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Thoughts on the question of ‘why?’

boston 10There are many eye-roll-inducing comments I hear regularly as a runner. Mostly from well-meaning friends and family about how they wish they could run or admire my fitness or just nick-naming me Forrest. Invariably after the initial praise and admiration comes the question of ‘why?’ Why would anyone subject themselves to being uncomfortable and breathing hard for more than a few seconds? Why on God’s green Earth when we have the Prius to transport us to any faraway destination on a whim would I exert myself for more than a few steps at a time? Running is engrained in most sports many of us spend hours watching every weekend, yet many people wonder “Why would you run if no one’s chasing you?”, especially if I’m not getting paid millions of dollars. For the record, I don’t have anything against Prius’ but it seems like a fitting symbol of “human advancement”. A symbol that we’ve somehow evolved away from the need for unstructured physical activity and grown into a society that celebrates gluttony and doing as little as possible. So, over the past few months, I’ve been asking myself why. Why, if you “don’t even drive that far”, would I want to run that far? The answer isn’t simple but I want to share my thoughts. My initial and gut response to the question is usually “I don’t know” or “because I like it” but I wanted to take the time to scratch a little deeper and explore some reasons I run.

To be more fit?

I ran cross country in high school…… then I took a 10-year break to explore the joys of partying and chasing women, which years later earned me a beer gut and the privilege of being out of breath when I walked a flight of stairs. Like a lot of others, I started running again as was way to get back in 18 year-old shape, with GI-JOE-like abs, lean physique and full head of hair. I vividly remember the first time I stepped out for a jog after my hiatus. I lumbered slowly through my neighborhood one cool evening for about three-quarters of a mile before I almost passed out from the pain of my lungs trying to explode out of my chest, then I walked home. I didn’t remember running being that hard. A few days later, after the first night’s suffering had been forgotten, I tried again and got a little farther. The next week I made it a couple miles without stopping and soon after that a runner was reborn. My mileage slowly increased, my waist size slowly decreased and although I haven’t been able to grow a full head of hair in years and no one would mistake me for being 20, no one would mistake me for being out of shape either. Something else happened after I started running. I didn’t stop. I actually started enjoying it. My daily pain ritual became something I looked forward to and over time I’ve continued to enjoy the benefits of being fit and don’t shy away from any mirror, but my goals have shifted from simply being fit to something much deeper.

Because it feels good?

It doesn’t always. In an average month I run 200+ miles in training and sometimes it’s not enjoyable. Sometimes it’s just habit or my neurotic, addictive personality that keeps me going. At least once every time I run a marathon, usually around the 20th mile, I ask myself why I’m doing it. My feet hurt, my chest and legs burn and I’m tired. I ask myself why I can’t just be happy at home watching the race on TV with my feet kicked up and a 12 ounce in my hand, but I’ve come to realize I don’t want it to be easy. I don’t do it because it feels good. My joy and pleasure in running come from doing something hard that I’ve never done before. Don’t be mistaken, there are days when the miles float by without effort, it feels like I could run forever and, with all the endorphins in my system, you might mistake me for being high as a kite, but most days, it’s just a run.

To set a new Personal Record?

I had a conversation with a friend the other day in which she was admiring my PRs and I was downplaying my abilities as not very remarkable. I can run a 17 minute 5K and well under 3 hours in a marathon. I think my times are respectable but not extraordinary. My friend disagreed and suggested she would do a lot to be able to run the times I can and that I should be more appreciative of my talent. As I’ve matured as a runner though, I’ve realized that the joy and pride I get from setting a new PR or winning a race is fleeting, often only lasting as long as it takes me to set my next goal. In other words, when I ran my first 22 minute 5K, I enjoyed it but it only made me want to run a 5K in under 20 minutes. Now that I can run 17 minutes, I want to be able to run 16. I get the most joy in running when I do something else: my best. It doesn’t matter the distance or event, in training or in a race. When I know I’ve done all I could do in training, nutrition and rest and then go out and perform in a race, it gives me a happiness that lasts a very long time, but ultimately that’s not why I run. Even with my best there will always be faster runners than me unless I’m the fastest runner in the world, and even then if speed were my only motivation I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t constantly improving and that just isn’t possible after a certain age.

So let’s go back to the original question? WHY?

I run because at my very core I am an animal and competitor, because I’ve come to love the way my lungs and legs burn during a hard effort, because I enjoy the chill on my face on a winter morning and rhythmic beat of my feet on the asphalt. I run because I enjoy finding and pushing past my mental and physical limits and that perseverance helps me in many other aspects of my life. I run because of the inherent freedom that comes with finding a new route. Even simpler than that, I run because outside of eating, sex and sleeping, it seems like the most natural of human activities.  I run because it’s fun. Don’t believe me? Go to any elementary or middle school field, any youth baseball diamond, basketball court or public park then, without bias, take in the pure, unfiltered smiles and uninhibited laughter. Then you’ll know genuine pleasure that comes from running. It’s a simple joy you won’t see many places and it’s a pleasure that many of us forget what it’s like to experience as we “mature”. When I run, I feel just like a kid playing tag on the playground, and even if it’s not on the surface, my internal smile is as wide as they come. So instead of asking me why I run, wishing you could be a runner or admiring my fitness, maybe it’s time to break out those sneakers gathering dust in the back of your closet and step out the door.

Jeremy Wallacboston 11e
Coach, Las Vegas Runners

Has no idea why he runs