Much earlier today, Lindy and XY enjoyed a hotel breakfast while I took to the trail. On a perfect 50-degree morning in suburban Hartford, I pounded out nearly seven solitary, fast and enjoyable miles. I had Cory Booker in my ears, and only the occasional baby squirrel or passing cyclist for company.
Moments like these are why I run.
I’ve been running pretty consistently for the past few years, lately about 20 miles a week. I run a few races a year, typically 5ks to half marathons. But runners spend orders of magnitude more time running to train than running the races themselves, and I’m no exception.
More talented writers have spun reams about writing. Haruki Murakami’s excellent What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and Matthew Inman’s The terrible and wonderful reasons I run long distances (also available as a web comic) come to mind. New York Magazine ran a feature this week about why running appeals to those who do it. For me, it’s mainly about exercise and about having time to myself.
I haven’t always been a runner.
I remember running a mile once when I was in elementary school, considerably slower than almost all of my classmates, and feeling like I was going to throw up and die — possibly not in that order. I wasn’t an athletic kid. I didn’t do cross country or any other extracurricular sport. In gym class, I could block pretty well in basketball because of my height (I’m 6’4″), but couldn’t shoot or even run across the court very well. I never liked weightlifting, and yoga wasn’t a thing back then. So I was basically a lump until after my 30th birthday.
I’ve had pretty good luck with people daring me to do things I haven’t done before, then doing them. It’s how I started camping, as i mentioned in my post about our RV trip. Same for running. As longtime vegans and members of the local animal advocacy community, Lindy and I have supported Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary for years. Nearly a decade ago, I first learned that the sanctuary has a 5k race as a fundraiser.
At the time, biking to work a few miles a day and back was the only exercise I got. Ever. I had a colleague who didn’t appear to be especially fit. His advice? “If I can run a 5k, you can run a 5k.” So I did. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty, but I had transcended the couch in favor of the 5k. I didn’t hate it. I wanted to do better. I’ve been running ever since.
Running is exercise.
During the week, I cycle almost four miles a day during my commute. My time on the bike and running are the only exercise I get. I rely on running to keep my heart, lungs and limbs in shape. Paved trails outdoors are my favorite, but I’ve run plenty of miles in cities, a few on dirt trails, and I’ve begrudgingly accepted the treadmill in the fitness center at work as a way to train during the cold months. I even ran 5 kilometers on the runway at Dulles Airport once! I credit my high-school trim build at 40 to my vegan diet and the fact that I run. I was reminded the other day at work, watching a millennial colleague down two grilled cheese sandwiches, a bag of chips and a 20-ounce cola, that I used to be able to rely on my metabolism. If I still ate today the way I did in my 20s and didn’t exercise, as I didn’t then, I’d probably weigh a hundred extra pounds. Meanwhile, when I’m training for a race, I still eat like a vegan garbage disposal. It’s pretty amazing.
Running is mindful.
When I’m running, the only thing I need to do is put one foot in front of the other. Running distances or trying to improve pace requires focus on the thing itself. Yes, I’ll listen to things when I run — usually long-form audio when I’m training and music for an extra boost during a race. But when I’m training, or running a race, I have both the requirement and the luxury of centering myself on a single task. I find running less mentally distracting than meditation. And it’s excellent practice for those moments in the day when I’m doing something with my body, but my mind is somewhere else. Have you ever finished washing the dishes and realized that you don’t remember washing them? Happens to me all the time. I never forget that I’ve been running.
Running is solitude.
Cheering crowds at races are awesome. Seeing your family on the course of a long race, more than once sometimes, is even better. I enjoy the occasional training run with a friend. But running is a solitary endeavor. I’m competing against my own time from the last race and seeing if I can refine my technique even as I age. And it’s the one activity in my entire schedule that has me by myself for significant periods of time. I can recharge my ambivert batteries, listen to a podcast or an audio book or even just the thoughts in my head, and return home exhausted but refreshed at the same time.
Running is refinement.
Some people are sprinters, and some are built for distance. I’ve discovered I’m probably somewhere in between. My races have spanned from the original 5 kilometers to two marathons: the first in my hometown of Chicago in 2013 and the second last year with Marine Corps here in the DC area. Much as I discovered early in law school that I didn’t want to be a practicing attorney, I discovered while running my second marathon that I don’t want to run marathons anymore.
In Chicago, I wanted to stop several times but didn’t. Seeing nearly a million people on the sidelines was overwhelming for the guy who usually runs by himself. I hobbled my way to the finish line and refused a heat blanket, only to discover that the runner reunion area was almost a mile away, and I was suddenly very cold. I took a long nap and ate a huge dinner, not sure I would ever repeat the experience.
I signed up for Marine Corps last year thinking I would run a more disciplined race because I knew my body and running better. I ended up doing worse. The first 15 miles were glorious, and everything after 20 was a painful blur. I crossed the finish line on my own two feet and ended up having to walk another mile and a half to meet my family and get to the Metro. I was limping so badly that a stranger offered me painkillers. The limp eventually went away two days later.
Some people take to marathons regardless of age. Check out Spirit of the Marathon or Eat and Run for some inspiration if you’re thinking about taking one on. On the Metro before Marine Corps last year, I had a nice chat with two older ladies from Cincinnati who travel the country multiple times a year to walk marathons. That’s a 7-hour commitment of time. Impressive!
Meanwhile, I’ve come to really enjoy the half-marathon distance. My first was in 2012, and it left me sore and not running for several months. Since then, I’ve run more and enjoyed every one, and I’ve been able to get up and do things afterwards. I plan to do four this year, including my very favorite, the Montgomery County Parks Half. It’s everything huge marathons aren’t — small crowd, fewer runners, skinny, wooded course and a manageable distance for me.
Running is minimalist.
You need to find what works best for you. Fitness can be an all-encompassing, expensive endeavor. I prefer to buy a pair or two of new running shoes and pay a few race fees in the course of a year. (Try a local running store for some good advice on what fits your foot and your gait.) You need a shirt that wicks moisture and a decent pair of socks, plus some simple shorts or long pants. Add an armband for your phone and some headphones if you like, and you’re completely outfitted for running. It’s simple, relatively cheap and very easy to learn. I’ve got nothing against fancier forms of fitness — Lindy has taken to yoga while hanging from the ceiling, and I’ve got plenty of friends who CrossFit or subscribe to various challenges to stay fit. For me, running fits.
So, what’s your thing?
Also published on Medium.