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Miles that Matter a Bit More

We know a run is always worthwhile for its own sake, but benefits, challenges and causes can provide motivation and productive side effects.

Running is always worthwhile.  It needs no justification.

We are reminded of this every time we lace up and head out. Whatever reasons got us to the run, whatever benefits we were seeking — to get fitter, to get faster, to accomplish a goal, to support a cause — quickly become side effects to the run itself.

We run to enter the rhythm of the run. “Every run has its own heartbeat,” philosopher Mark Rowlands wrote in Running with the Pack. “The heartbeat of the run is the essence of the run, what the run really is… On any given day, I can run with instrumental goals in mind. But once I reach the run’s heartbeat, the place of dancing thoughts, these goals have long been left behind.”

In the end, we run because we want to run. The run is intrinsically valuable  — it is an end in itself, its own reward. To reduce running to a means to other ends is to cheapen and sully it. Running becomes something to be endured in order to get to the result. To make running only a way to get fit is like saying cooking and eating are simply a way to fuel the body, or sex only a way to propagate the species. It changes the equation from running as play we get to do, to work we have to do.

Persistent Passivity

Even knowing, however, that we never come back from a run regretting it, that it will be one of the few things in our day that is unequivocally enjoyable — it is often difficult to get started. This is particularly true when we’re building the fitness necessary to enter and appreciate the heartbeat of the run without being overwhelmed by the effort.

I’m learning this again for the first time since I was a teenager, having taken several months off for a knee injury. I’ve been reminded of running enjoyment’s barriers to entry: aerobic endurance, mechanical efficiency and acceptance of an appropriate pace for my current fitness. In my case, it has taken three weeks of incremental progress — start and stop outings where my knee, my clumsy stride and my panting breath blocked any potential for flow — before I had a day where I simply went for a run: a short, slow run, but a welcome taste of the escape-inducing rhythm that has enchanted me all these decades.

Even when I’m hale and fit, however, I still often find it hard to run as often, as much as hard as I know I’ll enjoy. Part of me will still argue for passivity — that it would be better to stay in bed, to not change up for a lunch run, to head straight for the couch after work — even when I know those choices will result in me eventually feeling physically and emotionally worse.

I’ve often wondered why, given my lifelong passion, I still have such trouble getting out the door. I found one explanation in Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman’s book The Story of the Human Body. Lieberman explains this paradox as the result of a mismatch between what our bodies are suited for and the environment in which we find ourselves. For much of human history, a run was not only always imminent but also necessary for survival. To be ready for the physical challenge of hunting down our food or escaping being a predator’s food at any instant, we’re programmed to conserve energy whenever we can.

In his new book, Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding, Lieberman expands on this idea, explaining how this historical pattern has created a contradiction between our modern bodies and our minds.  “The resulting paradox,” Lieberman writes, “Is that our bodies never evolved to function optimally without lifelong physical activity but our minds never evolved to get us moving unless it is necessary, pleasurable, or otherwise rewarding.”

Gaming the Benefits

The practical result for us is that, even with all our experience informing us that we’ll enjoy the run, we need to present our minds with even more compelling and immediate reason to overcome our instinct to be a couch potato and conserve energy until we have to use it. Fortunately, running’s side effects are significant and motivating: from reducing aging to improving immunity, looking good to thinking better. If we can’t see through to the enjoyment of effort, we can use running’s abundant side effects to get us past the point of resistance to where the run takes over.

While those benefits may get us moving, however, the ills they prevent and characteristics they improve tend to be long term — and the running they require less than what we’ve found optimal. Many of us find even more motivation in chasing goals: there’s nothing like a looming marathon to get me out doing daily miles, long runs, speed workouts and strength work. And inevitably, while the marathon scares and motivates me enough to do this training, I enjoy every aspect of it, and the training is what ends up important and worthwhile no matter what happens in the race.

I’m not going to be doing a marathon any time soon, both because of the pandemic and because frankly I’m not that fit yet. But I can still set motivating goals that can help get me out enjoying running and building the fitness and skill towards greater enjoyment.

Motivational Challenge and Cause

Yesterday I signed up to be a part of PodiumRunner’s Miles That Matter Challenge. The challenge gives each runner a chance set a personal goal throughout the month of December that will contribute toward a collective goal and raise awareness and critical funds for worthy organizations.

I chose the full marathon option, meaning I need to run at least 26.2 miles between Dec 1 and 24. That’s sound easy, but is just about right for me now. Given that I’m cross training as much as running, I’ll need to average over 2.5 miles per per run — a bit more than I’ve been doing, but doable. Just right for motivation. I’m choosing to have my donation go to the American Red Cross for disaster relief that is more critical than ever in these fraught times — and PodiumRunner matched my contribution since I’m foregoing the t-shirt.

My running has no real connection to the cause: I could donate without ever lacing up. I won’t pretend I’ll be sacrificing and suffering through hard miles to accomplish the goal, any more than I endure running to make myself healthier — I enjoy running, I want to run, I get to run. And signing up for the goal won’t make meaningless miles suddenly matter — running is always worthwhile. It needs no justification.

But the cause, the goal, and the benefits are a nice side effect to doing something I want to do anyway, and they provide an extra nudge to do something my body needs but my mind is wired to avoid. I welcome that nudge this year particularly, as it gives me a deadline and framework within this endless series of identical days with no goals on the horizon, plus allows me to work together with others in a year characterized by divisiveness. I invite you to join me in this challenge, to keep going and improving during these dark winter days and make our miles matter a bit more.