A couple of days ago, somebody asked me why I run. They didn't really ask me, it was more of a status update on my Facebook account asking me to post a picture and explain why I run. I have been thinking about it. Probably too much, and I can't narrow it down to one idea, one central purpose that explains this compulsion to slip on a pair of old, stinky and dirty shoes and put my body through some manageable pain for anywhere between 30 minutes and six or so hours. I have puked, been lightheaded, cried, exhausted all the strength and reserves I thought I had, sweat so much I couldn't see, twisted ankles, felt my iliotibial band rubbing painfully against my hip bone, been dehydrated, and many other minor discomforts. So, when I am asked why I run, I feel like I should provide an answer to justify this hobby of mine that normal people, people who avoid pain and discomfort, shy away from.
I can't narrow it down. I tried. To stay fit; that is the easy, obvious answer, but that is something that is relatively simple to do - walk a mile or two a day, lift some weights and eat real food, and that should do the trick. Some even argue that the type of running I do could be harmful to long-term fitness. I have been thinking about it a lot and I can't narrow it down to one thing, one reason, but there are a few reasons, stripped down and added up, they become more than the sum of parts, they become a spur for an obsession, and when I break everything down to its parts and add it back up, I might have an answer for that question, why do you run?
I took this for granted. I picked up a stupid habit in college and tried to kick it, but couldn't for a long time. I lost a sister to a lung disease. I was in the room when she died. It was her bedroom and I was there along with my two other sisters and mom and they held her as she struggled to breathe and eventually lost that struggle. I saw on her face how hard that was for her and I remember how peaceful she looked when she gave up that struggle and stopped breathing. I usually only think about that moment when I run, and am trying hard to control my breath, or when I feel like I am flying. Lexi would have been a great runner and that is how I picture her now long arms swinging and long legs flying. Now I use running as a form of penance, using every searing burning deep breath to extract the oxygen from the air and when my arms go numb because all the blood is being sent to my legs and there isn't enough oxygen and I don't think I can go anymore, I think of my sister and I push harder.
"Breathe" has now become my mantra, when I want to quit, when it is too hard, or when I am bored, I think breathe. I cut up all my races into seven segments and each letter of breathe stands for something that I focus on in that segment. I put a lot of time and creative effort into coming up with this acronym, so "B" stands for breathe, and focusing on my breath.
I love running by myself, except when I am running with others. I tend to over-share when I am running with other people. I know these people well, now. It is amazing how well you can get to know somebody after running with them for an hour or two. There are few uncomfortable moments because all the social mores are thrown out the window when you are running with someone and they have to take a shit and there is no bathroom around and they started the run with socks, but finished without them. Forget manners when you blow a snot rocket and spray the person to your right, or crop-dust the runners behind you. It's not a proper, genteel past-time. Runners are sweaty and disgusting, and I can feel the disapproving stares of people in line behind me at the coffee shop after a run and I am wet and probably stink, but we love our own smell. I'll stand around like a social misfit, staring at my too-bright running shoes, mumbling a few words of greeting, waiting for our group to start, but then after a few steps, I don't shut up. We talk kids, financial woes (my running buddies were the first to know about my brilliant investment in AIG "because there's no way it will go lower"), our food, weight, drinking habits, and other things that I don't feel comfortable writing about because I don't even like writing the word menstruation, but on a run, it's just another way to pass the time. I'll see people I run with and I don't know what to talk to them about, so we talk about running, but when we are running we talk about everything else.
A friend of mine just lost his dog. He was a great dog, we all loved him, and he had become the unofficial mascot for our Sunday trail run, jumping around impatiently as we waited for the last few stragglers to join us, valiantly conquering the hills. The dog was beautiful, a mix with some dalmatian in him, and the dog could f-ing run. Last Sunday, my friend showed up without the dog and told us, very quietly, that the dog had a tumor and had to be put down. It was a sad run and we talked about the dog throughout the run and even ran to the top of one of the highest peaks in his honor, because he loved to climb. We stood up there, looked at the ocean to the west and the snow-covered mountains to the east and it was quiet and beautiful. This is a guy who I don't know outside of running and it was special to share that moment with him, because as runners, we have become close.
Kids don't play much anymore. I am starting to feel old when I say stuff like that, but we used to play, we used to have dirt-clod wars, and we used to take the wheels off of skateboards take a sprinkler to the ice-plant and ruin clothes, we used to play baseball with sticks and rocks, we used to play games in the night, all night playing capture the flag, and we used to throw rocks at cars and run from the drivers (okay, that's not really playing, that's more like juvenile delinquency, but it was still running). Kids don't do that anymore, and they're not to blame. We, as parents are scared, and watching the news and the hype, we are lucky to let our kids out of our site for the six or seven hours they are at school, but at least at school they get to exercise. Until we cut P.E. My daughter does get to see some great videos about nutrition, and they do have "P.E." twice a week for a half hour, but nothing too strenuous, our kids are delicate. They are structured, it's no longer go outside and play, it's be quiet and play your DS. And when they do exercise it is running around the track at school. Want to know how to make kids hate running for the rest of their lives? Make them run around a track at school. We used to have to run the mile in Jr. High every other Friday, and there was no better way to suck the joy out of Friday than to tell a kid to run a mile around the track.
My daughter playing
Running can be fun. We took our kids hiking over the weekend and in the unending battle of who gets to lead, they run, endlessly, tirelessly. I had to chase my son down because he was running so fast down the trail that he dropped us and I was yelling at him to be careful until I realized what I was saying, shut myself up, and ran with him in this dangerous game of chase. He was laughing so hard, running so hard, he could barely catch his breath when we reached the stream and jumped from rock to rock. This is what running is for me, play, I mix in some track running and road running, but the trails are where the play is. And watching kids run down hills, not worrying about form, is a study in grace and human evolution. We try our best to beat that out of them by making exercise boring, but hopefully, the trails will get in their blood.
There are other reasons I run, but they are the boring ones, to stay not fat, to get faster for a race, a new PR, to qualify for Boston, to get some quiet, alone time, but none of these gets me out the door when I am tired and it is cold and dark outside like the few above.