Popular as the sport may be, running is not everyone’s idea of a swell time. I’m a runner, but I know plenty of people who would rather skin up a mountain in a blizzard or play 18 mosquito-plagued holes of golf than subject themselves to a five-mile jog. For many of these nonrunners, their complaint is the same one I have about DMV visits or anything written by James Fenimore Cooper: running is just really dull. The sport also inspires fears of ravaged joints and depleted cardiovascular health, though there is ample evidence to the contrary. Given these caveats and the fact that we live in an age of unlimited active recreation opportunities, some might ask: Why does anyone still go running at all?
Elite U.S. distance runner Ben True once told me something his former coach said: “You don’t choose running—running chooses you.” While that may sound like a line from a bad martial arts movie, I think it’s spot-on. Very few young athletes harbor dreams about professional distance-running stardom. Galen Rupp, for instance, was poached from his high school’s soccer program after a prescient coach noticed his speed. Compared with Rupp, I have all the running grace of Jabba the Hutt, but I also got into the sport because I had some talent for it. I wanted to be a basketball player, but the mile was where I excelled in middle school P.E. class. Once I began having moderate success in high school cross-country meets, it was easier to reconcile myself with the fact that I was never going to play for the Knicks.
Unfortunately, my competitive running career entered a prolonged hiatus when I was a “fresher” at the University of Edinburgh. An auspicious start with the university’s running club—in the UK, most intercollegiate sports take place on the club level—eventually led to a stress fracture in my left tibia. I was able to ignore it at first and persisted with the excessive mileage that got me into trouble in the first place. Eventually, the pain got so bad that I couldn’t walk. I quit the team and stopped running for several months.
By the time I got injured, however, the benefits of running went beyond the rush I got from racing. My daily runs had evolved from something I did in preparation for competition to a form of psychic dialysis. In its absence, there was an unmistakable decline in my ability to concentrate. I have no idea whether it’s due to a serotonin rush or because my body is transported to a state of atavistic bliss, but running has always given me a sense of joy and time well spent. It’s one of those rare pursuits where, while engaged, I’m never beset by the feeling that I should probably be doing something else.
Given how essential it is to my ability to function like a moderately sane human being, running is, for me, very different from other sports. To my mind, those who complain about the monotony of running might as well be complaining about the monotony of sleep. My principal beef with the “running is boring” line is its tacit expectation that all recreational activities worth doing need to be comparable in the way they stimulate our senses or keep us entertained. I don’t run for the same reason that I play air hockey.
“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running,” the novelist Haruki Murakami writes in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I would amend that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits is the essence of racing—a practice that entails and yet is distinct from mere running. To race is to try to cover a preset distance as fast as you possibly can—not necessarily (and this can’t be overstated) faster than other runners in the race, but fast enough to perform at the very threshold of your ability. (Professionals and other elite-level runners, of course, have a different, more tactical approach to racing.)
Trying to reach and maintain that threshold, whether for 15 minutes or 2.5 hours, is an experience I can describe, without blushing, as transcendent. It’s like entering a quasi dream state brought on by extreme physical exertion. However, rather than reaching unconsciousness, to spend yourself in a race is to access a strange high—one infused with vague dread, like swimming underwater.
It’s a fleeting sensation that’s hard to describe. I know it makes me sound like an ayahuasca huckster or one of those tiresome fans of electronic music, but you have to feel it.
For as long as I do, I’ll keep running.