23 October 2016

What is the point of running?

Running is hard. It hurts, and it’s boring – especially if you don’t listen to music. It can be lonely, frustrating, even soul destroying, depending on the weather and what mood your body and mind are in.

I understand why people call it pointless. There are no real goals to work towards. There’s no ball to chase, no wickets to aim for. When you finish running, there’s no saying whether you’ve won, lost or drawn. Whether it’s a 5K or an ultramarathon, running doesn’t exactly achieve anything.

Sure, you can track your progress. You get home, check your Strava app, and hope you’ve shaved a few seconds off your personal best. I used to think this was why I ran – to keep pushing myself to hit new targets, get faster times, and go longer distances. With all the fitness tech, tracking apps and health data available, it’s easy to obsess over the numbers you’re getting. But it’s not that important.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see your progress as a runner. It’s always nice to know you’ve improved, and have the facts to prove it. But then, what about next time? You’ll have to go one better, and one better the time after that. Eventually you won’t be able to – and if progress-tracking is all you’re running for, that moment will be brutal.

Forget about outcomes for a second

Running is about putting in time to do something that doesn’t achieve anything, which flies in the face of our outcome-driven world. You’ve got to think in terms of what you need to do by the end of the week, where you want to be in six months’ time, and whether you’re making good on your five-year life plan – right? So why bother doing something if you’re not going to put it on your CV, or add it to your Twitter feed?

I often think like that. After all, if you want to live an accomplished life, you need to challenge yourself to learn, grow and achieve – always. It’s good to have personal targets and life goals. But they can stress you out.

So you’ve got two options:

  1. Screw the targets and live a life of simple joys and pleasures, and hope that you can justify that to yourself on your deathbed. 
  2. Keep aiming towards targets and goals, but balance the pressure by enjoying the moments you’re experiencing, rather than looking past them all the time.

If you chose option two, then there are a few ways you can consciously live in the present.

You can take drugs, and notice how different chemicals affect your consciousness, emotions and interaction with other people. BUT whatever goes up must come down, and if a negative thought gets inside your head, it can grow like a disease.

You can listen to music, and enjoy how sounds can swell and give a heightened sensation of time passing. BUT when it’s gone, it’s gone. If you put the same track on again it won’t feel the same.

You can meditate, which is kind of like running BUT without the physical benefits or outward-looking benefits.

Or you can go running.

You are both significant and insignificant

The glory of running is not in the finishing, but the humbling, exhilarating, perspective-bringing process of getting there. Running through nature reminds you that while the world is much bigger than you are, you can do so much within in it. Like you are both significant and insignificant.

Running is an escape. It’s impossible to worry about anything too much if you’re running. Your mind’s attention is taken up by listening to your body, and taking in the outdoors around you. In Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he says:

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.”

I’ve been running for two years, and I haven’t yet discovered a down side. Even when your muscles are aching after a middle or long-distance run, it’s their way of saying ‘thank you’. (However, after I recently did the Yorkshire Marathon, it took them a good couple of days for them to come to their senses.)

So that’s why I run. For the joy of knowing I can.*

*And because I get to eat lots of food.


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