Finding greater freedom through running
Updated: Jan 2
There is a question that pursues me, and that is, “why run?”
It’s a time consuming activity. If you take it seriously and want to get better at it, it takes a great deal of effort. You might get hurt.
Moreover, it’s a strange activity. Runners aren’t running to get anywhere. We often run in circles. We run for the sake of running like some artists produce art for the sake of art.
Sure, there are some practical benefits. Running can improve your health. It can keep you fit. It might help with managing your body fat, though that isn’t necessarily the case. But there are better ways to stay lean, and the health benefits of running can be had by running 2-3 miles 3-4 times per week. Yet runners typically run much more.
My morning run today was 11.5 miles. I’m going to get up tomorrow morning and run another 4, or 5, or 6. I’m going to get up the next day and run 8 or 9, and so on. I run every day. It bothers me to take a day off so I try not to, preferring to just drop the number of miles I put in and the slow the pace in order to recover from a harder run. Obviously I’m not doing it for the health benefits alone.
I do it because I feel I have to run. It is not just a refuge from a pretty crazy world, but a testing ground, an arena where I come face to face with elements of my mind that, like in meditation, it might be best to leave behind. And it is an arena in which, therefore, I expand my personal freedom.
It’s probably necessary to say that I believe that running is the most natural exercise movement for our species. Human beings were indeed born to run. Not only is running what children do (all day long, as any parents of toddlers till tell you), it is what our ancestors did—a lot. Humans are the best long-distance runners on the planet. No other species beats us. We are slow, very slow in fact. But we can go longer than every other animal, bar none. The fully expressed genetic potential that nearly every human has for running is simply astounding. A hundred mile run, with proper preparation, is within reach of anyone who doesn’t have a disability to prevent it. Tribes like the Tarahumara, who have not forgotten to practice this ancient ability, think nothing of running much longer. Teens and middle aged runners, men and women, they can all do it.
There are various theories about why we evolved into such formidable distance runners. This isn’t the place for that but it’s certainly interesting to explore and every runner and anyone thinking about becoming one will benefit from doing a little research and reading. It’s fun. It tells us about ourselves.
So there’s that: we were born to run. Not to run is to turn our backs on this patrimony. To run is embrace it, and all it has to offer.
Like I said, the physical benefits of running are great, but it isn’t necessary to develop a serious running practice to get them. A little jogging a few times a week is plenty for that. Throw in some strength training and perhaps swimming and yoga, plenty of walking and ideally a whole foods, plant-based diet and you will have a well-balanced, healthy and fit individual.
What I find compelling about running is all about the mind and the interaction between the body and the mind. Running puts you in touch with your whole organism, and it gives you an ideal psycho-physical forum to overcome your ordinary limitations. It is, in short, the potential for gaining greater freedom.
In my experience, this occurs in several ways.
The physical. The more you run, the better you are at it. There comes a point when sprinting down the street to catch a bus doesn’t hurt, it feels good. There comes a point when you can run up a steep hill at a pretty good clip without running out of breath. And keep going and going and going. There comes a point where your speed increases and you can charge up a mountain. You can sprint across fields. You can leap from rock to rock. You’re agile and your heart and lung system are tuned, your blood carries oxygen to your muscles more efficiently than ever before. You feel strong because you are strong. This translates into a tremendous feeling of exuberance, at least in certain moments, when you’re moving across the Earth with grace, speed and confidence.
The mind miles. Mind miles is what I call the miles that come after the mind begins to complain. Which, in my experience, it always does on anything but a short, easy run. The mind rebels. It begins to say things like, “This sucks.” “I don’t really like to run.” “If I stop now I’ll still have five miles.” “I can’t believe this isn’t even half way.” “This hurts.” “I want to quit. I hate this. I don’t want to do this.” Mind miles are the most important miles. After hundreds of occasions of running right through the mind miles the mind, complaining still, does so in a more quiet voice. A despondent voice. The voice of someone who knows he’s lost the game. The mind of a loser. And then you realize that that voice was always there, and it’s the voice of the loser in you. Defeat it and you have a tremendous new potential. You are free. Free to choose to keep going, to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. You become the master in your own house.
The play. The reward for perseverance through the grueling rebellion of your mind, and whatever physical discomfort comes with it, is the sudden opening into a field of transcendence. You might be two, three, four hours into a run, pounding out the miles in defiance of that loser voice that desperately wants you to quit, when the voice vanishes and a great joy and surge of energy and power pass into you. It doesn’t hurt less, in fact it may hurt more, but you aren’t just enduring the pain. You aren’t even just embracing it. You are loving it. Reveling in it. You feed off the pain because you have entered a new zone, a space altogether out of the ordinary. You integrate. Your mind and body flow as a single being. You are no longer the master of your own house whose commands must be obeyed. You are the child at play. Now your potential feels limitless.
These are the answers to the question, “Why run?” This is what makes running special. How running brings you face to face with all your bullshit, and gives you the tools to overcome it. As you change yourself as a runner you change your self. Because running is the hard thing that your body does most naturally, running is also the most natural way to reach potentialities in yourself that otherwise remain out of reach.