Illustration of a silhouette wearing earbuds and dancing with a medal.
Design by Avery Nelson.

This fall, three relay teams of four Daily Arts staffers will train for and run the Probility Ann Arbor Marathon. But as writers, we can’t just run the race — we have to write about our past experiences with running, how we are preparing for the marathon, what we look forward to and what we are afraid of.

There are three distinct times in my life when I was pushed to my absolute cardiovascular limit. There was the eighth-mile leg of the Ann Arbor Probility Marathon relay last year when I had been told to train for six miles, but learned right before the race that it would actually be eight miles. Then there was sparring with two of my black belt friends at the same time — which had followed a round of one-on-one sparring — and a round of pankration with other black belts at the end of my (you guessed it) black belt test. Last but certainly not least — more of a common scenario than a singular occurrence — feeling like I have to stop dancing at the function until I hear my jam come on.

Reaching this limit is quite the unique physical sensation: muscles burn and beg for relief, my throat screams for moisture, sentience slowly untethers itself and pleads for everything to cease — but some part of me is able to summon the strength to persist. In that third case, I found the strength not internally but in song. 

Music has moved me like no other art form — literally and figuratively — since I was a tot picking up on techniques from my choreographer mother. I have never been rid of rhythm, even when I swapped mother-choreographed dance shows for cultural functions or concert band in middle school. Come high school, that became marching band, jazz band and percussion ensemble.

On the other hand, running never came naturally to me. As I have written about before, childhood asthma stopped me from getting a head start on running. It wasn’t until I had to undergo cardio conditioning for my black belt test that I decided to join cross-country in high school. My two-time marathon runner father guided me through my on-and-off affairs with running, but it’s a solitary sport. There is no one who can measure your breaths for you, lift your legs for you or take each step forward for you. There are those who can set the pace running alongside you, but a bunch of college students with widely varying class schedules can’t be expected to do every run together; ergo, you must find a method to overcome the miles by yourself. I have found that blasting music so loudly I can’t hear how hard I’m breathing, processing verbal barrages so dense I’m distracted from the pain and taking a forceful tempo always helps — but I’ve refined my strategies over the years.

Last year, I used the opuses of Kendrick Lamar, among others, to reach the finish line. My strategically chosen running playlist turned into single albums — To Pimp a Butterfly for morning runs and good kid, m.A.A.d. city for night. Both are among my favorite records of all time, but I felt I still didn’t fully appreciate and understand them. I used my running time to sonically study the albums. At the start of my training this year, I tried the same strategy. I let the high-energy rhythms of some of my old and new favorite records dictate my footfalls while their themes of perseverance pushed my mind forward. I didn’t want to just run the same relay again this year — I wanted to do it better, to do it faster. 

But something wasn’t clicking. My pace was subpar, my motivation was meandering and my experience just wasn’t enjoyable.

Partly due to my work for Michigan Daily Arts, I began listening to film scores for my boost. I’d flood my earbuds with rich, evocative soundscapes that let me imagine I was some persevering protagonist in the movies I wrote about. For a time, it helped; my pace was progressing, my motivation was maintained and my enjoyment increased. I even added some tracks from those scores to our Daily Arts collaborative marathon playlist. But as we trained longer miles in spiking temperatures, I could still feel something lacking: pace, motivation and enjoyment somehow still slipped away. I ran to songs with consistently stronger beats — as compared to my previous albums, which would vary mood and measure with each song — that felt like they were songs I could purely dance to, treating each step forward like another step to the beat.

It wasn’t until the second or third time I ran to “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams” by Weezer — added courtesy of our lovely Managing Arts Editor Laine Brotherton — that something finally clicked. Now, the act of listening to Weezer is infamously amusing because of their reputation, and there was something about the uncharacteristic catchiness and the absence of Rivers Cuomo’s vocals that felt so funny to me. I had a goofy grin on my face throughout the entire song. I wrote in this year’s blurb that “I had kind of dramatic reasons for running.” That doesn’t really hold true now, so why would the more dramatic albums and film scores have the same impact they once did? What if I didn’t view my miles as something to conquer, my body as a stubborn tool to whip into shape? What if I saw them less as obstacles to overcome and more as partners? What if I danced with them? What if I got silly?

A couple of weeks since switching to my silly strategy, I’m happy to report it’s working wonders. I have broken records to “I’m Just Ken” off Barbie The Album (my pace is Kenough), to Epic Rap Battles of History (WHO WON? I did) and “Can You Hear the Music” from the “Oppenheimer” score (I am become dance, destroyer of PRs). You’ll notice there’s still a penchant for film music, but I’m growing. If it feels uncharacteristic as workout music and has a strong tempo, it’s a silly dance beat for me.

Then yesterday, something unexpected happened: My earbuds shut off at the 5K mark of my push day with a couple of miles left to go, and I was left without a single dance beat to spare. 

My muscles ached, my throat scratched, my sentience slipped. I was alone, without the aid of my crutch. I had been running at my fastest pace yet, but for a moment I felt all inertia drift away from me.

Then I heard the beating rhythm of my footfalls. I heard my breath keeping its steady time. 

The birds sang. The traffic roared. The breeze through the leaves whistled to me. 

It was all music to my ears.

That same goofy grin plastered itself back on my face, and I kept my ears open for these new running partners as I danced my way through the remaining miles. Then — as I do at the end of every run — I broke into a sprint laid out on the nearest patch of cooling dew-dappled grass. I would normally remove my earbuds for relative silence at this moment. Instead, I laid still and enjoyed nature’s concert.

I think there is little that cannot be done when you are filled with righteous rage to persevere through all of life’s obstacles. But I’ve also found there is even less that I cannot do when filled with joy. One must imagine Sisyphus as silly, I suppose.

I didn’t form my relationship with running with the healthiest mindset. I can’t tell you that I’ll start going out for more silent 5Ks, but I no longer want to feel like the miles I run and the body that ran them are external experiences I have overcome. I want to meet everything with the silliness required to enjoy life. So if you see me running around Ann Arbor and all of a sudden my arms and legs change their pace and I break into a grin, you’ll know that another one of my jams has come on. I’ll be ready for you, leg two of the Ann Arbor Probility Marathon.

Let’s dance.

Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at