I swear by my red-laced Asics, if it were entirely up to my mind, I’d never make it past Mile 1. As soon as my pulse starts to quicken, aches and pains awake, and my lungs begin complaining, that’s when my internal critics are suddenly at their loudest. Am I sure I want to do this right now? Let’s just do a block or two. Tomorrow’s another day.
Over the course of a 10-mile run, I might go through eight different arguments on why I need to keep my legs moving at a particular minute on a particular mile. Later, I often revisit these arguments at a safe distance from the run. They range from the highly logical (“I feel alive when I do this”) to the distant shores of lunacy. Sometimes my mood swings quickly from euphoria to despair and back again.
What do I think about on a run? Everything and nothing. Sometimes I count steps, sometimes I just count nothing. Going up hills I count down, and going down hills I don’t count at all. Sometimes I mentally cycle through a series of inspirational quotes to see which one is going to stick at that exact time. While training for the Disney Marathon a few years ago, a single line from the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” looped through my head:
“Don’t the best of them bleed it out?”
A simple line, a simple question. I cannot explain why those eight words, in those particular moments, suddenly sounded like gospel to me, but they did. I ran 20 miserable miles in 15-degree temps and blistering December wind. By the end, I felt like getting Dave Grohl’s lyric tattooed on my forearm.
“Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Now go back, and re-read that quote with distance running in mind. That probably wasn’t what Csíkszentmihályi was thinking of when he conceived of his theory, but it’s a pretty perfect description of the psychology of why people run.
Running is such a primal activity. It’s the most basic essence of sport. Technology has brought us amazing shoes, wicking fabrics and carbohydrate gel shots, but none of those are in any way essential to running. All you really need is a will to go somewhere, anywhere, and two decent legs to carry you.
People have asked me what it’s like to get that classic cliché of a runner’s high. In the last four years, I’ve really only experienced it maybe three times while on a run. My true runner’s high usually comes about 20 minutes after I finish, when the weight of what I’ve accomplished finally starts to crystallize in my mind.
One of my character weaknesses is a tendency to shy away from conflict. This can be a real problem when it comes to conquering things that need to be conquered. Running is just such an opportunity to conquer. Says ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes:
“People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture, though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.”
Running helps me sort out that confusion. I need something along the lines of an uncomfortable jolt to bring me to that heightened sense of reality. There’s plenty of pain to be found in running; as much as you can take. Thankfully, there’s awareness, too.