I kept running, too, because I got less chubby and started to get fast. I kept running through middle school and high school because even after therapy sessions and basement meetings with children of alcoholics, the only time I felt in control of my own body and mind was out on the road, where there was no one to tell me to speed up or slow down other than myself.


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What they don’t tell you about competitive running, though, is that you are often reduced to the most specific of numbers. In a 100-meter dash, a difference of .1 seconds between two sprinters might as well be a mile. Watch any final kick of a mile race, and you’ll often see five or six runners separated by half a second at the finish line, spread all over the track. And consider how being one single second slower than someone else on each lap of a 5K track race means that you’ll be close to a hundred meters behind them at the finish, which might be the difference between being a professional runner and a nobody for the rest of your life. No matter how good you are compared to everyone else you’re racing, when you’re a competitive runner, you have no choice but to measure yourself by seconds ticking away on a stopwatch.

By the time I left high school, I was a decent enough runner to walk on to the track and cross country teams at Fordham University, where I reveled in comparative mediocrity for four years, never making much of a dent in the outcome of any race or meet. But I still loved what it felt like to race. To really be out there, in that liminal space between the moment a stride is taken and the moment just before it lands, the crunch of cinder under my feet and the blood hot in my cheeks. I wanted to be as good as I could possibly be, to reach my fullest potential. I did not want to be an embarrassment. But I began to feel like one. It started with pictures, when I saw the way my thighs loomed larger than the bare essential thighs of other racers. Why weren’t veins cascading down my legs like a map of rivers? I started to be afraid to take my shirt off on long runs when everyone else did. I began wrapping the towel further up on my torso, so no one would see the un-flatness of my lower belly.

For a long time I’ve told people that this was about running, that it was about feeling the breeze, beautiful and sun-scorched, for just a little while. But really it was about eating. And permission. And wanting a different body to do all that running in.

Years before, in high school, my coach had told me I could stand to lose a few pounds. Then, in college, one of my teammates said, “You’re not fat, you’re just …” before trailing off. I began to understand a few things. I looked in the mirror and saw someone society might’ve deemed as lean or athletic, but someone who was too big, too thick around the bones to be taken seriously as a competitive college runner. I understood, too, that this was an issue the women on my team, and women all around the county, faced daily. I knew female runners who were anorexic, bulimic, the subject of harassment from runners and coaches. I understood all this but also didn’t know what to do with it. I was never satisfied in a terrible way. Nights of impromptu diets, nights of less food, nights spent running secret miles around the block. Nights like this, willed against my body, willed for my body, until I looked in the mirror and saw six hard lumps protruding out of my abdomen, then immediately wished that they were more pronounced, that a creek bed ran between them. I bought a scale and began to measure myself daily, but even then I did not know what to do with this information, with all these numbers. Where was the lowest point I could reach? What was ideal? When would it stop? I didn’t know where to put it. I wanted to put it down, but I couldn’t. I still really can’t.

Those years, I learned to introduce myself among runners before anyone else did, so that they would not have to make any sort of judgement audible. “I’m the fat one,” I’d say. Or I’d grab a fist of lower belly and say, “I gotta lose this! I know it!” I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable with the unsaid. I wanted them all to know that I knew whatever I assumed they were thinking. I wanted everyone comfortable with my knowledge of my inadequacy. And that’s not to say that my teammates were even remotely mean to me. Some of them are still my best friends. I love so many of them dearly. But at a high enough level, even if you’re not very good, you learn to unthink your love for yourself. It’s the bane of being a human. If you’re smart enough to observe the world around you, to overhear one stranger’s snide comment to another, to see the person on the train deleting photos of themself from their phone, you can make the mistake of assuming another person’s judgment even if it’s not really there. The world is cruel that way. It doesn’t promise anything but delivers everything instead.

The idea of believing in your own negative self-image as a route to self-betterment is fundamental to the American experience. I think of faith and the way the church and the state have never really been truly separate in this country. Humble yourself before the Lord, the scripture says. Without you, I am nothing, I once prayed. In America, that you can take many forms. Wealth, power, style, a new body. It is part of some collective understanding here that there is always something more to be other than ourselves. It is told and untold. It eats away at the image in the mirror. I look so hard some days to see someone other than me. Because I want to. Because I need to.

What they don’t tell you about competitive running, though, is that you are often reduced to the most specific of numbers.

But what is the end goal of self-improvement? My answer now is different than it ever was. Years ago, I would have rattled off a series of numbers. Finishing times. I would have told you dreams and ideas. Jobs. Now, my answer varies. Some days, it’s simply I don’t know. Some days, the hardest thing to do is to forgive myself for being myself. America makes this hard. America, where you manifest destiny. America, where you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. America, where you suck it up. This America of no pain, no gain. This America of contradiction, this America of dissonance. This America where our mythological origin story begins with work ethic and ends with a shame we lodge deep inside our collective heart and never acknowledge.

