On Wednesday evenings I help coach a group of people aspiring to run their first 5K. I hung back from the rest of the pack to stay with a woman who expressed challenges with her breathing. We got to talking (which kept her breathing nice and steady) and I asked a simple question: “Why do you run?” So, yes, a simple question which is almost always followed by simple responses like “Running helps me keep my weight down”, “I love to eat, so running helps me balance it out” or my favorite, “I don’t know.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think I figured myself out. Just this weekend I ran my longest distance yet – 16 miles. Sixteen miles is a long time to spend with yourself, especially when ten of those miles are on the dreadmill in a dank basement. Times like these are what soul searching (or sole searching) is made of. My mind begins to wander during the early miles and I think about everything from a potential blog post to the fabulous pot roast recipe I pinned in Pinterest. I think about what I’m going to do that day, or not do, all the while planning out my next running route.
This Sunday I really figured out why I run. Lace up your shoes, ladies and gents; I’m going to answer this simple question.
Running gives me a psychological balance that not too many things (or people) can do for me*. With each step and varying pace, the road is always there without passing any judgment. The road always supports me with each step. The road provides unconditional protection no matter how hard I pound it. My pre-run preparation is virtually religious and mundane. I pull everything together in no-time and briefly meditate on a route plan. My personality allows me to argue internally – “Maybe I should run down to the Parkway, but sheesh, that hill back towards Cedar Crest is killer, especially after nine miles. But, hills are good for the soul. But, flat would be best; I am running a total of X miles after all. But with the Philly course being so flat, training on hills would make the marathon seem like a walk in the park.” Yup, this is me.
I’ve heard some people say that they go on ‘auto-pilot’ when running. Not me. I’m almost constantly trying to sort out stuff. I do, interestingly enough, have a consistent theme running through my head – death and dying. I can’t stop thinking about the worst possible scenario. I don’t know how to stop it. I try to run from it, literally; it never fades. It reinforces the fact that it will never go away. I cannot handle the fragility of life. Almost daily, I referee a battle between my head and my heart – if I didn’t care so much death wouldn’t be a problem. But, alas! My heart is too big for my brain – I can’t help but care. I don’t understand religion and I certainly don’t understand ‘the plan’. I’ve heard that God has a plan, but it scares the shit out of me that I don’t have one frickin’ clue what’s in that plan. How can I just plainly accept people moving on with out me? Answer that. I do not accept the passing of time, fading memories, tattered photographs and aging bodies.
Some of these runs are peppered with sobs triggered by one of those memories or a mental trip to the future. There is, thankfully, a point in which the physical pain of the run sets in. My mind turns it’s back on death and focuses on the tedious task of keeping the feet moving. The road, as if knowing my thought pattern, intervenes. It hears my thoughts and hopes to steer me straight. It pushes back and gives me something else to think about. My head falls numb and I’m in a state of thoughtlessness. THIS is my runners high. I start my run in disarray, near insanity, but leave the road lucid. Most of my thoughts fall to the floor like the droplets of sweat from the ends of my hair, only to return again. I run to contemplate this crap and to keep it far from my day-to-day. I enter each day with a smile and do my damnedest to keep it there. I run to suppress the darkness; it’ll choke the brightest light. I will not go gentle into that good night.
*There’s one person who almost understands me. He is my rock. I’m lost without him.