The Philosophical Reason for Running

I like to run. I’m not a great runner, but I’ve spent some time doing it. I ran a few marathons. A week rarely goes by that I don’t spend at least four hours running, and I’ve had training stints where I regularly put in 20 hours/week. At this point, it’s not just something I do. It’s a significant part of my identity.

Sometimes I’m proud about being a runner. But other times, I’m embarrassed. It’s frigging weird. Runners are strange creatures. They put themselves through immense pain and suffering for little apparent reason. Runners are constantly sore and either tending injuries or working to avoid them. Huge stretches of monotony lay ahead of them, as they spend their time putting forward the left foot, then the right, left, right, left, right…

I won’t speak for the personal insanity of all runners. I’ll speak for myself. What do I get out of running?

If I just wanted good health, I don’t think I’d pick running for that. The cardiovascular benefits seem to be mostly achieved with something like 30 minutes of aerobic daily activity. At least that’s what it says on the pamphlet that my doctor gave me. As aerobic activities go, running is great, but other activities — elliptical, swimming, bicycling — are easier on one’s joints.

For being efficient about using your precious time for exercise, you could focus on HIIT sessions, which basically make you push harder for a shorter time to achieve the same result.

For making the exercise more mentally engaging, you could choose hiking, soccer, tree-climbing, or countless other things that activate more parts of your mind.

There is a long tail of benefits that come from spending extra time with running workouts. You can optimize your capacity to transfer oxygen to your muscles through the blood (VO2 max). You can adapt to produce more Interleukin-6 which helps regulate insulin. But my layman’s take on these and other benefits is that they are diminishing returns, mostly of value to maximizing your capabilities as a runner, and not tremendously valuable for day-to-day health and prevention of illness.

I dug deeper on this. Why do I run?

There are actually times when I hate it, and paradoxically, these times seem to be the seed of what makes it so good. Every time I ran in a race, there was a point, usually about two-thirds through, where some voice in my head gave me this message…

“This is really stupid. There’s no reason to do this. It hurts. You should immediately stop and never do this again.”

By the way, the two-thirds point is special. And not to be so precise — the moment could come 55% through a race or 72%. It’s the time when I’ve run far enough that I start to get extremely tired. But not so far that finishing the race seems inevitable, and pushing harder feels like a good choice to bring an end to the suffering quicker. Two-thirds is the Point of Maximum Despair. It’s the time when quitting feels most like a perfectly reasonable choice.

And I’m not a complete weenie, so at this low point, I don’t quit. I usually slow down just slightly from the fatigue and keep going. Best case, I keep the pace despite it getting progressively harder. Worst case, I walk a bit and hope for a return of my mojo.

All of this is a personal battle against what my body and parts of my mind are screaming at me to do. An interesting thing is that the brain does its best to fake you out about your capabilities when you go through extreme exertion. It is like the gas gauge in your car — when the needle points to empty, your car is not actually empty of gas. There’s half a gallon or so still sloshing around in there. Some automotive engineer decided you might need an extra five miles, after noticing that needle at zero, to find the next off-ramp and pull in to a gas station.

Evolutionary biology apparently decided the same thing. There are a number of “gas tanks” that can go to zero — water, electrolytes, glycogen. Your brain complains excessively when you start running just slightly low. There are some overrides if you are in physical danger. But when we’re running recreationally, and there aren’t bears or tigers chasing us, our brain will not let us go “into the red”. So we feel like we are about to die when we run hard, due to the brain very conservatively warning us. The truth is that we are nowhere near it.

Philosophy has always interested me, but in my 20s, I got to a point where I didn’t feel it was worth being serious about it. The questions always lead to more questions, and the best one can hope for in building their Thought Castles is some kind of self-consistency. A professional philosopher could use their skills better as a stand-up comedian, a career counselor, or maybe just an interesting drunk at parties.

One of those philosophical questions that keeps coming up in my mind is “do I have free will?” It’s a trite question — something college stoners go wild-eyed into the early morning about. If you think about the question for a while, you’ll give up on it. Because there is no way to figure out if you do the things you do out of choice, or if you are running tightly along a pre-determined track. There’s ways to be clever and make interesting distinctions about behavior. But you will never know. And you will never assemble an argument that can prove it one way or the other.

But running is maybe the closest I can get to proving to myself that I have free will. There is no sufficient reason to keep moving forward with all the pain other than that I will myself to do it. The rewards of the activity are trifling and not considered during the hardest moments of the experience. My mind and body itself are against me. I am at war with some portion of my own self, or at least the vehicle that carries my self around.

How strange and unique is that? For there to be some part of what you thought of as You in violent disagreement with some other part of You? To win that argument is transcendent. It’s the purest expression of free will that exists for me. It gives me what I can only call “faith” that I’m able to exercise true choice in other areas of my life.

And that’s why I run. That’s why I run hard.

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