Why do we run? What do we get out of it? Or, perhaps more accurately, what do we hope to get out of it?
It’s tautologically clear that it would be easier not to run. Even those of us for whom running is a great source of joy have to admit it is also work. Never mind the particulars: the hassles of changing clothes and planning routes, the struggling up hills, the sweating, the chafing, and so on. The fact is we don’t have to run. We could literally just stay right where we are.
But we don’t. We go. And we do so in a society that is both over-worked and impatient in its demand for gratification. Running is therefore anathema to an American Good Time. It’s voluntary work, and the gratifications it brings are decidedly slow in coming. What I want to submit is that runners are runners in large part because they have confirmed what some wise elder might have told you when you were young: that most things in life worth having take sacrifice and commitment. Running’s rewards are of this kind. The more you do it, the better you get at it, the more joy it can bring you.
The ‘can’ in the previous sentence is in italics because that’s the crux here. On the flip-side of being fitter and faster, more comfortable in your body and more at home in the physical world is overdoing it, turning running into an obligation or more of a chore. It is possible to suck the fun right out of it.
So to the questions Why do we run? What do we get out of it? Or, what do we hope to get out of it? I’d like to add one more: How do we push ourselves without pushing too far?
The very mention of pushing oneself will bring Steve Prefontaine to many runners’ minds. He—better than anyone—embodied the gutsy and swaggering attitude of the runner. He articulated it better than anyone else too: “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
That idea of refusing to be outworked can become a cliché. How easy it is to recall the video montages extolling impossible workouts and stoic self-sacrifice; you’ve noticed the heroes of these commercials never have time for watching TV themselves. But for something to become a cliché it must contain truth. The kinds of athletes who get asked about the intensity of their training are usually those who have achieved a great deal in their sport. And part of having done so is having worked extremely hard.
Take ASICS-sponsored athlete Heather Kampf. Kampf, an NCAA champion at 800m who placed seventh in the 2012 Olympic Trials at the same distance, has this to say about pushing herself: “There’s always another gear. Your body will send signals to slow down because, physiologically, it doesn’t like going as hard as you are. But you can override those signals to some degree. I always tell myself I can push through. There’s always more to discover. I like to put myself on the edge and find out what I’m made of.”
The really interesting word in there is ‘discover.’ It’s true, we don’t know anything about our limits until we’ve broken them. You can’t run a 6-minute mile until, suddenly, you do. And then, maybe 5:50 is within reach. Maybe 5:30. How fast can you go? Eventually, there are limits to limits, which you can only see in retrospect. Push yourself enough and eventually you will discover it was too much—too far, too fast, too often, too something. You only get to run your best once, and for a long time you don’t have the privilege of knowing whether you already have.
A friend of mine, when he was fourteen, was one of the best marathoners in the country for his age. But his life moved in other directions and he quit running for over twenty years. When he returned he built himself back up and after a couple years was able to improve on his previous times and again become competitive in his age group. He won some races, traveled the globe for big international marathons, and decided to step up his training to try for a PR in Chicago. What happened? An injury, fairly serious. Then another one. Now he’s rehabbing again, hoping to get back out there and give it another shot.
For some runners, that’s the game. You have to be willing to go too far if you want to find out how far you can go. You have to be willing to put in the miles, put in the hours, forgo this indulgence or that one (realistically, you have to forgo this indulgence and that one). You have to find the willpower to get yourself out of bed those mornings when it’s raining and you’re tired and still sore from yesterday; the determination to keep going on those afternoons when it’s hot and you’re about to puke and you can’t for the life of you remember why you do this. You have to be willing to suffer, to really suffer—physical and mental anguish—for the sake of achievement and the meaning that attends. The harder you work, the greater the reward: that’s the orthodox view of running.
A less orthodox view might raise the question of whether there’s an upper limit of where the rewards correspond to the increased effort. Maybe if I trained more I could be faster, but maybe being faster doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to enjoy the runs that get me there. What if we aren’t like Heather Kampf and we don’t have to be? What if my friend didn’t have to set a new PR? What if I were freed from the pressure to accomplish something in my running? What if the reason we get out of bed on those rainy mornings when we’re tired and we’ve got a full day of work ahead of us isn’t because we have to but because we want to?
What if the work of running is the reward itself? What if running—just you, out there, in your body, in your environment, in whatever mental state you’re in, moving, discovering, playing—what if this is the joy?
This summer, this post and a series of other narratives were made possible by ASICS and the release of the GEL-Quantum 360. Learn more here.