After college, I went to graduate school to become a poet and fiction writer, which was not something I explored a lot in college, where I never took a single creative writing class. I leaned into the idea of this new identity pretty hard, while still holding onto my identity as a serious runner. What that looked like was objectively weird. I took up smoking and drank pretty heavily. I stayed up late with my friends after class and sat in backyards and ripped through packs of cigarettes and six packs of beer and stumbled to the last train back to the city in those first hours of morning. Then I’d wake up, make coffee, and run. I was training for my first marathon and putting in 70, 80 miles a week of running. I’d do workouts on the treadmill between classes, then light up a cigarette the moment I left the gym. I wanted to be both reckless and fit. I wanted to say fuck you to a world that said I had to change things about my body and myself in order to be better. I did not want to fit into a prescribed mold. I relished when people would ask the question you smoke … and run?

This stroked an ego that had never been stroked before. In college, even running at a highly competitive level, my mediocrity was front and center. I would line up to race a 5K on the track knowing that I would not win. And then I’d finish in the middle or the back, walk off the track, and notice all the things that were different about the winners than me. They were always taller, skinnier. They walked lightly along the surface of the earth like angels. And I’d pinch my own thighs, find the fat in me, and want to slice it off with a knife.

But I still loved what it felt like to race. To really be out there, in that liminal space between the moment a stride is taken and the moment just before it lands, the crunch of cinder under my feet and the blood hot in my cheeks.

But with this new identity, I could be a hard-living, hard-running rebel. I could deny my past and honor it too. If I didn’t look like a runner, I could look like a writer. In fiction workshops, I learned that the reader delights when the distance between the expected outcome of a story and the actual outcome of the story is the greatest, or when the distance between the expected tone of the content of the story and the actual tone of the content of the story is at its highest. Think of Barthelme’s “The School,” that wacky story of hyperbolic events spinning out of control told in the flattest tone possible. As a person, I wanted to inhabit that distance of expectation versus reality. I wanted to be a walking fucking delight.

The world often asks too much of us, and then we ruin ourselves to be approved by the world. And I think the most sinister aspect of this is that the world’s asking doesn’t often look like asking. In college and after, nearly every time I heard a voice inside my head telling me to lose weight, I couldn’t actually find the voice, or the mouth it came from. The source of that voice was removed, like an elaborate form of money laundering. The voice was there in the way people fawned over the veins bulging out of a distance runner’s calves. It was there when I overheard another runner say, “Damn, man, you look fit” to someone whose ribs were rippling out of his skin. It was there in comment sections and internet forums, as people picked apart even the bodies of professional runners.

And the same could be said about my new identity as a writer. No one ever told me I needed to smoke, to drink myself toward a twilit stumble every other weeknight. But it was there in the packaging, wasn’t it? It was there when I fell in love with my favorite poet, Larry Levis, his eyes catching mine from the book’s back page through a haze of black-and-white smoke. Or watching an interview with Baldwin, seeing him deliver something searing before pausing to smoke, knowing he had the audience. Or the great stories of the great drunks, or the great stories we thought we told while greatly drunk.

It’s about identity, isn’t it? All of it. It’s about the fact that this life is not comfortable if you’re aware of your own your-ownness. It’s about the comfort of ritual, and sometimes the comfort of demands, about what it feels like to see someone else’s structure then to mold yourself to fit into it. It’s about not wanting to be judged. I wanted to set myself apart but also be a part. I wanted to say I’m one of you to as many people as I could because I was scared of being myself.

I ran my fastest marathon during those grad school years, when I was drinking and smoking more than I ever had or would in my life. I don’t know how, or why. I wouldn’t recommend it. I was also losing a bit of myself, every day, to ideas of who I should be and my desire to both inhabit those ideas and deviate from them as much as possible. I was a tourist in my own life.

Today I am six years removed from my last race as a collegiate athlete and probably 20 pounds heavier than I was then. Maybe 30, I don’t know. I don’t let myself buy a scale. I still look at myself in the mirror every time I take a shower. I turn and turn and see my body in the light. I push the belly around, pull it down, try to find the body I used to have. I am trying to learn how to be proud. I don’t really know how. No one ever taught me. This is part of being a man in America. My girlfriend, coming back from a run of her own, will often mention how she passed a man while running who then, upon realizing he had just been passed by a woman, sprinted past her. This happens to her at least once a week. It’s sad to live in a world where vulnerability is still widely seen as weakness, where the things men are taught to be proud of are often the things pushed outward and not turned inward.

