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Columns

Running on Crossroads

By William Y. Yao, Contributing Opinion Writer
William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

I used to run alone. I’d lace up my tattered sneakers, worn well beyond their recommended mileage, and run just outside the painted white lines marking the side of the road. It made sense to me. I could decide to go at a moment’s notice.

I could decide on my own when, where, and how fast to run. Running was an individual sport, after all. A contest against my watch, against myself. One of the first sensations that got me hooked on it was the sense of pride that I felt after pushing myself on a run, over all the fatigue and pain. It was the sense of accomplishment a lot of runners feel after a hard, honest effort. I truly felt my mind, my mental fortitude, played just as important a role as my legs.

One day, almost randomly, I agreed to go on a run with a friend. We didn’t chat much, we didn’t decide on a pace beforehand; we merely exchanged occasional glances and hand gestures to indicate if we were going left or right at the next fork in the road. We didn’t need to talk to understand we were working together, we were a team. No different from a doubles team in tennis, or a pairs team in figure skating. It was blissful. I imagine that many runners, from the casual jogger to the competitive marathoner, know this feeling. It’s remarkable that a solo endeavor like running has the immense power to forge such bonds between us.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” a memoir by novelist Haruki Murakami, was gifted to me by a close friend. You might be familiar with his more well-known works like “Kafka on the Shore” or “Norwegian Wood,” but what does he have to say about long-distance running? What does writing novels have to do with running marathons? In Murakami’s case, the answer is, really, everything. Lessons learned from running marathons became indispensable in his life as a writer. Focus, endurance, rest, limits — all of it brought to bear in his writing process.

Here’s another running phenomenon. People like listening to music while running. We say music is an art, and running is a sport. But despite these classifications, which are so frequently juxtaposed, they complement each other so well. Isn’t it incredible how a combination of different audio frequencies and rhythms arranged in a certain way can make the strenuous tempo of running feel easier, more modulated?

Running isn’t just about the miles and minutes. I fell in love with it because it’s about both mind and body, connecting and keeping pace with one another. I learned from my friend that it can be solitary yet social. Murakami found the liminal space between writing novels and running marathons. It brings together art and sport. It builds connection with our “teammates” and within ourselves. Running is a place where we embrace these unexpected, yet wonderful, intersections. And it can remind us to open our eyes to other crossroads, too.

Coalescing diverse methodologies and sensibilities from seemingly disparate areas creates so much value. In academia, the digital humanities combines data science with theoretical paradigms in the humanities. Quantitative social science leverages computational techniques to describe complex social phenomena. We ought to embrace the crossroads of qualitative and quantitative. There is so much to uncover at their nexus. Like running with a friend, these two supposedly independent forces can intersect and compel one another.

When Covid-19 dispersed us to all corners of the world, we missed running into one another in the dining halls. We missed waving to a familiar face from across the lecture hall and walking with each other along the Charles, talking about everything and nothing. We missed the serendipitous interactions in our lives, and the intersections between our ideas that these chance encounters facilitated. Time apart has made me cherish more than ever the ways different aspects of our lives can combine to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

I still run beside the painted white line along the side of the road. But now, instead of just following straight lines, I seek out intersections. Everywhere I look, there’s a new crossroads, with something awesome to discover.

William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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