Writer and sociologist Lindsey Freeman describes her book, Running, as a feminist and queer handbook of running, but it’s a book for all runners. The existing running literature didn’t speak to her, so she wrote the book she wanted but could never find, one that celebrates the freedom and opportunity for self-discovery that running offers, while challenging the notion that everyone is “born to run.”
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When Duke University Press invited Lindsey to write a book for their series Practices, running was the obvious choice, as was calling it a queer and feminist handbook. “The only rule,” she explains, “was that you couldn’t write about writing and you couldn’t write about teaching and I don’t have a whole lot of hobbies. Running is something I’ve done my whole life and I’ve always wanted to write about it. I have kept a notebook, but I hadn’t formalized it in any way. So I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that.
“And I chose queer and feminist because when I started thinking about writing about running, I thought about these handbooks and these running books that my parents had around the house, like James Fixx’s Complete Book of Running and these sorts of books. I revisited some of those and looked at that genre and I became really interested in thinking about how to twist it a little bit. I noticed how heteronormative those books were and how I didn’t, even in some of the newer books about running, see a lot of queerness.So I just wanted to write from myself and through myself and my communities.”
Lindsey’s parents were enthusiastic runners and she began running with them at an early age, competing in small races in their east Tennessee town when she was five or six years old. As she got older, she switched to soccer and went to college on a soccer scholarship, but kept running for fun. “I was just running around one day,” she recalls, “and I had friends on the track team and they said, ‘Lindsay, come run with us.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, stop teasing me’ or whatever. And they’re like, ‘Come on. No, no, come’. And so I did, and I don’t know why I was allowed to do this, but I practiced with the team and they’re like, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ So I came back and I came back every day that week and then afterwards the coach was like, ‘Hey, can we talk in my office?’ And that’s how I also became a college track athlete, through that.”
She still runs, but her relationship with the sport has changed over the years. “Especially as I age and think about the longevity of running, I think it just connects me to my most animal, best parts. I still want to be faster. I still want to do well in races, but really I just want to be free, and I think I look to running for a kind of freedom in the day, or a free moment where I just get to connect with myself and the land I’m running on or who I’m running with, if I’m running with other people.”
Running is a special way of making a connection. “I think that there is just something different that you learn about people when you run with them because, you know, you’re often not wearing much clothing, you’re kind of pushing yourselves,” she says. “You’re out there. It’s very vulnerable in a way that you don’t get to be vulnerable with a lot of people unless you’re intimate.”
Lindsey also finds that running gives her an opportunity to connect with herself. “I think about it as every day you’re remaking your life. I think we forget because we get caught in the patterns of living without thinking about it. But every day we make a choice. Like if I don’t get up to make sentences, I won’t make another book. It’s just every day, every day, and it doesn’t mean that I make good sentences every time because I certainly don’t. But it’s the same with running.
“I think we continue to remake ourselves each day through the repetitive things we do. I think just loving something, whether it’s running or painting or making a garden, is really beautiful. That adherence to your practice is something that’s really moving to me and something that’s very beautiful about humans.”
As much value as Lindsey finds in running, she takes exception to the messaging that it’s something that all humans are born to do. “Maybe it’s a marketing push, the idea that we were born to do this. I think if you look at the variety of people’s bodies, not everyone can run without prosthetics or other kinds of accouterments. I think it’s also in line with this kind of ideal of capitalist body production honestly, that if you’re not running, it’s something that is your fault, like you’re lazy or you’ve fallen into this modern lifestyle that’s made you sedentary, when really we were born to run. And I think that humans have the capacity to do so many different things with their bodies, with their minds, with their creativity. And I love running, but I don’t think it’s a mandate that everyone needs to run or that everyone is born to run. I personally think that people really weren’t born to do anything. And that’s why I think that running or any other practice is really beautiful because we choose to do it and we choose to put time into it.”
Writing about her own life as a runner has also proved to be a beautiful practice for Lindsey. She loves a line from Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” She initially thought that it was going to be “so much fun” to write about running, a practice that she enjoys.
“But,” she says, “when I got into it, it was about everything. It was about my whole life and my disappointments with my body and my joy. One of the things that came back was when I was at college and a difficult time I had there as a closeted athlete and being injured. I had a really unhappy time at college when I wasn’t able to do my sports and I have always been so hard on myself. Why didn’t I leave? Why was I in this terrible situation? Why didn’t I leave and go someplace else? And I’ve been judging myself for 20 plus years about this and when I wrote through it, I could see who I was then and why I wasn’t able to leave.”
Didion’s quote is one that Lindsey has frequently used, often when giving advice to others, but now it truly resonates with her. “I think honestly, for the first time, I was able to forgive myself about that time period through writing the book,” she says. “It’s not this kind of trite idea of being true to yourself or something that we sometimes hear. It’s being able to look at yourself and just recognize what was happening, recognize that person that you were.”
We all wish we had done some things differently in our lives, but as Lindsey observes, we can’t be our best self every day. “The world is a hard place. And I think if you can be gentle with yourself, like think about would you treat your friend this way? If your friend made a mistake or was caught in a bad loop, how would you talk to them? I think it’s a good way to approach things.”
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