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The Penguin Chronicles: What Running Has Taught Me

Life’s lessons and running’s lessons often mirror each other.

In the spring of 1996, a lifetime ago for some of you, running was still fairly new to me. On nearly every run, and certainly at every race, I learned something. Running became a graduate course in philosophy, psychology, physiology and orthopedic medicine all rolled up into one.

As much as I was learning about myself, I was learning about others at the same time. I learned, first and foremost, that I was not unique. I was not special—in any special way. I was strong, and frail. I was brave, and cowardly. I was smart, but did dumb things. In short, I was very much like everyone else.

In a post to the then-secret “Dead Runners Society” I wrote: “For those who come to running later in life, the reasons for running are not always as lofty as health and fitness. Some of us started running because nothing else eased the pain of living.” I had discovered that for many of us, running was the last resort after trying booze or drugs, or suffering in lousy jobs or bad relationships, or living in sadness great and small.

What I didn’t know then (what I couldn’t have known then) was that the emotional benefits of being a runner–and living the lifestyle of a runner–were going to continue to be the greatest teacher I had ever encountered. I was learning from those around me–from their successes, mistakes and failures. But more importantly, I was learning from my own successes, mistakes and failures.

Running wasn’t always a kind and gentle instructor. There were times when the penalty for not learning a lesson the easy way, like listening to my body when it whispered that I was doing too much, was getting injured and being unable to run. It was always the case that if I let my will overcome my judgment, the learning curve was steep, and painful.

The lessons in running came both in solitary, quiet moments and in thunderous crowds. Sometimes a seemingly nondescript morning run was the laboratory for an amazing discovery—like realizing that the intentional discomfort I felt from pushing myself to become something better was preferable to the numbing discomfort of being who I was.

Other times just standing at the starting line with 50,000 people, as I did at the Great North Run in Newcastle, England, released the epiphany that I was, indeed, a member of a running community. I wasn’t standing there by accident. I was there by choice. I had prepared for the race and was as entitled as anyone else to enjoy the celebration of running.

I also couldn’t have known that running—as wonderful, frustrating and satisfying as it is—wouldn’t eliminate the inescapable reality of waking up every morning in an imperfect world. Life, like running, is sometimes painful. And in life, as in running, sometimes that pain is not of our own doing—or sometimes in life, as in running, that pain is self-inflicted.

The question for me, since the very first time I laced up my running shoes, has been what I do about the circumstances of my life. Do I, as I had in the past, reach for a cigarette or a drink? Do I fill the emptiness with food? Do I try to hide from the turmoil and hope that it will resolve itself?

No. I run. Or I walk. Or I cycle. I do something active. I do something that feels good even if it doesn’t feel good. I listen to my breathing. I feel my heart beating. I am aware of every foot strike. What some would see as the monotony of alternating feet, I see as a rhythm that I can control. I am playing an instrument that resonates in my sole—and soul.