The average recreational jogger, I am told by those who ought to know, covers his or her terrain at an average of about one mile every eight minutes. The average brisk walker, on the other hand, takes some 15 minutes to cover the same distance, and if -- like me -- you like to look at things as you go, it's best to figure on at least 20.
In Heidelberg, Germany, by contrast, there is a path known as "Der Philosophenweg" heading up into the hills from the banks of the Neckar, which earned its name as the walking trail taken by many German philosophers as they reflected upon life's eternal questions. It is, somehow, a bit hard to imagine Nietzsche huffing away his eight-minute miles while writing The Birth of Tragedy, or Heidegger in green jogging shorts and sneakers as he planned out passages of Existence and Being. My hunch is that Husserl, Heidegger and the like would have made a poor showing indeed at the Cherry Blossom Classic or the Boston Marathon.
I myself love to walk, but absolutely hate running. I cannot, somehow escape the perhaps childish notion that someone who is running must be running away from someone. The idea of running, to me at least, inherently involves the idea of being chased . . . and I hardly ever feel pursued.
One day not long ago, however -- a pristinely clear, crisp fall afternoon -- I determined to fight my natural inclinations and partake in that national ritual which has become the hallmark of the "well-adjusted" American. I donned my running shoes (I do , I must confess, own a pair), shorts and a T-shirt, and headed for the C&O Canal, hoping to convince myself that my reluctance stemmed from personal intransigence rather than objective reality. Jogging -- if one heeds the reports of its adherents -- is everything from "a great tension-reliever" to "a form of meditation" to -- you guessed -- "a spiritual experience." Along with sex and psychoanalysis, it is right at the heartbeat of contemporary American experience . . . complete with $45 shoes, $25 shorts, $18 T-shirts and -- if you're lucky -- meeting a new lover along the towpath (Sorry . . . I meant "running into" one).
The canal is beautiful, indeed luminously so, in autumn. What better time, I thought to myself, to try "getting into it." I ran some 200 yards . . . and stopped, convinced I had already had enough of this collective insanity. With good reason. The world -- beautiful, serene and clear at 3 miles per hour -- becomes a blur at 8. At 5 or 6 -- which, I gather, is the average speed of those who are "really into it" -- it must be somewhat akin to being in the midst of a centrifuge. And even running my humble speed, the golds, ambers, reds, greens and browns of autumn merged into a putrid pastiche of fecal umber. The clear luminescence of the Potomac at dusk regressed in a flash of light from an uninspired lightning bolt. The mallards, pintails, turtles and driftwood gliding along the canal's marshy surface might as well have been a collection of beer cans. The scullers gracefully parting the water as they moved down the river could have been a speedboat. When you are running, even the long, flowing hair and graceful legs of the jogger moving towards you are lost in the blind coming together of two 8-mile-per-hourers trying to beat back the clock of mortality and aging.
For -- just as the anonymous sex and lust we are so crazy about these days are ways of not feeling -- jogging -- despite any "incidental" benefits it may have to our physical and spiritual purification -- is a way of not seeing. Like the voice of Walter Cronkite on the evening news, it reduces wherever we are to instant anywhere. In a kind of reverse of the Zen ideal, maple, sycamore, ash, willow, oak, elm, poplar and beech become one . . . or nothing. And we too -- dressed in our Puma jogging shoes, our Adidas shorts and our Frank Shorter T-shirts -- are all one . . . or nobody.
It occurs to me now, as I walk extra-slowly along the Canal at dusk, that this is precisely what we are becoming: a nation of joggers, real-estate brokers, track-lighters and sexual swingers headed for the collective anesthesia of not hearing, not seeing and not feeling. It is still autumn in Washington -- beautiful, colorful, reverential. But to thousands of joggers -- clip-clopping along at a brisk 8 miles an hour in their matching uniforms like some kind of new national militia -- it might as well be any season, any time, any place. Because it's all -- when you get right down to it -- a blur anyway.