The violence of shaming someone is so often a result of distance between what you see in front of you and how you feel inside. I know this because I shamed and still shame myself. I am concerned with the violence of men. I am a victim of my own masculinity, which is as dark and deep as the surface of a lake stretching out in the middle of the night. The shame of obesity, the shame of addiction. The shame that sounds like pull yourself together, or make better choices, or I did it, why can’t you. Shame neglects the work of understanding. Shame is waking up in the morning to see the lake in daylight and saying it looks too far to cross. The potential for understanding is the rowboat moored along the shore. In America, especially, there is a long line of men sitting on the beach, taking photos of the lake they’ve yet to cross. I am with them, too, waking up each morning to get in the rowboat and begin anew the long, relentless journey of learning to love myself. Some days I don’t even try. Now, more than 15 years after my mother left my father and brother and me while struggling with addiction, I want to hold her and say I don’t get it, but I do. How hard it must have been, how hard.

I still turn to running to find solace, because it’s the only place that offers it for me. Frustrated, tired, stressed — the first thing I think to do is lace up my shoes and go for a run. Out there, years of practice have allowed me, no matter how I look, to maintain some semblance of control over my life. I can speed up and slow down. I can have an easy day or a hard day. I can push my own threshold of pain, dial back, and push it again. I imagine this kind of feeling is not limited to running, and certainly not limited to the physical. I think of dancers, those who meditate. That sense of carving a world within the world that you know just a little bit better.

The shame of obesity, the shame of addiction. The shame that sounds like ‘pull yourself together,’ or ‘make better choices,’ or ‘I did it, why can’t you.’ Shame neglects the work of understanding

Two years ago, my friend Matt convinced another friend, Nick, and me to sign up for a 50-mile race. It was uncharted territory for the two of us. We had run marathons together, but 50 miles seemed daunting, too great a task. I’ve written about that day before, how the unimaginable distance leveled expectation. It was the opposite of the Barthelme story. Because it was so outlandish, the only way to approach it was in the most ordinary way possible: step-by-step.

Since that day, I’ve run multiple ultramarathons, as well as two 24-hour races. They are the only places where I feel at home in my body, where judgment feels unnecessary because of the absurdity of the task. There is a sense with ultramarathons that the further out you go, the less you carry with you to be measured by. Yeah, there are people racing these races, but if you go to any ultra-long distance race, you will find that the majority of people don’t care about the veins bulging out of your calves or whatever rippled leanness you present to them, whatever beautiful and rounded edges. Mostly because everyone is banded by a sublime weirdness. If you run long and far enough, you’ll find something good in yourself and see something good in someone else. The thing is, this isn’t even that strange of a concept, because life is like that, too. All these people. All different. All on the start line of today’s morning wearing different things and being different heights and sizes. It’s not really a cliché so much as a fact. It’s difficult enough, life is. Who cares what you look like doing it?

The word endurance means, quite simply, to suffer without breaking, to continue on. It boils down to the Latin word durus, which means hard. To be without pliancy. Which is interesting because of the way so much of endurance, to me, is to bend without breaking. I think of James Wright’s collection of poetry The Branch Will Not Break and how the title is referenced at the end of his poem “Two Hangovers,” as the speaker gazes at a blue jay alighting on a branch:

“I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows well as I do

That the branch will not break.”

There are a million branches we each stand on over the course of a given day. A lot of us are standing on branches held out by people we will never meet, people with power behind certain doors, people who want us to buy their shit. I think those branches break. I think those branches break often. And I think the same people who make those branches make other branches to catch us when we fall. There are other branches though. The start line of an ultramarathon is a kind of branch. It’s sturdy, too. Not because the people standing on it are light, or especially fit, or anything other than human. It’s because they are human, and they recognize their own absurdity, and they revel in it, and they give themselves permission to find joy.

The Greeks had their own word for endurance, hypomone, which appears frequently in the Bible and is often translated as endurance or steadfastness, but literally means to bear up under. I find this more agreeable. It is the bearing that remains a constant for each of us, but it is also the bearing that takes on different forms. Bearing can look like bending. One who bears a load on their back must stoop to tie their shoe. Bearing assumes a constancy that is not in the rock-hard, unbending quality of the spine, but a constancy, simply, of the bearing itself. We bear and bear and bear.

To recognize each person’s individual capacities for endurance is, I think, one way in which we can create a world that relies more on generosity than judgment. In what ways can we recognize the race we are each running, on our own separate tracks that have no specific shapes, where there is no such thing as time, no such thing as an Olympic record? It is the exactness of time that destroys us. It is the way time has been commodified. It is the how-much-can-you-fit-in. It is the way, when you begin talking about how much you can do or how much you can consume, you begin to think of how to alter yourself so that you can do and consume more.

What I mean to say is: My better is not your better. I want to say it to myself in the mirror, to the face that looks back at me and says you’re not fat … you’re just … I’m working on it. So much of life is about what you give yourself permission to do or don’t do, and how that act of self-permission leads to joy. This requires the discernment to know what joy is, or how it feels, and in what ways it is true. Both of these acts — permission and discernment — take a lifetime to learn. And the choice to learn requires its own lifetime. It goes on, this work. It endures.

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Devin Kelly is the author of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, (published by Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series. He is the winner of a Best of the Net Prize, and his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, LitHub, Catapult, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and more. He lives and teaches high school in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross