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Out There: Is Running Selfish?

We spend time away from loved ones so we can get our run in. Is that so bad?

Runners spend hours training every week. Does that make them selfish?

In the last few years, I’ve witnessed a strange metamorphosis in my social circle: almost all my friends from college, the ones who used to streak naked down the street and subsist solely on pizza rolls and tall cans of Natty Ice, have transformed into responsible adults. They have stable jobs, wear sensible shoes, and drive Subarus. They have married, they have spawned, and their genetic material has created remarkable little humans.

Meanwhile, I’m typing this column while eating M&Ms for lunch. I may or may not be wearing pants. As for children? Pssht, please. I can barely keep myself alive.

Because we lead such different lives, my friends and I don’t always speak the same language these days. They say things like “mutual funds,” “carpool,” and “we don’t keep sweets in the house.” Where we really differ, though, is when they say they don’t have time to exercise. More specifically, that making the time to work out would be greedy.

“If you had kids, you’d understand,” one friend insisted as she bounced a toddler on her hip.

“Yeah, I’d love to disappear for an hour every day to go run, but it’s not about what I want, it’s about what they want,” added another, throwing a sidelong glance at the little people wrestling in the corner. “You have the luxury of being selfish, Susan. I don’t.”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard the “S” word in relation to endurance athletes. The individual commitment required to train for a race can be a huge bone of contention—spouses upset when Netflix marathons are replaced by actual marathons, friends incensed by a skipped happy hour in preparation for a Saturday long run, soccer parents befuddled as to why someone would sneak away for a run around the park instead of dutifully watching their kid practice. Almost every runner I know has been accused of being selfish at some point.

“Of course it’s selfish!” exclaimed Doug, an ultrarunner (and therefore, ultra-selfish?) friend of mine. “Training takes me away from my wife, friends, and other obligations, all so I can spend time outside by myself. I do it to escape the rest of my life, and to achieve personal goals. And after a long run or race, I’ll oftentimes crash on the couch for hours, adding even more uselessness to my day.”

“As much as I’d love to say that it isn’t, training is a selfish endeavor,” said Aixa, a mother of two and physician with a triathlon habit.

“It’s unquestionably self-centered,” added Amy, a marathon maniac with three kids.

The more I talked with fellow endurance athletes, the more the consensus grew: Yes, training is selfish. Yes, sometimes that selfishness inconveniences other people. Yes, that’s okay.

Wait, what? Isn’t selfishness supposed to be a character flaw?

“Everyone needs some ‘me’ time,” said Meghan, defending the time she spends training for races. “Most people wouldn’t call a 90-minute mani/pedi selfish.”

“I see it no differently than going to a therapist, or meditating in the morning, or a parent taking an extra-long poop because that is the only time or place he or she will be able to find peace and solitude,” Dan agreed.

Dawn said her training for races actually benefits her kids: “Everyone in the family gets to follow their passion. My kids are just about as passionate about their sports as I am about mine. I encourage them to follow their passion, and often that requires them to be selfish.”

Despite their admission that training was a selfish endeavor, almost every endurance athlete I spoke with said they – and those around them – were better for it. They believe the discipline, exercise, determination, pain, achievements, and—yes—selfishness that comes with training makes for a better person, spouse, parent, employee, friend, and all-around human being.

For too long, we’ve been taught that selfishness is a bad thing; that putting one’s own needs first is shameful; that “it’s not about what I want, it’s about what they want.” We throw ourselves headlong into making other people happy, to the detriment of our own well-being. We think selfishness as a luxury, a privilege waived in exchange for coexisting with others.

But how can we take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves first? A little selfishness can go a long way.

So go ahead: Call the babysitter. Skip the happy hour drinks. Disappear for an hour before your spouse wakes up and hit your favorite trail. Sign up for that race. Give yourself permission to do what makes you happy, one mile at a time. Indulge in the luxury of being selfish.

Doing one good thing for you might just be the best thing to do for everyone else.



About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.