Jon Seidman CC
Why I Run
In the summer of 2014 I took up running. It wasn’t to get in shape, or tone my body, or improve my health, although all of those certainly occurred as it became a regular routine. It wasn't’ for a cause or to train for some competition or because I hit a mid-life crisis. No, I began running because I literally was going to internally combust; the combination of detoxifying from a decade worth of copulous amounts of self medication and coming face to face with all the trauma I never dealt with while incarcerated during a heat wave in California’s central valley.
Whether spontaneous human combustion is real or not is beside the point, (there are documented cases of a woman catching fire in Paris while sleeping on a straw bed in 1663, and an actual published case log called "De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis'' from Jonas Dupont. For a positive image of this phenomenon think Goku transforming super Saiyan). The psychological and physical symptoms of this are very real. The sudden feeling to rip out of one’s own skin or climb the highest guard tower and fall head first are other analogies. The only option I felt logical for sobering someone up from 10 years worth of steady ingestion of transcendent fabric and cornering them into a dark, cold corner was: Explosion.
The Japanese author of mystical realism Haruki Murakami wrote “when I’m running, I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody. This is a part of my day I can’t do without.” I view the world like most Murakami novels and so I take his advice to heart, especially when it comes to running. He ran his first marathon at the age of 33 and hasn’t stopped since (as a writer and runner who smokes this is an achievable goal since he quit smoking when he started running. I have two years to hit that mark but I placed third in the last half marathon I ran and my brain is rationalizing my vice). Not to mention he named a character Tony Takitani in one of his books. Although the character is full Japanese I have yet to meet another Japanese American named Tony (not Anthony or Antonio, just Tony) and I find comfort in his western pop culture references backdropped within Japanese settings - I have each foot balanced between these worlds.
Inside a correctional facility there is hardly ever a given time where you aren’t surveilled, crammed in a cell with someone else, or residing in a dorm-like setting with an overflow of rows of metal bunks - running I found took me out of that. When arguments over politics or sideways card games are always taking place or brutal fights and stabbings are a constant cloud hanging above, any minuscule moment of escape is gladly welcomed. To exacerbate this climate are ridiculous, but very real racial political separations.
When I was first arrested as an “adult” (18) I was unconscious. When I awoke in a cell I quickly realized the guards labeled me on my bracelet as white. I’m mixed, my mother is from Japan and my father is from the States, and I would have chosen to run other - which is the separated name given to Asians, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Somoans, etc. If you aren’t Black, Hispanic, or White then you're labeled other. In jail settings I was always in a solitary cell and never worried about this mistake, but once I was transferred to the correctional facility that all changed.
It took me all of spring to withdraw, sleep, and vomit away what my body had thought permanent for so long. While I was sweating out intoxicants for months and my bodily material was infusing with the thin, cheap, poorly-excuse of a mattress topper, I was creating scenarios on how I was going to switch the racial line (usually this ends with getting jumped out of one group and into another). Prior arrests in my life always ended in ugly 2 or 8 story jails - you know the type, you drive by them through any downtown in any American city or attached to brick and mortar city halls out in backcountry towns in the sticks. They’re eyes sores really, a cancerous government statue with manufactured air. A place they house people away from society because they don’t want to spend money on basic resources - like education, food, housing, treatment, clean water, and the list goes on and on. These jails are small and compact and have no real running capability - my time in them was every year at some point but wasn’t long enough for a complete mental transformation. But in 2014, I had finally made it to a place with a barbed wire encased yard - complete with weight equipment, green peeling paint wall ball court, and most importantly organic fresh outside oxygen.
At first I was attempting to run-out the present moment, as if that were a possibility. There is a term called derealization - which is what I was operating in for so long and facing reality was overwhelming and sensory overload. Running, combined with meditation (which I had picked back up inside since my mother’s side were Shinto-Buddhists), was needed medicine that I wasn’t getting from correctional staff nurses or doctors. Although we got little yard time throughout the week, if at all, I would always take that time to run around in a rectangular perimeter - usually following the Cooper hawks in order to catch a fallen feather.
The performance of running for leisure is a strange phenomenon if you think about it. Since we evolved into bipedal beings, running was always a tool. Usually either to escape something dangerous, (I was constantly running away from blue and red flashing lights) or running towards something, like in the act of hunting. Both of these were for survival and not recreational. Our earliest bipedal human ancestors, the Australopithecus, dates back to around 4 million years ago - but it wasn’t until our current homo sapiens in Ancient Greece, Africa and Asia did competitive running begin. The earliest records of this, 1829 BCE, were born out of religious festivals in honor of goddesses.
The earliest record of running as a sport is 776 BCE in the town of Olympia in Greece. That’s three thousand years ago. A long time to conceptualize, but really a short time relative to our bipedal advantage. There are indigenous groups in northern Mexico who run 100 miles without breaking a sweat - research done on the Tarahumara in the 70s actually registered their blood pressure went down when they ran and their average heart rates were 130 beats per minute. They dominated the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in the early 90s for the few years they mysteriously participated, all the while smoking deep black tobacco before hand and wearing handmade sandals made of old tires.
When I was released I continued running. It was one of the only habits I took with me from inside to outside. Post release I lived in a half-way house in the North Bay two blocks from a 5,000 acre State Park full of interweaving trails and steep hilltops. I learned the best time for flowers to bloom because I watched them fluorescent and whither through the seasons as I glided past them. I learned the best times in early dawn to catch a family of deer grazing through the fog line and I learned the best time to catch the complete stillness and silence of the town I lived in while passing groves of manzanita at the highest point of the park.
As a poet I try to approach running with the same humility and fluidness. My reasons for running may have transformed some to include self-care, mental and physical health, and exploration of new places I travel to (I enjoyed running as the sun was setting in Paris’s menilmontant neighborhood or through the narrow alleys of Valencia while the sun rose from beneath the Mediterranean). But in all honesty I still run to escape in one way or another, usually away from having to talk or listen to other people. The poet Kay Ryan said “both [running and writing] require patience and endurance and humility. Both can be hard and unpleasant at times. But of the two, writing is much harder. When you go out for a run, you never fail, but you often fail when you set out to write a poem, even if you try your hardest.” I have failed so often in my life that it’s satisfying to do one thing where that doesn’t occur.
T.William Wallin-sato is a Japanese-American who works with formerly/currently incarcerated individuals in higher education. He is also a freelance journalist covering the criminal justice system through the lens of his own incarcerated experience as well as an MFA Creative Writing student at CSULB. He was the winner of the Jody Stultz Award for Poetry in the 2020 edition of Toyon Literary Magazine and had his first chapbook of poems, Hyouhakusha: Desolate Travels of a Junkie on the Road, published this summer through Cold River Press. Wallin-sato's work comes out of the periphery and supports the uplifting of voices usually spoken in the shadows. All he wants is to see his community's thoughts, ideas and emotions freely shared and expressed.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.