For a sport that prides itself on its simplicity, distance running often plumbs the messy depths of the human psyche. I thought of this last month, as I sat slumped on the floor against my apartment door, trying to muster up the will to start my run. A nasty virus had hollowed me out. It was one of those bugs that enables acute awareness of your own bodily organs. (“Ah, so that’s where my spleen is.”) Although I had a ten-mile run on the training schedule, I convinced myself to take the day off. This was a wise decision, but as I crawled back into bed, I began to feel an expanding sense of guilt for the unplanned rest day.
Runner’s guilt is a familiar feeling for nearly every runner. It’s the visceral sensation of incompleteness that creeps up from missing a run. There’s a box, somewhere deep in our bones and sinews, that we’ve neglected to check off for the day. Even as I lay in bed, coughing up phlegmy grotesqueries into a tissue, I felt that nagging voice of guilt pestering me about why I lacked the discipline to fit my run in.
The notion of guilt implies something vaguely religious, and running does indeed require a form of faith—the audacious belief that despite our flaws, we can transcend our current conditions and make something better of ourselves. Runner’s guilt is the doubt that arises when we question that faith. It’s the various permutations of shame that bubble up when we fall short; the painful sight of blank days on a training schedule. Resting gnome-like at the margins of the mind, it pesters, Hey…you missed your run, when work, family, or even emergencies interrupt our lives.
But there’s also an alternative, less well-known strain of runner’s guilt, a sensation that occurs exactly because one is running. This guilt emerges with the recognition that running is itself a luxury, and one with real costs. It’s the uncomfortable feeling that tugs at us when we realize we often run at the expense of our families, our careers, and our friends. There’s indeed only so much time in the day, and this guilt is the looming understanding that we’ve chosen to spend a large chunk of it on ourselves.
For me, this type of guilt has grown more acute in recent years. A decade ago, I could easily fall back on the excuse that I ran because of scholarships or my commitment to the cross-country team—socially acceptable reasons for a teenager. But now I’m an adult, and I’m still playing at being a runner. Sometimes, especially when I’m logging heavy miles for a big event, a voice whispers in my ear, Who do you think you are? You’re not Mo Farah. You missed your shot. Indeed, you never had a shot. You don’t even have a savings account, and yet here you are wasting time by running at threshold pace alongside a freeway.
I hate this voice, mostly because it’s not entirely wrong.
One evening in the fall of 2011, I snuck out of an academic conference to run, and these same thoughts weighed down my mind. A panel must have just ended as I exited the elevators in my split shorts, because my dissertation adviser ambled into the lobby, chatting with another professor. Not wanting to get caught skipping the conference, I vaulted behind a large lamp and pretended to admire the wallpaper. After a few agonizing moments, the professors walked off and I was left unnoticed. But their presence spurred a sense of dread.
Guilty self-interrogations followed as I jogged out of the hotel. It was October, and the sun already hung precariously low. Was this not a bit selfish? I considered everyone who had sacrificed for my education so I could have the privilege of being at a top-tier academic program. And yet here you are, the voice dutifully reminded me, skipping it for a tempo run.
The run felt atrocious. I was tired, and my legs felt heavy from travel and hours of sitting in conference rooms. It was one of those miserable efforts when my body was simply out of sync. A sudden resolution popped into my mind: If I can’t run a mile in under five minutes right now, in this exact moment, I’m quitting. I’ll stop training. I’ll take up squash or CrossFit or whatever, but I’ll quit running.
It’s strange how guilt compels us. I approached the starting line, hit the lap button on my watch, and surged ahead.
Barely a lap in, I grunted, already struggling with the acceleration. You’ll never make it, the guilt whispered in my ear. You’re out of shape and hungry. You haven’t trained enough. But now I had a task. The run was not about my obligations, my family, or my star-crossed academic career. It was about covering four laps in less than five minutes. The guilt became quieter.
I was behind pace after the first two laps. I now had two minutes and 28 seconds to carry my body over half a mile. I gritted through the tightening sensation of oxygen debt that crept along the edges of my shoulders and legs. Whispering doubts gave way to blood pumping in my ears.
I pulled across the line into the last lap, still behind pace and breathing hard. I felt that old, familiar sensation of my body approaching its physical limits. I set my teeth, winding up into a sprint. The realization set in that I really didn’t want to quit running. I whipped my legs around the turn and kicked.
I pumped my fist, knocking back the guilt. After catching my breath, I jogged back toward the hotel, running retirement deferred. Guilt assuaged. The voice silenced, if only temporarily.