• The Oval Magazine

Manifesto From Lane One

1. I have two blisters right now, one on each foot. They’re not regular blisters. They’re massive. And the last time I had blisters this big, I was in Tampa, fading off the back of the pack, watching my little “q” mark slowly slip out of reach. I was missing my shot to go to Eugene. I was 19, and I really thought I ran slow because of the blisters.

2. I was a nervous kid always asking questions and constantly worried about things out of my control, like planes crashing or mail not arriving at its proper destination. The pre-race nerves used to be a serious problem for me. I’d study my opponents’ PRs and think about my race all day, sometimes showing up to the line already depleted from the emotional energy I wasted worrying about my performance.

It eventually stopped being a problem, I think around the time I started having other things to worry about — not failing calculus, making new friends, coping with heartbreak, understanding my place in the universe, whatever else. Running meant less to me, and because of that it could mean more to me. The Buddhists say we stumble upon the answers we are looking for most when we’re not looking for them. I think they’re right.

3. Sometimes the gun goes off and some subconscious, animalistic version of myself takes over, and by the time the race is over, I have no idea what happened. It’s all instinct. Sometimes it feels dishonest to take credit for what that version of me does, but I always do it anyway.

4. I’m competitive. I love to win almost as much as I love to watch people watch me win, and running seems to be the healthiest outlet for my competitive energy, other than Survivor — which I plan to play one day. So long as Jeff Probst thinks I’ll be good for television, of course, but I am confident that I’ll be good for television.

5. The summer before going away to college I wanted to work at a running camp, so I googled “where can I be a counselor at a running camp?” and the first result was this one called 5 Star. So I sent them and email and said, “Hi I’m Matt. Can I be a counselor at your running camp?” and they said “Sure thing.” So I packed up my car, I drove five hours north to the Adirondacks and I was a counselor at their running camp. I’ve never been inspired by so many fourteen-year-olds with 5k PRs ten minutes slower than mine.

Everybody just wants to go fast. It’s a special place.

6. It’s hard for me to do those post-run core workouts even when everybody else around me is doing it. My mom once told me that one of my greatest weaknesses is that I’m reluctant to work on what I’m bad at — and I think she’s right, even if I denied it for years. The same is true of lifting. And stretching. And eating well.

7. For a long time I dreamed of running under 1:50 in the 800 meters, and when I finally did it for the first time outdoors, I went way under. Like, way under. 1:48.04. It’s still the fastest 800 meters I’ve ever run. I’ve since broken 1:50 another dozen times, and every time I do it I’m disappointed, even though I would’ve celebrated those races just a few years ago. I feel like my training is better now and I’m definitely a more confident racer, but somehow I still ran the two fastest laps of my life when I was 19. For a long time it made no sense to me, but I’ve come to understand that timing is everything, and what you need above all else is a stroke of luck. And while years of consistent training are a requirement for running fast, I’m almost certain no amount of hard work or the perfect coach or pristine facilities could ever be as powerful as being in the right place at the right time.

8. One day my young body will be an old body and I won’t able to go quick, so I better do it soon.

9. When I was a senior in high school, I agreed to visit Duke because my grandmother lived right down the street. On my visit, Coach Norm said to me, You come here, and four years from now, you’ll run your final ACCs right here on this track, and I nodded my head. But it wasn’t a nod of agreement. It was the nod you make like when somebody is trying to sell you something, half listening but mostly appeasing them, nodding out of respect but not enthusiasm, understanding that nothing they’re saying really matters because you already have your mind made up.

And the truth is I mostly had my mind made up. I was going to run at Penn State.

Then, I committed to Duke. And for years I’ve been thinking about that final ACCs on my home track, and now it’s never going to happen.

I really want to run fast. I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually wanted something so badly. It’s been fulfilling to have to work really hard for something, sometimes seeing that hard work pay off, but other times really failing, coming up short and having to deal with the consequences of that. It’s during a run that my mind is the most razor-sharp, and only through a run can I completely calm my anxieties and fears and ground myself.

Running has been a constant in an often unpredictable world, and many of my closest friendships have come from the many miles shared on dirt trails and back roads. Track is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done, and I think my limited time on this precious Earth is all about finding meaning, feeling like I’ve done something worthwhile. Maybe you agree.

And if you do, this next section, inspired by Earth Day 2020, is for you. But if you just wanted 9 cute stories about my experience running over the past few years, stop reading.

———

Earth Day began in 1970 as a political call to action for oblivious politicians who allowed rivers to be on fire and for cities to be engulfed in smog. Fifty years later, here’s my political call to action for people who, like me, very badly want to stop climate change and understand that trying to run fast has been the most meaningful project they’ve ever been a part of. We can only realize our full potential when we have economic security.

If you’re really good at the guitar, or you have a special aptitude for teaching, or you’re an elite middle distance runner, how will you ever truly be sure when you’re pressured into a rigid 9-5 lifestyle for the rest of eternity the second you graduate from college?

In a world where all of our basic needs are provided by the state, we won’t have to organize our entire lives around work because it’ll no longer be about survival. Imagine if we collectively understood healthcare, education, and housing to be our fundamental rights, not things we earn only through our jobs. When our needs are universally met and we have real economic security, we all can truly understand who we are and what our purpose on this Earth is.

Mine might be to just run fast. And for another year, I’m definitely going to try to make it happen.

But maybe when that year ends I’ll be confronted with a difficult decision, choosing between spending another few years of seeing how fast I can go — likely with financial consequences, like accumulating student debt and going without health insurance — or getting a more formal job that’ll pay me a salary, provide health insurance all-the-while confining me to the rigid 40 hour work week, probably making me miserable.

What if we never had to make that decision at all? What if our culture encouraged us to Follow Our Dreams™ and find out what we like, what we long for, and what makes our lives really meaningful?

For so many of us, running is the most meaningful thing we’ve ever done.

It’s shown us our closest friends, taught us what it’s like to work hard for something, and shown us what it means to have a deep longing, to want something really badly. Why do we all just unquestioningly let it all come to a close at the end of high school or the end of college? Why doesn’t it make us scream when we live the rest of our lives never feeling that strong sense of community again?

The inconvenient truth is that the forces that alienate us from our most meaningful experiences are the same forces that cause the climate crisis.

This system is called capitalism, and it allows the massive corporations who are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis to write the rulebook. Their rules are written in a way that allows them to make big profits, and that can’t happen without all of us taking jobs that will ultimately contribute to capitalist production and expansion, and we’re pressured into complying because we have to in order to have financial security.

That’s why we can’t spend our lives running.

Whose pocket would that put more money in? Unfortunately, no one’s. It’s only a hobby, and therefore irrelevant under this system. And yet running is ultimately a low-carbon activity, just in the same way that reading books, playing the guitar, caring for each other, and making friends — our most meaningful experiences — are all low-carbon activities.

This Earth Day, if we’re serious about stopping climate change, let’s focus on what’s meaningful to us. Let’s reorient our goals to center around the most fundamental and ultimately most meaningful human experiences — emotion, sensation, wonder, longing, love, connection, and fast times.

MATT WISNER — DUKE UNIVERSITY

800m: 1:48.04

2 x NCAA Indoor National Championship Qualifier

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