There’s an overarching theme in Ratatouille that “anyone can cook.” It’s Gusteau’s saying, it hangs over his restaurant, and it exemplifies the idea that cooking is an activity that can be picked up by anyone. You don’t need to be trained in culinary arts or have an affinity for distinguishing particular spices — you just need to do it. But in the end of the film we learn that perhaps not everyone will achieve greatness in cooking the same way. It’s an old adage that talent can come from anywhere and not necessarily that anyone can be great, but it also hints at a greater truth in its revolutionary ending: cooking is, like all things, a personal journey.
I first heard of Run With the Wind ( 風が強く吹いている, or Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru) thanks to the recommendation of a friend. I had never really seen an anime dedicated to running before, but I had always loved the various aspects of sports shows that involved the usual grit, determination, and hard work. I wondered if Run With the Wind would help me see a bit of myself in the characters, if it would help me connect to the reason behind my love of running. So far it’s doing just that, and then some, because it’s in general a great show with a wonderful cast that tackles rather pertinent issues. It’s presented in a quieter way, conversations taking place usually during or after long runs, and the conversations they have in their heads while running feels realistic because, well, I do it all the time!
It gets to the heart of that running is at its core, a feeling that people share. That love of something involves not just the highs of it, not just the culminations of earned work, but all the aspects that make it a struggle. There’s not a singularity to this love either, not some special recipe for it to click with someone. It’s each of ours. It’s personal. And it’s important.
The show revolves around a group of collegiate runners who hope to achieve entry into the coveted Hakone Ekiden — a relay that requires ten runners to run a total distance of 218 km — which covers the entirety of Tokyo to Hakone. Interspersed with their struggles as a team we see them as individuals working through their own adversities: what waits for them after college, how to get through exams, how to balance all of the responsibilities of being an adult, all with the addition of training for entry into a highly competitive race. It’s a taxing existence. It riddles you with exhaustion, it makes you sometimes question if it’s worth it. And in each conversation these characters had with themselves and the other members of their team, I saw pieces of my own athletic history.
For four years, two seasons — eventually three when I joined Cross Country in the fall — in high school I was running. I was a sprinter in spring and winter, did mid-distance occasionally, was a hurdler when needed, a long jumper, and ran 5k races in the fall. I eventually became a jack-of-virtually-all running trades, which is a nice way to say I was only decent at everything, but where I truly came to life was during the 400 meter sprint.
I didn’t get the best times, oftentimes I didn’t even place that well. But I loved and hated that race more than anything I had in my life until that point. I labored over it, I detested waiting for my heat with such anxiety that I nearly fell asleep. But eventually I couldn’t get the track out of my head. There was hardly a day that went by I didn’t think about running after the softness of that obsession hardened into love. It became a natural part of my life. Like school, like sleep, like eating, like breathing — it was just what I did. It was just what I loved.
It seemed that at some point, I don’t know exactly when, something had become irreparably true in my life: I would never want to stop running.
I didn’t pursue track in college. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like had I done so. Would I have majored in something different? Would I have excelled at the sport? Would I have loved it with as much fervor? My fear of failure kept me back from discovering any of that.
I got into a well-known “backyard” school that was decidedly Division I, meaning that I had next to no chance of ever being able to run track there. That, of course, didn’t stop me from running in general. But as I drifted away from the high spirits of track meets and the competitive nature of it I began to realize that I couldn’t shake that feeling, that need, for competition. I could always challenge myself. But I had spent the last four years in action, participating in a sport I loved. Now, plunged into academia, which I enjoyed, I felt as if I were neglecting a different part of me. I needed to run. I needed a challenge. So during my sophomore year of college I walked onto our school’s rowing team. Next to none of us had ever rowed before. Some of us had never even been in a boat. We began the season with 40 young women. We ended it with 8.
Up until that point I had never seriously considered myself an athlete. I didn’t work out so much as run. It was almost all I did that would qualify as fitness. But rowing was unlike anything I had ever done. Practices were long, early morning affairs, usually beginning at 5 am, and afternoons were spent in class, mandated study hall, practice again, and dinner. I loved it at first. But as the numbers began to dwindle and their investment in us grew, I started to realize the challenge I wanted was becoming so much more than that. Here was a team that cared — really cared — about rowing. I had come into it thinking it would replace what I had grown to love about track, but the truth of the matter was that I didn’t love crew with the same longevity.
I stuck it out because I sometimes have the tenacity of a perpetually hungry tiger, but it impacted me so severely that I began to slump into a quiet depression. The girls on the team became a lifeline. We ate together, we studied together, we went out together. My other friends became distant windows into another college reality: one that involved social parties, studying, and odd sleep schedules. One where I could stay up late with friends, play more video games, study harder, take more classes. But for me this sport was all-consuming. We had trainers and uniforms and got to bump shoulders with the best of the best in each given sport. And it felt, for once, like I might finally be one of them.
