I have always regarded feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too high valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth.
Olga Tokarzuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Before the pandemic, it had never occurred to me that the body could be a writer.
I had always written with my mind, reinterpreting memories from the distance of time. Writing was a way of constructing meaning from the disorder of life. The world was impressionistic and slipping away from me, a series of flashing emotions and senses.
My essays have explored the theme of transience through a nostalgic tone. I’ve written about my past life as a scientist researching frog embryos, of watching grainy streams of blood flowing through a transparent heart. I described my failed relationships with women who had discovered their desire for other women. I recounted a visit back to Taiwan, the island’s lush humidity, and feeling like a stranger in my parents’ home. Writing was how I made sense of myself.
In April, when COVID-19 cases began to overwhelm Northern Italy and then New York City, I no longer felt the urge to write. Self-expression seemed extravagant. Instead, I spent hours reading the news from my apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. Reporters were describing the virus in war-like terms: It was overrunning hospitals and rampaging through cities. The dead had become a volume of bodies that filled up cemeteries, crematories, funeral homes, churches, hospital morgues, and hospitals themselves.
In place of writing, I spent much of the pandemic running. In January, I had registered for a 50-mile ultramarathon. The race—scheduled for July 4th—comprised three loops through the wooded Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Even though the event would be cancelled, I continued training by running 80 to 100 miles a week.
Through this training I began to anticipate the shape of my runs. They could be described by the tone of their exertion—dreamlike and floating, harsh and gritty, dull and achy. Or by the physical shape of the run itself—long out and backs where the run folded over itself at the halfway point, oblong loops where I could feel the curve of the route tugging at me, meandering paths through the city and the serrated coastline of Boston’s harbors. On the nights that I didn’t run, I would lie in bed and think of movement, of all the nearly infinite permutations of motion distinguished by the temperature or crispness of the air or quality of light or a multitude of other details. And, without knowing exactly where I was going or how I would get there, I would feel the next day’s run taking form, moving from thought through the muscles of my body into reality.
Writing and running are both simple yet privileged actions. You don’t need much materially, but you do need yourself and space to push against. When I was writing, I could feel a story taking shape—some narrative weight or emotion that the words would condense around. Long before I really knew what I was writing about, I could discern that something was there—as if walking into a darkened room and sensing the bulk and heft of furniture.
During the pandemic, I began to see that a run, like a story, has a beginning, middle, and end. It has an innate structure and tension—the buildup of fatigue, alternating waves of discomfort and a sense of invincibility, an anticipation of a conclusion. The end of a run, marked by an invisible finish line that snaps as I pass through, is sharp. Almost instantly I feel a relief from the pain and monotony but also a letdown—the end of the illusion that I could just keep going and going and going.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the novelist Haruki Murakami explains that, when it comes to writing and running, there’s no such thing as winning and losing. There are metrics—like awards, numbers of copies sold, course records, first-place finishes—but what’s more meaningful are the standards that you set for yourself. A writer or runner has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
This philosophy applies especially to me—a thirty-one year old who is not in danger of winning awards or receiving much attention from either pursuits. And yet, writing and running are how I enjoy and understand the world. My life has been shaped, both deliberately and involuntarily, to allow more time for both. I’m single and don’t have or want children. I spend time with a few friends but am not overly social. Outside of my job as a writer for a healthcare nonprofit, I don’t have many other responsibilities.
Such a plain life was at times lonely, especially during a pandemic, but I also felt lucky. I wasn’t risking my life to treat patients or scrambling to find a new job. For me, the pandemic manifested as an extraordinary ordinariness. In isolation, the main features of my post COVID life—working from my laptop in my bedroom, cooking meals over a gas stove, talking to friends over the phone—didn’t seem drastically different from before. Although I felt fear and confusion (and later, anger) the defining emotions of the pandemic were duller—resignation, weariness, listlessness. The tedium of my days grew to be disorienting. In some ways, it was not so different from running. You took one step and then another—countless repetitions of the mundane—until you no longer recognized where you were.
