When I talk to most non-runners about running, the biggest complaints seem to be that it’s a.) painful and b.) boring. Both opinions tell us more about the person making them—and by extension our culture—than any accurate truths about the sport. A healthy society does not seek to avoid pain at any cost, because there are times when pain is good. You must break down muscle to build muscle. You must find your limits in order to figure out ways to extend them. Pain is humbling, and men who have been humbled are capable of great deeds. Such observations on the nature of pain dovetail nicely with the second accusation—that running is boring. Again, the runner knows otherwise.
On a long run, the only companion a runner has is his own thoughts. There are no video games, musicians, 24-hour cable new networks, brothers, sisters, moms, dads or bosses to serve as a distraction. The runner’s mind isn’t clouded by alcohol or drugs or other substances, and as a result he becomes tuned in to his own body and inner thoughts in ways others aren’t.
Years ago, when my mileage was particularly heavy, I reached a point where at any point in time I could gauge how fast I was moving without the aid of a watch. I’d do experiments just to see how accurate I could get, and often times could predict down to the second how my mile times were. How is my heart rate? What is the cadence of my breath telling me? What is my turnover rate? Is my second (or possibly third?) wind coming on? Like yoga, there is something spiritual about running, although I would argue that running takes it a step further (no pun intended).
Ask any runner about their favorite path, and they know every square inch of it. They know where there are divots that could be dangerous on the ankles, slight changes in the slope of the land, straightaways than always inspire a sprint, and that place where the sun always rises in a way that could melt the hardest of hearts. In a society that thinks it needs to be stimulated by an onslaught of images and sound, the runner is someone whose mind can be stimulated by silence. There are deeper truths that reveal themselves in the seclusion of a long run that societies dependent on Twitter streams and Facebook updates and “friend requests” all to often fail to learn.
Running is a sport that highlights like no other that, no matter what the endeavor, we are primarily competing with ourselves. Once we overcome the obstacles and mountains in our mind, those of the outside world erode tremendously. When we navigate the valleys inside our heart, the low points in our personal and professional life become less daunting. Whether you’re new to running or someone who’s been hitting the pavement for years, I hope this piece helps motivate you to lace up and head out the door. And if our paths should cross I promise to look you in the eye and give the quick head nod all good runners extend to one another that says, non-verbally, everything I’ve written here.
Related: The Runner King