Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What You Can Learn From: Running

I went running for the first time in a year on Friday. It has been a year of very slothful activity: uni has forced me into buses and seats, and the eradication of free time has ruined my once pretty decent diet. With the decision to leave uni prematurely in a blaze of blissful failure and head to a completely uncertain though totally exciting future now fully made I decided I should maybe try my hand at running once again.

I never used to be a big runner, but I did it semi-regularly once I graduated high school. I would run along the bike path near my house, just using the intensity of the experience to drain some of my pent up teenage emotions. Of course for this reason I was a terrible runner: I didn’t listen at all to my body and paid no attention to my breathing patterns. Instead I’d just opt for stupid sprints until I started to taste blood. It didn’t do much for my fitness since I did it too sparingly – it was more like giving my body some kind of a jolt. I had it in my mind that I was a terribly unfit person and that this was merely my nature, no amount of exercise would change my limited physical abilities.

This, however, was of course bull-shit. I was unfit because I never exercised, but my proof of a kind of unshakable unfitness was near dead state I would be in after kind of physical excursion – something that would have changed had I just exercised more regularly and not be put off by the notion that if I am bad at something from the start I will always be bad at it. It was very logically unsound.

Recently I read ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Haruki Murakami and felt a certain sadness at never being a particularly fit man. Murakami’s book partly chronicles his slight melancholy at the realisation of his body’s slow decline as he gets older, and I suddenly realised I was wasting here my own perfectly good, still young body. I suddenly felt I was taking myself for granted.

So I went running on Friday, on the same bike path near my local beach. Following my friend M’s advice, I would run for four minutes, then have a break, then run for another four, and etcetera. This was the plan. I set my iPod to play the last four minutes of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to note my time, pressed play and started running.

Four minutes later, and about 600km, I was dead. My face was burning red and my legs felt boneless. I was sure I was going to throw up and ruin some poor emetophobic’s beaching experience. Forgoing the plan, I rested for about 10 minutes then got back up, starting a slow walk. I tried running again, but only got about two minutes before I decided to pack it in. Far from feeling dejected about my failure – as I once would have done, I made the mental effort to frame this the right way: I am unfit, but keep running and I will only get fitter. With effort there is only improvement.

I rested and worked Saturday and Sunday. The previous short run had, through various pains, taught me a great deal about the physical make up of the human leg. It even revealed to me a muscle I never knew existed.

Monday arrived and I had promised myself to run again. I wasn’t simply going to give up because I was so terribly at it on first attempt, like I usually do with things in my life. Instead, I was ready to embrace my suckiness – knowing full well this is what I will have to work through. The air was slightly cooler and I didn’t bring my iPod this time. Because I was more familiar with the experience and had a better understanding of when my body was liable to give out, I ran with a great deal less panic. I took great care to listen to my body and run the way it wanted to run, and more importantly, breathe at a rhythm which suited my speed.

This time I ran about 1.25kms – more than twice the Friday before. By the end I was still dead, but genuinely surprised that I had managed that much more. I sat at a picnic table which overlooked the grey beach and caught my breathe. I was surrounded by a circus of flies who ruined the ambiance, but who after a while I became quite fond of. I played a bit with them, making slow, clumsy swats with my hands as if we were play-fighting. I stood up and walked back. I tried to run a bit on the way back but my legs just felt completely hollow.

Today I decided I would run again, and forgo the two day rest I had last time. I told myself how it would be OK if I didn’t run as far, because I wasn’t as rested, and this was no indication of any kind of demoralizing non-linear relationship between effort and success. I did the 1.25km run to the picnic table fairly easily. The flies weren’t there, but without them I could enjoy the serene beauty of the beach unobstructed. When I stood back up to walk home I realised my legs still felt fairly strong. Just to test myself now, I started running again. I did about 500km then got felt it was a bit much and stopped, but still felt a fair deal of admiration for the human body. With about 200km to go I decided “Fuck it” and just sprinted the rest – as fast and as hard as I could manage, just to ensure my legs were properly spent. I hit the rail fence to end it with a euphoric flourish and congratulated myself. I have been good at many things in my life, but (perhaps because of this) have always terrible with any kind of effort.

I think there is a lot you can learn about life through running. In less than a week this is what I have learnt:

1. The human body is an amazing thing which we don’t really appreciate enough. It adapts the physical pressures so quickly that it really is amazing. We think ourselves too weak and too frail and neglect our own potential. This applies emotionally as well – we shy away from situations because we fear the pain they might cause us, but in doing so we ignore the amazing ability of the human animal to adapt and to just keep on living.

2. Being naturally good is one thing, but a true sense of satisfaction only comes from effort. There are plenty of things I’ve done very well without trying much, but the satisfaction you get from these is really somewhat meagre. You usually find yourself saying ‘So? It is what I expected.’ With something you are naturally and self-assuredly good at, your expectation is exceedingly high, so when you reach this high point, it ends up bringing you very little satisfaction – more likely just a smile and a shrug. By putting in sustained effort, you kind of stop yourself from saying ‘Sure, but I was good at it anyway’ and undermining your achievements.

3. Being bad at something is a terrible reason to avoid doing it. To only do what you’re good at directly ties your sense of enjoyment with the acquisition of success. But that enjoyment never satisfies, because you can always be more successful. You end up never really enjoying life because what you are chasing keeps on moving further away – you think you’ll be happy when that one, magical moment of success happens, but then it passes and your life suddenly starts craving something new to pursue. The trick is, as far as I understand, to enjoy everything – no matter if you’re good at it or not, whether you’ll be successful or not. You can’t rely on the idea that the enjoyment will start once you achieve your goal – because it may be there for a while but just as quickly it goes. You have to learn to enjoy it all along the way – live life joyfully. And that is why you shouldn’t stop doing something because you’re bad at it. You should learnt to enjoy it, find the bliss in it, and re-organise your priorities.


  1. So true.

    I'm such a perfectionist, in many ways, and it's so limiting. I hate to do things that I'm not good at - particularly under the scrutiny of others. But I have been trying really hard recently to shake this habit and you're right; it's so much more satisfying when you achieve in activities that you were not good at to begin with.

  2. The older I get, the more I realise perfectionism is a complete trap.