During the pandemic, life seemed not only simpler but more primal. Sheltering-in-place didn’t just take things away; it revealed, in vivid sensory detail, what had been left behind. Morning tea in a mason jar, cooling on my desk, until the steam was only visible as a coiling shadow on the wall. The innards of a nectarine, fluorescent orange, almost unnaturally bright like a highlighter. Rain on the roof, sounding like crinkling paper or the pinprick footsteps of thousands of insects.
Throughout the day, I ate bowls of plain pasta, a plate of sliced zucchini cooked in olive oil, a beef patty, several carrots rinsed in the sink, a bowl of yogurt with berries and peanut butter, watermelon dusted with chili powder. Each dish was consumed individually and in succession. I wanted to experience everything in singular bursts of flavor—the monotony of the pandemic was seeping into my eating habits.
At night my body ached. I watched the muscles of my legs quivering, almost like dreaming animals. Hamstring and calf cramps roused me from sleep—pain before the brain registers it as pain, something flashing, something clenching, something still not yet a part of me.
In April, I began talking to a woman—Stephanie—on the phone. We had met on an online dating website. These conversations, like my eating and running, took on the vast and dimensionless feeling of the pandemic. We talked every day for several weeks, sometimes for two or three hours, before meeting in person and starting a relationship. She told me about her childhood, books, paintings, endometriosis, chronic pain, and her pet cat
Over the phone, I realized how a voice could reveal specificity while also suggesting boundless space. It didn’t seem like I was talking to a tangible person, but someone who could be from any place or any time. I mostly talked lying on my back in bed, sinking into the words and spaces of her speech, until it seemed that I was also existing in some featureless space. Her voice—animated and thoughtful— became breathy and higher pitched when she laughed. Because all we had were sounds, we built a sonic world of shared stories, dreams, fears, inside jokes—an intimacy enabled by distance.
After our conversations ended, I would go for midnight runs. Along the Charles River, the dirt path—lit by the moon— had a white, gritty, luminance. Trees, cast by street lamps into high contrast and sharp edges, flared against the night like photonegatives. The flowers, which had opened during the day, were now closed—their petals tucked into long pods that slanted in unison towards the sky. If it had rained, the fresh smells of dirt and plant fiber would fill me like a pang.
Stephanie and I discussed the stories a body could tell. She was an artist who specialized in abstract paintings and stylized portraits, which she sold at local art fairs. Her favorite painter, Frida Kahlo, was famous for her images of damaged bodies—open wounds, tears, stillbirths, bloody tendrils, nails planted through the skin. These were paintings shaped by trauma—a childhood case of polio, which left her right leg thinner than her left, and a bus accident where she had been impaled by an iron handrail.
I connect with Frida’s art, Stephanie said, because I’ve lived with pain my whole adult life. She told me that, at the age of 29, she had only been recently diagnosed with endometriosis. Before then, doctors had told her that the blackout-pains she had been experiencing were normal. My illness has broken my relationship with my body.
During one of our early virtual dates, Stephanie and I completed an art project together. There had been a social media trend of recreating paintings out of fabric. Twisting familiar articles of clothing (shirts, socks, hairbands) into new forms and shapes seemed aptly symbolic in this disorienting time.
I arranged The Creation of Adam, using purple nitrile gloves to depict God’s and Adam’s hands nearly touching each other. Stephanie constructed The Two Fridas. A red draw string, representing a cord of blood, united the two versions of the artist, one in indigenous dress and another in modern clothing.
Wow, I said, we both made paintings where people are forming some kind of link or bond.
Maybe that’s true of us too, Stephanie said, maybe we’re also looking for a connection.
Don’t psychoanalyze me, I said, mostly joking.
Well, I know I am, she said.