It’s why the year after I began, just when I was getting recruited for varsity, I quit.
I’d like to think I had good reason. I was double majoring. I still had to work my on-campus job. I was writing a book. I couldn’t, in my right mind, do all of it. I realized I was collapsing. It hurt. It felt like cutting off a part of myself I was just beginning to grow into. I would look out fondly on the river from time to time and whenever I saw the girls I had once shared a boat with we would give a small nod of acknowledgement and little else. I wonder what it would have been like had I dropped my second major, quit my job, and continued rowing. I would have certainly been able to do it. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t really love rowing itself. I loved the challenge, the breathless hitches after practice, the pain that I could stomach as long as I made it to the end of the workout. I loved the girls I had as teammates, I loved the work it took. I loved the journey. But I hated the bitter person it made me. I hated that I resented the challenge as much as I sought it out — that I donned a mantle I’d made for myself and got nasty when others questioned why I was pushing so hard. Sure, I was good now. I was only going to get better. And when we were in the still water waiting with our oars poised, I felt like I was flying. But beneath that was a realization that the halcyon days of my spring track meets were never going to return to me, no matter how hard I pushed in these practices. Rowing became a quick fix for bigger problems. It became an excuse to push myself beyond anything I thought I could take. I didn’t think I could do it on my own, I reasoned. I needed this. And then one day I realized I didn’t.
Because it was the days we weren’t in the water, the days we took to land when I could let my feet rush ahead of my churning thoughts, that I truly felt alive. I rowed all right, but I ran better. When the rain came and I could only hear its steady patter and my heavy breaths, I began to realize what it meant to lose yourself in a world bigger then your own. The hurt of workouts had always been something I would back away from, would slack with. The press of the rowing machine was one I fought back against. I was determined but I was also not willing to break in order to get my score down that much.
But when we ran? I was always at the front of the pack.
I like to think anyone can run but I also acknowledge there is a definitive privilege in it. Not everyone can run. And I can’t forget that. Running for me is easy in a city like this, but for others it’s a difficult exercise in trying to not stand out. For others it’s simply not a feasible pastime. And I want more than anything to fix those issues so that people might be able to explore what it is to run or do any other fitness they find worthwhile.
I know one day I might find that I won’t be able to run. Age will always catch up to me. One day I will stop running. But, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, I will not go gently into that good night.
The thing about running is that it is, like all things, a personal journey. In both the literal and metaphorical realms. Much like Gusteau’s adage in Ratatouille, not everyone will be a great runner, but a runner can come from anywhere. It’s a primal, deeper part of you. Running is something I’ve shared with friends, a love that we all talk about and do together, one that has come and gone but that we all came to understand from different angles. There’s a joy in that too. Solitary as it can feel as a practice, running communities are often wonderful ones. It’s why I wish to explore more of them, to encourage people to run regardless of why. Every angle is valid. That starting block is your own.
And this is why I love Run With the Wind so much. It highlights the diversity of its team and where they’re coming from, it creates a unifying theme among their wants and needs. And most of all it cultivates the depiction of running as a team sport, when it sometimes feels like the farthest thing from one. Having played basketball and softball too, I was already well-versed in team sports when I entered the track circle. But none of those teams, and not even my team in college, felt as close-knit and lovable as the track team I was on in high school. We were all friends. And when I became too competitive and put down people putting in just as much as effort as me but without the seniority or as good of times — I remember feeling bad. Sure, of course, we all want to win. But in my heart I’m not so competitive that I want to discourage and bad-talk others to achieve my own glory and make myself feel powerful. That effort, that dedication to the sport, that has to show on the track and nowhere else. Because sometimes I talked a big game I could not win. And I learned that lesson there and it stuck with me for the rest of my life.
Running is a time when I can cultivate lessons within myself. Where I take longer, slower runs to think and brainstorm, when I can take shorter, faster timed runs to challenge myself. I don’t need to suffer for that purity of score anymore because I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. I only have to prove it to myself, to my own body, that I can take this next step.
I ran a race in high school once without socks. I forgot to pack them. I finished it with shoes full of blood and was limping for a week. It was disgusting and awful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, but it was the single moment where I realized that I could push through. It was a small inconvenience, it wasn’t even really all that painful, surprisingly, while I was running, but that was the moment running cemented itself as my physical proof of living. A reminder, each time, that I was muscle and bone and tendon.
In my darkest moments I always remember that part of me. When I lace up my shoes in the evenings I’m reminded, again, that she exists. That I am her. And when I’m almost done and those last few minutes are stretched out before me they feel infinite. But even breathless I know I can conquer them. And that I will again and again and again.