The truth is that racing, even the purest version of racing—against myself—wouldn’t be enough to keep me running if there weren’t something about the activity itself that I found deeply satisfying. A race, after all, is focused on ends, be they victories or personal records, and how much do we ask of our ends when we ask them to bear the weight of our means? Do we really expect them to hold? I want the ends of my pursuits to be the means themselves. That’s about the best definition of happiness I know.
So what then keeps me running after all these years? It must be, I want it to be, I’m trying to convince myself it is, the running itself, the joy that comes from running qua running. I think that’s right. What else could bring me back and keep bringing me back to running?
Except, I hear the objection already, for it is sometimes mine: there’s no singular experience of running. The subjective experiences of running—what it really feels like to be a runner running—manifest in myriad feelings, and to the extent that these feelings are joyful (to the extent because so many times they are not) they ask to be understood in terms of their variety.
And what a variety they compose. The joys of running come from: self-reliance, when I complete a difficult run; self-improvement, when I go faster or farther than I have before; self-celebration, when I’m so full of life and energy I feel like I’ll explode; self-forgetting, when I run so naturally I can let go of myself doing the running; camaraderie with other runners. Sometimes the joy of running is an exuberance; sometimes it’s a peacefulness pervasive in body and mind; sometimes I earn the joy through hard work; sometimes it’s a gift that I receive just for being able to enjoy it; sometimes it’s a clarity of mind: my thoughts are as focused and purposeful as my confident stride. Sometimes it’s sort of like nothing else. And sometimes it’s painful and demanding of everything I’ve got, which doesn’t sound like it should be, but somehow is, absolutely wonderful. Any of these joys might come while I’m running alone in the middle of the night, or during the long middle miles of a marathon. They often come on trail runs or beach runs, sometimes they come when I’m just going around the neighborhood. What these joys do have in common is that whenever they present, they are always defined by the subjective joy of doing something for no reason in the world—except to do it.
Of course, to emphasize one more time, running is sometimes no joy at all. Sometimes it is painful and demanding and awful and I never want to do it again. And more often than that, it’s just running, just me out on the streets, not too much remarkable occurring. But the reason none of the contraries matter for very long is that when the joy is there, there’s just so much of it. I forget the unremarkable runs. I remember the bad runs and smile. I remember the great runs and swoon.
And so if the joy of running is what I want from running—the joys plural, really—how best to bring them about?
I think I know.
Run madly, foolishly, I advise myself. Make mistakes. Try for too much and be willing to crash and fail. Run in a state of spiritual intoxication. Don’t run unless the urge to is strong, unless compelled. And then, when compelled, don’t resist. Not because of yesterday’s run or tomorrow’s. Run only for today, for this run Right Now.
The trick I’ve learned, which is really no trick I’ve learned but a tendency I’ve observed in myself (and only subsequently tried to promote), is to not let running become a responsibility. Anything I’ve accomplished as a runner I’ve accomplished because I’m able to distinguish between love and willpower and see that Annie Dillard is right when she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I don’t run because I should, not for exercise or to train for a race. I run, and I’m pretty strict on this, only when I feel like it, when it sounds fun. Luckily (luckily, I think), running often sounds fun. Particularly when it’s warm and the sun is shining and I can take my shirt off and feel free and alive, or when, in a deluge, I wipe the water from my eyes and feel like I can overcome anything—or any condition between—I don’t know when the inspiration will come. Depending on my mood, I like short runs, long runs, hilly runs, flat runs, fast runs, and slow. The only rational conclusion available to me: running must remain irrational.
Here’s another way to get at what I’m trying to say: running is my play. It produces in me the childlike absorption that comes from doing something for no reason in the world but to do it. When I run I am beholden to no one but myself. I make up the rules. I go where I want when I want how I want for as long as I want. And where I usually go is toward joy.
Scott F. Parker's memoir ‘Running After Prefontaine’ reveals and examines the subjective experiences of running, paying particular attention to a concept Parker terms the joy of ‘running qua running’, a kind of purposeless and experientially focused approach to the sport that encourages a sense of play, a celebration of body, and a spontaneous exuberance in life. Parker is also a coeditor of ‘Coffee Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate’.
Image: Steve Prefontaine