An existentialist ode to running

More than a victory of physicality, running is a victory of the mind. Not only does it ask of the brain to sustain a body in discomfort; it also asks of the intellect — conditioned to life in a complex, postmodern society — to construct meaning in the mundane activity of repetitively putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Running is not merely a means to fulfilling ends like ‘healthy living’ and ‘a sense of accomplishment’. There is, there must be, something more to this state of enjoyment, fulfilment; transcendence, even.

This I ponder as I walk home one evening at sunset, tired and content, on a London sidewalk. I think about the striking disconnect between what I have just done, and that to which I am about to return: from a long, slow run, seldomly thinking about more than the dull sensations throbbing through my chest, and how beautifully the slow-setting sun dances on the Thames; to typing away on my computer, sending e-mails, and meeting up for drinks with a bunch of interesting entrepreneurs. Is the simplicity of running not more attractive than the complexity of modern-day life, I wonder, but I quickly dispel the thought, for I am deeply thankful for this existence in all its wonder, in all its human connection — for the deeply fortunate life I’ve been given to live. I do not wish it away for one second.

Nonetheless, I admit to myself that there is a strange attraction to running, to where it takes the body and the mind; an attraction so very different from those in other domains of life. I make a mental note to return to the thought.

I started running two and a half years ago.

Up until that point, I had been largely unfit. Healthy, but unfit — and certainly not in slim shape. I played and enjoyed field hockey in school, but always lagged behind, embarrassed, on the long warm-up runs, the fast sprints up and down the field. Once or twice, I set out with determination to become a regular runner, but my efforts never lasted more than a few weeks; I simply could not understand how anyone could find enjoyment in pounding their bodies with the painful exhaustion of sustained running. And, to be perfectly honest, I was arrogantly, secretly convinced that intellectual pursuits were far superior to such ‘banal’ physical pursuits as ‘wanting to be fit’ or ‘complete a half marathon’.

That all changed when I decided to give running another chance, when I learned the discipline to follow the advice of my father, an old runner: start slowly; build your distance and speed up gradually. To my youthful, self-conscious self, the thought of slowly trotting and panting along in public had hitherto simply been too embarrassing to bear. But being fortunate enough to obtain a running watch and voluntarily subjecting myself to the strict gaze of its heart rate monitor gave me the silent self-confidence to hit the road at a snail’s pace, trusting in the numbers that it would pay off eventually.

And how it has paid off.

Where three years ago the idea of running a half marathon seemed at best, preposterous, I am now training for my first sub-1:30 half marathon. Becoming a regular runner has dramatically improved, in meaningful ways, my mental and physical health, my confidence, and the way in which I relate to what it means to be human and alive. It is an incredible privilege — to be healthy, to be able to make the time, to be able to afford running gear — and I try to remind myself of that every time I run.

I am on the London Underground. The train shakes, screeches — sparks occasionally illuminating the dark tunnel — but nothing rattles the expressionless faces around me. I, too, am lost in thought. The more I reflect upon what attracts me to running, the more it dawns on me.

Running embodies an existentialist attitude to life.

What makes endurance running meaningful? Sure, it is goal-orientated — I want to finish a race, I want to complete a training run, I want to maintain a specific pace — but more than that, it is about how I relate to my body, my consciousness, and my environment in the moment: how I ‘make’ myself in the situation. In that sense, running is less about being, and more about becoming: there is no inherent meaning in the activity of putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other; it is only meaningful inasmuch as I make it so. In every run, then, I ‘become’ a runner anew; I am reborn through how I choose to relate to the experience.

Running is the transcendence of the ‘essential’ — the outward ‘facts’ about my being. When I run, slowly the layers of my identity are stripped away, and although I cannot escape how others think of me based on my body and how I dress, these are not what define me inwardly when I run. Rather, there is agency in running: I can choose how I interpret myself in the situation. I can choose, for example, how I deal with the throes of a racing heart and aching body tugging at the reigns of my mind, begging for it to accede to an essential view of my humanity: that I am at my bodily and mental limit, and that I cannot continue. The transcendence of that ‘essence’ through choice, the way in which I construct meaning in the activity of doing so, and in what I become once I have transcended that essence, is what makes running self-affirming, empowering.

When I run at my limits, there is a radical freedom in so directly encountering the onslaught of my materiality on my consciousness: the physical discomfort, the burning feeling in my legs, the sound of air gushing into my lungs. This naked confrontation with the physicality and frailty of the human condition is a flame that burns away the menial, and leaves me with a deep awareness of my transience: an attitude of Being-toward-death. While it can be frightening and alienating, it presents a liberating opportunity for authenticity, to claim myself as my own, to own my choices. In this bared moment of encountering my existence, I construct meaning through the choice of whether or not to continue running. And I must make this choice anew in every passing moment. I cannot avoid the decision, and once I have made the choice to continue, I must do it again, and again, and again.

Herein lies the radical freedom of running: that, in a breathtakingly simple activity, I have the profound opportunity to create meaning through choice. That is, to my mind, what makes it an existentialist way of being.

And that is a big part of why I love it.

It’s a Sunday early morning, and I’m heading out onto the street. London is gentle upon the eyes and the mind. There is traffic, and there is noise, but it all seems less busy. Less complex. As the pounding of my shoes on the pavement becomes the percussion for an imagined symphony, I stop thinking, and I start being; I start becoming.

And in the moment, everything else becomes futile.
And living is simple.
And living is easy.
And I am

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