Runners and cookers

I read through a long comic strip about running today: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running

I’ve tried running, and unlike the author of the comic above, I do not run because it makes me feel good. I run (very occasionally) because they say it’s good for my heart. When I finish a run, I do not feel exhilarated or enlightened. I feel tired, sweaty, hot and thirsty. Most of all, I feel bored. I struggle to finish a 5k if I’m not plugged into music. I’ve run through pain, through fatigue, through dehydration – but I’ve often given up mid-run because of boredom.

Here’s the thing about recreational running: there’s no one I know who runs because of the destination; it’s always the ‘journey’ for them. They don’t run to escape from an armed predator who is closing in on them, or to chase down a prey. There is an inherent pointlessness to running. Runners celebrate that. They consider running to be a battle against the spirit rather than against the world; they get the infamous “runner’s high”, not because they have defeated someone else or won a prize, but because they’ve finished.

There are two kinds of people in this world (yeah right :)). One kind values the effort, and the other values the result. I wonder if running encourages more and more people to belong into the first category. Running is, after all, the ultimate symbol of achievement that comes just by working hard. All you have to do to feel a sense of runner’s high after completing a half marathon is — running those 21 kilometers. The high rewards effort. It’s a one-variable problem: you run, you ‘win’.

If only life were like that. Life’s battles don’t often go to the one that works the hardest; more likely, they go to the luckiest, the smartest, the friendliest.I don’t like running at a philosophical level because it encourages the causal idea between effort and results. It is a comforting thing to believe this — to the runner, running strips away the worry, the tension, the pressure of life, every uncertainty dissolving into the one reality of the run, which is unmitigated, uninterrupted effort. But it is wrong. If only life was that simple.

I don’t enjoy running; what I do enjoy is cooking. Cooking stands in stark opposition to running. Most people who enjoy cooking do not particularly relish the process as much as the product. There is a sense of calculation in cooking: you choose the ingredients, you choose timings and temperatures, you choose quantities, and you adjust constantly. And it isn’t the hours of effort spent in cooking that make it worthwhile – it’s the gratification of seeing a series of calculated choices lead to an incredible taste/smell/sight experience. And it isn’t a solitary journey of the Self. Cooking is inherently social; to cook to gratify another person’s senses is always a layer of uncertainty, of risk, which makes it so much complex as an experience.

I invariably get a high from cooking. When I cook something, and it turns out ‘just right’, a lovely stew of chemicals drenches my brain. For me, this chemical rush is much more awesome than the chemical rush that follows running. It’s a creative rush, but it’s also a rush of realization. Precise cooking can lead to thwarted taste experiences in so many different ways: ingredients can go bad, flavors can inexplicably strengthen and weaken, stoves can misbehave, the audience can be cantankerous. The joy of cooking is the joy of conspiracy – the knowledge that you have embarked on a task that is inherently uncertain, in which the most sincere of efforts have no guarantee of reward – but when you pull it off, there’s a feeling that the whole universe has conspired to make things work.

And that’s why I completely disagree with the opinion of the cartoonist. There is more Zen in a thimbleful of cooking than in an entire marathon of running.

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