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.