Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Inside the intrinsic rewards

As I've probably mentioned here, in my peak competitive years -- when I was never "good" but was probably decent enough to justify running 100-plus miles a week, at least when addressing a biased audience -- I often wondered how much running I would do in some hypothetical world in which racing was impossible (e.g., it was outlawed or I was being paid lots of money to abstain from it) but I still had full command of my physical capabilities. The idea in pondering such a question was to try to tease out how much of my willingness to train that much was rooted in trying to achieve competitive ends and how much was founded on a simple love for, or addiction to, the activity of running itself.

There is actually another layer to this question. If you knew that after, say, a date one month from  now, you wouldn't be able to run at all for an extended period -- maybe ever -- would you keep running anyway? If so, how much? And why bother?

A dear friend is undergoing major surgery as I type this in the hospital a few floors down and won't be able to run for at least a few weeks. Nevertheless, we went running together yesterday morning, and she put in a total of an hour or so. One might plausibly chalk this up to a simple compulsion, or habit, or something along these lines. But to me this just invites the question of why some people are compelled more than others to exercise even when it cannot be reasonably interpreted as contributing to a specific fitness goal.

In the summer of 1995, I was coming off what remains my longest injury-induced break from running (eight weeks on the shelf owing to a metatarsal stress fracture) and preparing to attend this course in San Antonio, Texas as part of my scholarship obligation. I didn't know how much training I would have time for in those six extremely hot weeks, but I knew it would not be optimal. Nevertheless, I put in a couple of 70-ish-mile weeks between the time my injury was "officially" healed and day I departed for Texas, including a few track workouts. Of course, it wasn't like I'd be sitting on my ass at this camp; the APFT I knew I'd be taking includes a two-mile run. The point is that I knew whatever amount and intensity exercise I would be doing with my fellow 2LTs would be significantly less than I would have done on my own given a summer to myself.

I have been in one or two other situations when I knew or believed that any real "training" I did would soon go to waste in the sense that I would undergo detraining thanks to unavoidable constraints on my activity level. In these instances, I have always done some amount of running, because even when struggling with negative thoughts at such times, the idea that I would at least feel better for those 20 or 30 or 40 minutes was enough to get me out the door.

I am not so zen that I can truly live in the moment and experience things purely for their own sensory sake, at least when I have to expend effort to do it. It is a lot easier to slide into a mental trough in which nothing really matters because it's all grinding to a halt soon enough anyway. But it doesn't take a philosophical bent to perceive that extending this to a natural conclusion implies that sitting around waiting to die is as useful and any other plan, and carries the bonus of not having to overcome inertia.

I fully understand that 90 to 95 percent of the time I go running, I find myself happier when I am done or even half-done than before I started, even if my mood was fine in advance. I think it's worth adopting a mental strategy of trying to divorce daily activities such as work and play and socializing from long-term or even short-range goals, because openness to the possibility of remarkable experiences is critical to soldering on, at least for me. I am an extremely goal-oriented person, or at least used to be, so I'm in different waters now that I have "routines" more than I have "aims."

I'm not sure I came close to making the point I hoped to, but hell, at least I passed the time while my friend is in surgery. And regardless, I know if nothing else that I'm not this far off the beam.

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