Culture

What is Running in Your Life?

A doctor’s question reveals how completely the sport is woven into one runner’s life.

“What is running in your life?” the doctor asks as he examines the x-ray of my knees.

I fumble to answer. Where to begin? Is the question historical or philosophical? How will my answer affect his treatment?

“I’ve been doing it since 1977,” I begin, as he turns and starts manipulating my leg.

I don’t tell him how running was a lifeline for that skinny, asthmatic, nerdy boy, a year too young to be entering high school. How, from the first day, when I missed a turn and accidently ran five miles chasing the upper classmen, I knew I had found a place where I belonged. Later I suffered for those five miles, of course, but soon the soreness switched to strength, which grew into confidence, and love. Here was a place where tenacity topped talent and persistence produced progress. While I never led the pack, I found I could be good, good enough to be someone — a runner. And, ever since, “Runner” has remained large and central on the word cloud of my identity.

“I ran a marathon at age 16,” I tell the doctor, looking for an indicator that would show how hard I fell for the sport from the beginning.

“So you’re a long distance person,” he says, in a tone that said that summed up all he needed to know.

“Yes,” I agree. It is true, I’ve gravitated toward going long from the beginning, and there’s little I enjoy more than a Sunday morning 20-miler.

But I like going fast as well as long. I relish the wind in my hair, my feet powerfully grabbing the ground and throwing it backwards, my lungs guzzling great gulps of air. I enjoy the taste of every type of fatigue and the challenge of trying to maximize every system.

The marathon — that first, and the subsequent ones, 26 of them with more to come, hopefully — isn’t just about going long. It gives me an opportunity and reason to run more and think about running more. It provides an intellectual puzzle to occupy my mind for months, and a quest big and scary enough to get me up early on weekends and batter myself on Tuesday evenings. It informs my diet, my sleep patterns, my social life. It doesn’t allow dabbling — to be a marathoner I’ve had to make running more central in all aspects of my life, and I’ve considered myself a marathoner since 1980.

race t-shirt quilt
Photo: 101 Degrees West

“I ran a 2:46 marathon,” I offer, to provide a context for how I fall in the spectrum of runners — far from elite, but someone who has taken it seriously, for a long time.

“So, are you all about racing?” the doctor asks.

I pause. A year ago I would have quickly answered no. I would have said that races were just motivators and excuses for the daily training, which is where I find the real joy and reward. But losing races to the pandemic has revealed how important a part they play in my running. Races are far more than competition or tests, they are celebrations, anchors and milestones for my running and my years.

Recently I pulled out a box of old training logs and memorabilia, and digging through the pages and folders, realized that all of it was tied to races: training logs, race numbers, results sheets, certificates, photos… There are the big memories: the PRs, my first New York City Marathon, the 100th Boston, Ireland’s highest mountain. But, far more pervasively, the races, large and small, form the weft that ties my life together through the years.

Races mark the changing of seasons: Spring doesn’t fully arrive until Boston, cross country defines fall more than changing leaves and Halloween. Races lie at the center of major holidays, from the Fourth of July to Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Looking back, races provide signposts to mark individual years in my memory: the spring I ran Grandma’s, the fall I came back from injury to win the Pumpkin Run…

race memories
Photo: 101 Degrees West

While I’m learning that racing is clearly a huge part of my running, still, I answer the doctor by quoting something Joan Benoit Samuelson told me: “If somebody told me I’d never race again, I’d get over it pretty fast. If someone told me I could never run again, I wouldn’t get over that very fast.”

He nods. I try to explain, to tell him more about what running is in my life beyond racing: “It’s self medication, an escape, clarity…” but he’s moved on, telling his PA details about my knee flexion.

I listen as he shows me details on the x-ray and where we go next, but part of my mind keeps pondering his question: What is running in my life?

Running is my primarily recreational activity. It gives me goals, motivates me to become more disciplined, and rewards me with progress and satisfaction. It is the connection to the vast majority of my friends, and has been central to my profession for the past 25 years.

It goes way beyond sport, however. Running keeps me fit and young. More importantly, it keeps me sane. It is where I find peace and where I go to hear the voice that tells me everything will be okay, even if I can’t see my way through at the moment. It is what my wife tells me I need when my brow gets furrowed and I get that lost look in my eyes. It is my gateway to flow.

Running is what I look forward to when I get up in the morning. It is a constant in my days, an anchor in the storms of change that living brings. It is what I did after my long-time girlfriend broke up with me, what I did when I learned my mother was dying, what I turned to when my career took a sideways turn, how I cope with the specter of mortality. Running isn’t my whole life, but it is woven into every inch of my life’s fabric.

Perhaps running is too important to me, but it has never let me down for over 40 years.

The doctor doesn’t ask any more, and doesn’t tell me much either. But I’m grateful for the question: What is running in your life? It’s worth spending some time on, for all of us.

The next day I receive the summary for the doctor’s visit. Above where it recommends an MRI for further assessment, the assistant has noted, “Jonathan is an avid runner, the thought of not being able to run worries him.”

Understatement of the year.