Empty on Purpose

Author: Natalia Yepez Frias ’19

Central Park at 5 a.m. in July is a jungle. Rain taunts the coming day. The air heavy with water withers my gasping lungs. I feel truly wild, my eyes open but swollen from the rough night of sleep. All night I anticipated this run and could wait no longer. 

There are no people in the park, not even a rat scampers across my shadowy path. The misty air doesn’t make room for me as I push through the rainforest, one foot in front of the other. The sky turns brighter like a cloak lifting from my eyes. I feel the life pumping through the trees and I thank God for the stretch in their limbs and the droopiness of some leaves as they mime a dance that hides the skyscrapers I know linger like jaguars along the edges. I stretch my legs and push off as instructed by my physical therapist friends. I make my hip flexors do the work, lifting the weight of each heavy leg, fighting the force of gravity.

Failure drove me to this moment. A lot of failure, the kind that gives you second hand embarrassment about yourself. I know why I run now, but it’s different from the reason I would give when I signed up for the New York City Marathon six months ago.

If you asked me when I signed up for a marathon why I was doing it, I would ramble about needing it to keep me sane. I needed something concrete beneath my feet and on the calendar. Something that would come and go. I desperately clung to the lowest form of accomplishment: a task with an end. In the last year I have gotten married, quit my stable tech job to pursue freelance writing and moved to New York City. These are statements devoid of value, not good, not bad. Yet somehow the dramatic stage of my life left me more open than I had ever been. Once upon a time I lived in a world of homework assignments, exams, deadlines, meetings, deliverables, tangibles. The world had become like the mist in the park, suffocating but unclear. I wanted to run away and I wanted to run to something. No external deadlines meant the kind of freedom that feels like you were dropped naked in the middle of the ocean.

My novel drafts were too far out from finishing, freelancing gave no certain promises, and nannying made me feel frantic and scared that motherhood wouldn’t be for me every time the child screamed at me or called me silly for forgetting her socks.

Running, I can run. It would take hard work, hard work I could do, but it would not take talent or speed really, or excellence. Somehow running would not be survival of the fittest, as this chapter of my life has seemed. Running would make me free.

From my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen it was up to me to become a writer. In a stroke of luck I got an unpaid newspaper internship. After a few attempts I finally got a story assigned and I interviewed a woman, risking my nannying gig as it was the only time the woman could talk to me. When I sent my story hours later, I received an email within a few minutes. My editor did not have time to teach me the basics of writing and suggested I enroll in a journalism course if I was intent on pursuing this career path. No comments were left on my actual story. I cried to my husband. I sat down and rewrote it. He never responded to my resubmission. So I went for a run while every soul in New York kept sleeping. Like a wildebeest I crossed avenues diagonally and burst into Central Park. 

My nannying job said I could take an extra week after I got COVID and then texted me that they were going to find someone else to care for their daughter because my schedule was too busy. Somehow my schedule of unemployment was too busy for them. My face grew hot, but mostly I was sad that I would not take my runs on the quaint and desolate island where they lived, sitting in the water between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or maybe this is a lie and my soul hurts because I could not even compete for an easy nannying job in this city. The longing to fill my heart, my head, my time, my invisible checklist of success pressed in on me more than the droves of humans I breathed in every day. So I ran because suddenly I had time to do more of it.

A New York writing critique group finally got to my piece and the critiques can only be compared to Simon Cowell’s remarks after hearing the worst contestants on American Idol. As introduction I said, “I am good at taking critique so don’t be afraid to say what you mean, I can keep my emotions separate.” Somehow someone misunderstood me and while giving their feedback said, “I get what you mean at the beginning, I got no emotion from you or your piece.” Running suddenly felt easy after that, I preferred it to everything else. My little escape was in my control.

Then as my runs got longer I felt control slipping from my fingers, or more accurately, from under my feet. My body was breaking with plantar fasciitis and knee joint pain and my mind could not supply enough substance to fill the miles. Podcasts, music, audiobooks and phone calls no longer worked at distracting me from the pain of rhythmically slapping the asphalt.

I just stopped inputting the noise all at once and I turned up the volume of my head. I started lying to myself every time I ran. Just one more mile then you’re done, it was 10 more miles that day. No need for noise because you’re almost done. I would run in different directions to tell myself it was the first time I was running that day.

Ugly, wretched creature that I am. Then one day something changed. Maybe it was the day I ran 20 miles for the first time and how I couldn’t believe my tracker and how I ran to the smoothie shop on my corner and got a Strawberry Sunrise to congratulate myself because I was rosy and happy and the day was filled with opportunity. Or maybe it was the day that I ran six miles but felt like quitting before I started and called everyone I knew and nobody answered, desperate not to be alone with my thoughts, with my body, feeling the weight of my disproportionately large thighs and somehow, miraculously, moving forward as tears rolled down my face. I didn’t stop and I looked over my shoulder in disbelief that I had moved from there to here.

This is why I run: I run to empty myself. I recently found the words for what happens to me when I am a blurred suffering form in Carryl Houselander: “‘emptiness’ is the beginning of contemplation. It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning. On the contrary, it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it is intended. It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.”

When I run I empty myself, I do it on good days and bad days. More than 400 miles into my training and I know that it won’t end with the 26.2 miles on race day because when I run I feel an emptiness like a creature cleaned, wild and free, soaring through the night. 

I run and God breathes new life into the emptiness.

Natalia Yépez Frias’ essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2022 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She is a writer living in New York City.