In the Woods: Emerson and Cross-Country Running

James A. Downs

I was in the unique but no less fortunate position of being a recent graduate of Saint
Michael’s College so that I would co-lead and also immerse myself in Dr. Joan Wry’s
Emersonian Cross-Country retreat. The retreat centered around Dr. Wry’s own research, in
addition to research from our own Emerson tutorial during Spring 2022.

The goal was simple: present, and relate, Emerson’s philosophy to a non-academic setting
(in this case, a cross-country team) to student-athletes. The means to meet that goal, however,
presented far greater challenges: to the average reader, Emerson’s philosophy and writing may
feel obsolete, abstract, difficult, and oftentimes polemical; to his most astute devotees his
writings still offer constant challenges. As a graduate of the Saint Michael’s English program,
having wrestled with Emerson for four years, and a former member of this team with close
connections to my former teammates, I expressed a quiet hesitancy that the Emersonian dart
might miss the board, due solely to the scope of the project, but was intrigued with the possibility
to conduct my own unique research.

To break the ice, the student-athletes were presented with an “Accessible Emerson”
pamphlet that had some of Emerson’s most well-known aphorisms in it, in order to show that
common phrases used today had their roots in the Concord-based writer. For example, he writes,
in his essay “Circles,” “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” It is a simple
message and to an extent cliche, a danger I worried about presenting Emerson in this setting. I
believe the runners were lukewarm to the idea of sharing their own thoughts, not only due to the
unfamiliarity with the texts but also because they may have felt the retreat felt too “school-like,”
or that this man was utterly unrelated to their own running experiences. But “enthusiasm” is at
the very core of success on the cross-country course: one will not achieve great times, results, or
progress without a childlike enthusiasm for this sport. The runners of Saint Michael’s College
battle the challenges of a rapid end to summer weather and the transition to cool and cold
Vermont mornings and evenings. Coupled with practice before the sun rises multiple times per
week, conditions are tough; it is easy to fold and not exert the same energy each day. Enthusiasm
is a necessary component to the runner’s training, discipline, and racing. This was a message that
the student-athletes began to see, even if slowly, as discussion circulated around their
relationship with motivation, or lack thereof.

My own research for this project focused on “Nature” (1844), an oft-neglected essay that
appears in Second Series. It is a short essay, and doesn’t add a whole lot to the Transcendental
philosophy, but Emerson argues that “motion or change, and identity or rest, are the first and
second secrets of nature: Motion and Rest” (45). Indeed, the two ends of running can likewise be
simplified to motion and rest: motion, the very act of running, and rest, not only recovery
post-run but the rest in between repetitions of long, difficult workouts. It is this latter “secret” of
running, rest, that can be ignored by the runner eager for success. Recovery, especially during a
workout, is a fine line in cross-country running. Too much rest and the training may not be
maximized; too little rest and the body may begin to break down. Though obviously not
contextualizing this idea within running, Emerson tells us exactly that which I have articulated:
“Wherever the impulse exceeds, the Rest or Identity insinuates its compensation” (46). The
impulse, or motion, running, mustn’t be overdone or extended, else rest will compensate
accordingly. In a competitive running context that may take the form of additional recovery or
worse, injury. Thus, there is a fine line to balance in training. Rest is as much a part of training as
is the running of miles.

We see similar themes of motion and rest elsewhere in Emerson’s works. He famously
quips that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition, from a
past to a new state” (29). Power is an important theme found throughout Emerson, and we see
here its relation to rest and motion. Power, whether mental, physical, or emotional, is essential to
the Emeronian individual and runner: it is how we get from a past state, perhaps a starting line, to
a new one, a finish line. Taken at face value this passage seems to disparage rest, or “repose,” as
it marks the absence of power. We must always be in a mode of motion, connoted here as
“transition” to advance the intellect and achieve our goals. But I believe that this aphorism, from
“Self-Reliance,” must work in conjunction with the 1844 “Nature.” In other words, though
Emerson advocates for an individual fit with power through transition, change, and constant
motion, that “the drag is never taken from the wheel” (46) suggests the need for rest and
recovery. The wheel and drag metaphor is a simple image that best illustrates the relationship
between self-reliant power and rest: The wheel always has its brake, and likewise the runner
needs his break. So while power may cease in that “instant of repose,” power cannot exist
without repose, and that instant in which power ceases is among the most important for the
runner. Without that instant of repose, the “moment of transition” simply may not be achieved.

In conclusion, having studied Emerson nearly four years now, I have been under the
impression that “doing nothing” was a detriment to both Emerson and what he may call a
Representative Man. He was a man who pursued, and preached, a regiment of constant
intellectual stimulation. Yet when contextualized in terms of running, Emerson does, in fact,
insist upon “doing nothing.” To do nothing is the very act of “doing something”: it is an act of
absolute rest. That rest, coupled with motion, are the basic secrets of running and the essence of
individual Emersonian power in the woods.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Self-Reliance and Other Essays. Dover Publications, 2012.

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