When I was applying to colleges, I was looking for a place that would be good for running. Don’t get me wrong — I was interested in academic rigor, good food and all those good things you find in brochures, but the opportunity to run recreationally was essential. During my college visits, I ran on a trail that displayed images of the planets at proportional distances from one another at theUniversity of Wisconsin; I ran beside an endless strip mall near the University of Virginia; and I ran concentric laps around Duke University’s East Campus. I didn't want to simply take the word of admissions offices when they say that there are good places for students to run on campus — I wanted to experience it for myself; like seeing, running is believing.
Princeton is a good place for runners. Like a peaceful island nestled in the shadow of Route 1, Princeton's quiet, sprawling neighborhoods are optimal for exploring. Adjacent to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the tow path offers a pastoral running experience along Lake Carnegie, with acanopy of trees that transports the runner to another time and place.
Moreover, Princeton offers numerous opportunities to be with a team, even if you aren't on varsity. While TeamU nobly harnesses running for fundraising, Princeton Running Club offers dedicated runners a chance to revive their high school cross country and track careers — something as a freshman I desperately wanted.
I loved running in high school, and I held cross country in the highest regard. There are few times in your life when you can run with your friends, laughing about all sorts of jokes even after your coach has imposed dreaded mile repeats. Aside from the fun and intensity of physical activity, I adored the beauty of running on autumn days when the leaves were falling, of joking around with friends during dreaded mile repeats, of that thrilling moment when I finish a 5K race on varied terrain. I wanted to experience all these things again in college.
At the beginning of my senior year in high school, I injured my knee and missed the entire season. I managed to run a final race in the spring, but losing a year was a catastrophic disappointment at the time. A part of me had passed on, while my friends continued to have the same exhilarating fun. I was left proverbially in the dust.
It was this feeling of loss that motivated me to pursue club running in college. By my freshman fall I had recovered and joined the Princeton Running Club, whose great community of people helped me adjust to college and provided a stable social group. I was back — but there were signs that I had changed. On a beautiful fall day at the regional meet hosted by University of Delaware, I felt content, but there were lingering doubts about my ability to continue competing. The meet was just like in high school — except everyone wanted to be there, which made it more fun.Even as nostalgia swept over me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was getting too old for this, that competitive running in this format was for the young and the restless of high school, and that my time had passed, that I needed to move on.
After running at Nationals in Hershey, Pa., I felt like I had finally resolved the pain of missing my final high school season. I had overcome the injury and returned stronger than before. The doubts that had characterized my time at the regional meet seemed to evaporate.
But whereas in high school running felt like an escape because of the company of other people, I found that Princeton’s grueling regimen of work, social activities and irregular sleep schedules encouraged me to run whenever I had the chance, often alone. I still wanted to be a part of Running Club, but my schedule and exhaustion led me to run by myself.In these long, contemplative runs on the towpath to the edges of Lake Carnegie and beyond, I realized that I could achieve solace and spiritual peace on the trail.
In the words of Japanese author and runner Haruki Murakami in his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”:“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing.” This quote holds true for me, except for the fact that I usually listen to music while I run, so my cozy, homemade void features corny 90s alt-rock, but the idea is there. Running allows me to recharge my brain when my frenetic Princeton schedule sends it spinning.
This past semester, my knee injury returned. The spiritual uplift of running was reduced to staring at the bubbles of the hydrotherapy tub in the physical therapy room of Dillon Gym. I came to associate the bubbles with a sort of “runner’s purgatory,” a place where good runners go to wait for their chance to go to heaven, the ability to run again. Unfortunately, the conditions for my injury are inescapable. My body is not built to run, and the injury will likely return, wax and wane over the course of my life.
I began running again in December, but the same questions haunt me: Am I too old for this? Will my injury return, and when?
In the meantime, setting out on the towpath on a bright weekend morning, feeling the wind at my back, is still a fulfilling experience. To run at Princeton is to cast aside all the little things, all the deadlines and papers, and feel the blood coursing through my veins. It is to celebrate the life I’ve lived and recognize the privilege and wonder of this place.