Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Philosophy of Running

Alene from the Yahoo ultrarunning list has given us an assignment: What is your philosophy of running? What follows is my modest attempt to encapsulate my scattered and varied thoughts on the subject of long distance running.

When I started thinking about this, it surprised me to realize that I have been running (more or less) every day since third grade, the year I ran my hometown's 3-mile fun run for the first time. I ran my first 10K in 5th grade, first marathon junior year in college, and first ultra at 26. I am now 42, and I am not, never have been, a very good runner.

When I say I'm not good, I mean I don't win. I don't expect to win. I think that's part of the appeal.

Many of the things I am good at (or was good at) have fallen away. I was always a good student, and I continue to educate myself all the time, but formal schooling is long over and good riddance. I was a good swimmer: quite successful in my age group during my growing up years. But competitive swimming holds no allure for me now. I was a good violin player. But the violin now collects dust: killed I think by the constant need to compete for orchestra chairs.

I guess what I'm saying here is that I don't enjoy competition. No killer instinct. Winning makes me uncomfortable; losing makes me even more uncomfortable.

Running ultra distances entirely removes head to head competition from the equation. Or at least for me it does. I am running against the distance not the other runners. Back where I am in the pack, ultra races are cooperative rather than competitive. We are all friends on the trail out for a day (or perhaps several days) of forward motion.

This is not to say that I don't always check the results, don't count down the women in my age group to see if I placed. And if it so happens, as it rarely does, that I did actually win something, this anomaly is to be understood as a miracle. Unasked for, unbidden, but nice.

When I think about it, running may be the single thing in my life that has stayed with me since the third grade. Or perhaps, running and (for lack of a better term) the Insatiable Quest for Knowledge. Running and reading. And writing too I guess. Running and reading and writing. Put that on my tombstone: She ran. She read. She loved. She wrote it all down.

My relationship to running has changed with my circumstances. As a kid, of course, I ran for the sheer joy of it. I did laps of my paper route. Sometimes I got lost on purpose and tried to find my way home. I still do this. Especially when traveling. It helps me get a hold on the geography of a new place.

In high school I ran to stay in shape for field hockey and basketball and softball. I hated team sports. I should have gone out for cross country, but all my friends then were on the team-sport teams.

In college I ran every afternoon to counteract the beer and dorm food. This was the closest I ever came to running purely for body image. I ran cross country for a couple of years, but the three-mile races were too short. It took me that long just to get warmed up. I developed the marathon habit in college and ran one every year until I started having kids.

I ran fast in my twenties and early thirties. 7-minute miles. Smokin! I married a triathlete, so I started doing triathlons. I was still a good swimmer and I could hold my own on the run. My biking, however, was dismal. Still is. Nothing takes the stuffing out of me like a long bike ride. I'd rather run 50 than bike it.

Running became precious to me when my kids were babies. I suppose I thought of it as an escape. For a few years there it felt like all of my independence had been lost on a dime, and the only accessible connection to my old life was the daily run. I love my children dearly, don't get me wrong, but they certainly did take a bit of getting used to. All three took their morning naps in the jogging stroller. That daily run got me through the baby and toddler years (and a couple of serious bouts with post-partum depression) with grace and good humor.

And now, bit by bit, my independence is coming back. I can get out for 4 or 5 hour runs on Saturday mornings as long as I leave by 4:30. But I'm up at 4:00 every morning. It's my time to write and run before the kids get up.

Last year I ran with running partners. My long runs turned into long talking jags, which were always welcome. I spend my days with little kids and it's nice to get into deep weekly adult conversations. My running partners are all intelligent, interesting, driven, funny people. I love them all dearly.

This year I have been running alone more. I find I need the silence more than I used to. Weirdly, I don't seem to get sick of myself. My mind wanders here and there and I lope along behind. Sometimes I think about nothing at all.

I got an iPod for Christmas and I carry that along with me. When I need to hear another voice I put on one of my Zen books. I am going through a Zen phase at the moment. It all makes perfect sense to me while I am running. The calm quiet voice telling me how think with Big Mind (I am myself, but I have no self; what is the sound of one hand clapping? -- stuff like that) is endlessly fascinating. I listen over and over.

I love the simplicity of the running life. You put on your shoes and you hit the road. I tend not to complicate my running with things like training schedules and goals. Mostly I head out the door and fly where the wind takes me. I love to run long hills and beautiful trails. But I'll run anywhere. I'll run round and round a motel parking lot if that is the only option. The running is the thing. That and nothing else.

I need to feel my feet hitting the ground. The rhythm is hypnotic. It's mesmerizing. It's downright addictive. Not to put to fine a point on it, I'm addicted to running. It's my daily high. My junkie's hit. Without it, I don't know what I'd do. I live in mortal fear of injury. No matter what, live to run another day.

So perhaps it all comes down to addiction. Or perhaps not. Sometimes I run too much and I get tired and cranky. But if I don't run enough I'm antsy. It's a curious titration. It's a fabulous life.


  1. My favorite line in your blog:

    "The running is the thing. That and nothing else."

    That just says it so simply and so well. Love it. I really enjoy reading your blog (found it on the Ultralist), and this post is just fantastic.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Pam,

    "She ran, she read, she loved, she wrote it all down."

    "No matter what, live to run another day."

    "It's a fabulous life"

    I can relate to the insatiable quest for knowledge. Often I feel I have an insatiable quest for what's around the next turn in the trail, the next corner, over the next hill, beyond the horizon.

    In the end, I think, nothing else matters...

    Thanks for sharing!


  3. Thanks for reading!

    Paige, it's your turn now. We need to hear from the younger runners! What's your philosophy of running?

  4. This paragraph could describe how I feel about running:

    "So perhaps it all comes down to addiction. Or perhaps not. Sometimes I run too much and I get tired and cranky. But if I don't run enough I'm antsy. It's a curious titration. It's a fabulous life. "

    I can't help it. Even when I try not to, I just have to run. And I'm such a baaaaaad runner. My older running partner has tried to encourage me that if I run long enough (like into my 80s) I may actually win a prize someday. I don't expect to even then so, I put on my shoes and I just run. For me. I just run.

  5. I've been toying around in my head for the last couple of days trying to pin down what my philosophy is, so I'm thinking this will be my next post :) I love this assignment!

  6. Pam...

    We are so much alike it's scary ;-)


  7. So your philosophy on running is addiction? Not much of a philosophy. Although your tombstone of "She ran. She read. She loved. She wrote it all down" is a better one. I guess it all depends upon what mile or hour that you are in during your daily traversing.

  8. Helen: Yes, 80! I'm looking forward to the longevity prizes. I hope I'm still running.

    Paige: Write on!

    Steve: Are you running Wapack this year? It would be fun to meet in real life before you and Deb take off for the wild west....

    Anon: Addiction? Perhaps. Perhaps not.


Please feel free to leave thoughts, suggestions, advice or queries. I love comments!