As the pandemic stretched past Spring and into Summer, I began reading fewer news articles and more personal essays. Written by novelists, artists, photojournalists, and critics, they were the first attempts at documenting what life with COVID-19 was like. The essays took a variety of structures—diary entries, op-eds, longform, photo journals, Q and A, poetry—but most ended hesitantly and ambivalently. There were efforts to find something redeeming in the months of isolation, dark visions of the misery to come, vague references to the end of the pandemic (just two more months or six more months or eighteen more months). The whole world was confronting a void in time, a vast and apparently infinite present unbound by the future.
As a runner, I am especially sensitive to time and any distortions to it. Over two decades of training, I have developed an innate sense of chronology—the ability to feel how fast I am travelling based on the cadence of my legs and the sensation of the Earth passing by.
In high school and college, I trained by running quarter-mile repeats—12 repetitions of a single lap around the track with short breaks in between. Each lap was to be run in 72 seconds; two seconds too fast or slow and the repeat wouldn’t count. The goal was not speed but precision, to maintain a certain pace even when you were jittery with adrenaline or sluggish with fatigue. When I ran, I felt my damp hair swishing across my forehead, the impact of my legs on the ground, the pebbly rubber of the track rushing past. As I adjusted speeds, my body settled into the pace, like a vibration wavering and then focusing into tune.
Ultramarathoning had the opposite effect—it stretched time beyond my normal bounds of comprehension. Training runs lasted for three to six hours. I saw the sun rise or set, storms crackle into existence and disintegrate, flowers opening and closing their petals. After a certain distance, running becomes less about running and more about adapting to a larger and deeper sense of time. To travel further, I ran slower and slower. In the summer, when people began venturing out on the bike path, I was passed by fathers pushing strollers, elderly couples in matching track suits, rosy-cheeked high schoolers, a man holding his phone out in front of his face and livestreaming his run. While the outside world whirred and accelerated around me, I liked to tilt my gaze skyward and watch the clouds—tectonic and weightless—drift apart and blossom into new forms. There was a feeling of time dilating so that a second, a minute, an hour blurred together. I felt that I would continue like this forever.
Sheltering-at-home was equally endless and elastic. Each day, with its waves of constantly updated news and work alerts, felt like a week. But then a month or an entire season would disappear.
There were three days of the week: today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Yesterday was a featureless mass of time that each passing day was rolled into. Tomorrow was almost equally shapeless—the pandemic could last for months or years, and what we would be like at the end of it? In a world that was more monotonous and unpredictable, it seemed like the only place to live was in the present.
At the end of June, I completed my 50-miler. I started running at 3:00 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day and finished at 2:45 in the afternoon. I had trouble falling asleep that night, my body was jittery and tingling. I thought of a time in college when I had sailed through the Gulf of Mexico in a tall ship. After a week at sea, stepping on land was disorienting—the solid ground seemed to rock back and forth under my feet as if I were still on water. Perhaps that was what was happening now, my body still immersed in motion even as I lay in bed.
One of the reasons why I decided to run 50 miles was that I knew I could do it. I had experience with endurance events, having completed a few marathons, one ultramarathon, and a half Ironman. All I needed was the patience and desire. With each day of training, I became more and more certain. Not only was my body changing—becoming leaner and lighter—but I also began to foresee how the race would unfold. First there would be the tilt of the Earth—uphill or downhill, but also sloping sideways so that one leg was slightly higher than the other. Over 50 miles, the flow of exertion, like creative inspiration, would come and go in waves beyond my control. And, after the last steps, I would feel a clean, empty exhaustion, as if my cells had been hollowed out into honeycomb and air.
It was only after I had completed the race when the idea of running 50 miles became abstract.
A week later, going about my normal routine, I felt a great relief but also loneliness. I could no longer feel the shape of runs or the desire that had inspired me in the first place. 50 miles felt so far. It felt unobtainable. Another person must have run that distance.
