Running Gets You Out of the Cage

Break out of the office zoo and run wild

Running wild every day could be the key to keeping your focus when you need it. (iStock)
Photo: iStock inspiration

“So, because of your own attention deficiency,” Dr. John Ratey was saying, “I’m sure you’ve had to—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “I don’t have ADHD.”

For a few beats, we looked each other over and considered our positions. We were backstage at Harvard University, about to step out for a panel discussion on natural human potential. Ratey is the Harvard psychiatrist who wrote Spark, the groundbreaking book about the brain’s creative mayhem, and I was the sweaty guy whose most vivid memory of grammar school was being sent to stand in the hallway so often that I could walk across the street and buy a hot dog at the convenience store without anyone noticing.

“I’m not trying to diagnose you, of course,” Ratey said, but he didn’t have to. Things were starting to make sense. 

I spent the first nine months that I was working on Born to Run sitting down to write at 5:30 every morning and staying there until dark—and getting nowhere. Eventually, I flipped it: I goofed around all day, running trails and cutting firewood and saying “Yup” to any weird favor from neighbors. The only firm commitment in my weekly calendar was a Tuesday-morning run with my wife on Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Trail. But each night after dinner—after I’d charged around all day—I finally sat down and got to it. It worked: every night, I settled in and turned out a smooth flow of pages.

I was still patting myself on the back for my self-medicating genius when I realized that it wasn’t mine at all. My dad had been chucked out of his parents’ house as a teenager and came off the streets of West Philly to put himself through college on the GI Bill after serving in the Marines during the Korean War. When he had three kids of his own and a day job as a telephone lineman, he decided to muscle his way through law school at night, studying on his feet to stay awake. After he passed the bar exam and had to wear a tie to work for the first time in his life, he began strapping on a pair of black Chuck Taylors each morning before dawn to jog around the block for a half-hour. Those runs got longer and longer, until every autumn he was clocking at least two marathons: always the Marine Corps, plus Philly or New York or both. He invented a training method that’s so ball-busting, to this day I’ve never pulled it off: beginning each spring, he matched his daily mileage to the month and doubled it on Sunday. Four miles a day in April, eight on Sunday; five a day in May, ten on Sunday; come October, he was hammering out 80 miles a week, 30 of them on the weekend. No rest days.

I always figured he was a master of discipline, until I began following in his footsteps and realized that it was the exact opposite. Those were his moments to get naked and go savage. Put any animal in a zoo and more than likely it will develop anger issues, disordered eating, sexual dysfunction, and circulatory problems. In other words, it turns into us. We’ve created our own cages, and we’re paying the same price. Unless, the way my dad showed me, we learn to bust out the door and let ourselves run wild.

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