It’s pretty typical afternoon at a New Orleans tattoo shop: There’s death metal on the stereo, loud tourists in the waiting area and above it all, the thin, insectile whine of tattoo machines. I’m sweating coldly on a padded table, gritting my teeth and cursing my decision to get inked yet again.
“I saw you running yesterday,” my tattoo artist says as he wipes away my blood so he can see the outline of his design.
“I’m training for a half marathon,” I say with excitement. I’m always excited to talk about my training. Trouble is, hardly anybody is excited to hear about it.
My tattoo artist is no exception. “I hate running,” he says flatly. “You shouldn’t get tattooed again until you’re done with your race.”
“Yeah, that could be hard on my body … all that training while healing a huge wound.”
“I’m thinking about your tattoo. Sweating is bad for new ink.”
The tattoo is a flock of phoenixes. The feathers on the largest bird’s right wing dip just below my calf, and the head of the smallest bird brushes the top of my ribcage, just under my armpit. At this point, I’ve spent close to forty hours getting tattooed. I spent roughly the same amount of time training for the half marathon.
When I started running in January 2012, it was by accident. I felt sluggish and soft from inactivity, so I decided to take a brisk, 20-minute walk first thing in the morning three or four days a week. In the natural process of briskening (for lack of a better word), I started jogging short intervals. After about six months of that, a neighbor told me, “You know, you could probably just run the whole two miles.”
Run? Two miles? Without stopping?
I was skeptical, to say the least. But if only out of sheer curiosity, I gave it a try. I kept running when I rounded the corner where I usually stopped to catch my breath. Two miles! I did it. And after that accomplishment, I just kept running more and more. I ran past crumbling bargeboard shotgun houses, across railroad tracks and down the twisting spine of the Mississippi River. I listened to dance music on my iPod, or replayed conversations in my head. I sussed out how I wanted my new and grandest tattoo to look.
Although I’ve been stretching my ears, piercing everything from my tongue to my navel and getting tattooed since age 18, I never considered running a form of body modification. But the changes in my body were undeniable. I gained muscle and grew meaty calves. I blistered and ached. After long runs, I felt an endorphin rush that was far more powerful than the one I experienced from being tattooed.
For this reason, I am surprised I don’t meet more heavily tattooed runners. Running and getting tattooed force you to engage with your physical body in a way everyday life does not. Both activities change you. Getting tattooed changed the way others see me; training for a half-marathon changed the way I see myself.
I figured out how to time my tattoo sessions so as to minimize their interference with my training. The day of a tattoo session, I wouldn’t run. I’d sit and throb while my fresh tattoo wept plasma and blood. The next day I could do a long run; the tattoo was fresh enough that it hadn’t tightened in a shellac of ink and pain that would scream with each step. Days two and three after a tattoo session were the worst for running. Sometimes there would be scabs that threatened to break. And I could tell the healing process sapped my strength. Long runs the day after a tattoo session felt slightly harder. Not impossibly hard, but noticeably, the way running on an empty stomach or into the wind is harder.
Maybe this is why there aren’t many heavily tattooed runners out there. Both undertakings require investments of time, money, energy and suffering. Both call upon the physical body to undergo injury and repair in order to come out different on the other side: stronger, more colorful. And both are at odds with each other in a way that makes juggling them difficult.
Last month, I completed my first half-marathon in two hours and fourteen minutes. It was both faster and further than I’d ever run before. Four days later, I was on the table getting tattooed. And thinking about my next race.