In some ways, finishing a race is similar to writing a story. You spend months inhabiting the world of your text—rearranging the order of paragraphs, trimming out extraneous sentences, delighting repeatedly over the same unexpectedly lyrical passage. Then, after the piece is published, you never really think about it again. The writing is out in the world, apart from you, with a life of its own. And sometimes, months or years later, you will reread it and think: was that really me?
Unlike a race or a story, the end of pandemic is not always clear. The course of a disease has its own structures—waves of infections and deaths that rise and fall, often repeatedly, through time. A pandemic may end medically, when there are enough treatments to protect most of the population. But pandemics can also end socially when people grow used to living with the disease or claim that the virus is under control before a vaccine is found.
Living with COVID-19 has become its own endurance event. Compared to many other countries, where life has returned to a tentative normal, the United States has entered a new phase of the pandemic. Instead of a global phenomenon, the virus has become our own national failure.
The obliviousness, panic, and desperate hope of the winter has given way to a slogging acceptance—the virus and its effects will be with us for years and decades.
Before my 50 miler, I thought that endurance was the ability to resist pain and fatigue but it is also a form of resignation. While I was running, I felt that I had locked myself into the race and had to no choice but to keep going. To shield myself from the enormity of the time and distance, I set small goals for myself: run to that tree, to that turn in the road, to the top of the hill. The world was fragmented into 20-second universes of struggle and solitude, each oblivious to past and future pain.
Likewise, enduring the pandemic has meant ignoring the stability of the past and the possibilities of the future. Making it to the end of the week is an achievement. With the possibility of renewed restrictions and a second wave of infections in the Fall, I’ve stopped thinking about a future without weekly updates of death counts or leaving my home without a mask.
Instead, I’m feeling something unexpected: a nostalgia for an earlier time in the pandemic. I often think back to the winter and spring, when hospitals were overflowing with bodies. There was a sense that we were all in this together—a camaraderie built out of emergency. People did whatever they could. The Philadelphia Orchestra gave one last performance, Beethoven’s 5th and 6th, that was livestreamed before an empty concert hall. On social media, a mother described how she had tricked her children by walking out the front door before sneaking back through her bedroom window to work from home in peace. The marquee on my local movie theater read: Stay home and be safe, we will reopen soon.
Does running 50 miles have a greater meaning? I am not so sure.
In her essay On Running, Megan Baxter declares that a run is a statement against the body’s frailty, written on earth by the body.
It’s true—a run can be an act of defiance, some grand expression of human will. But I always loved runs for their transience. No matter how strong I felt, every run had to end. I liked to imagine runs fading from memory until they only lived on in their own peculiar world—a smear of exertion, a forgotten text, a terrestrial recollection of who I used to be.
In one of the last runs before Somerville closed down, I am in a forest three miles north of my apartment. I like the woods because all the twists and turns make it difficult to know how far I’ve gone or where I am. Sometimes I lose myself on purpose to create the feeling of being immersed in another world.
In the city, daylight is everywhere. Reflecting off of sidewalks and house facades, it fills space from all directions. Although nothing seems peculiar, the virus is here, has been here for some time. But in the woods, the sun is coming through in soft, slanting beams, alternating with the long shadows cast by trees. I hear my breath—slow, deep inhales and short, forceful exhales—as if it is coming from a great distance away, from somewhere outside of me. My vision is blurring with fatigue. There are not that many colors—mainly green and brown but they seemed to exist in every single variation: damp soil near the stream that is nearly black, mint-colored moss growing on tree trunks, amber pine needles that cover the trails. Here the ground is soft enough to sense the earth through my feet. With each stride, my weight flexes through my body and into my toes—the rhythm of my body writing the story of itself onto familiar land even as I begin to struggle to make sense of this new world.
Justin Chen lives in Somerville, Massachusetts where he works in nonprofit communications and is a writer-in-residence at Porter Square Books. His work has appeared in the New York Times Modern Love Column, STAT, True Story, Essay Daily and other publications. You can learn more about him at https://www.justinchen.space and follow him on twitter @atJustinChen.