In the head of the lone runner
Obsession, self-destruction, masochism, and, ultimately, salvation, only to be repeated a few days later. These are not the traits of a BDSM fetishist but rather the natural progression of a runner preparing for and ultimately competing in a race. There are all sorts of runners. Some are social creatures who enjoy the company of others, with running being an outlet to exercise their body while satisfying their urge to socialize, communicate, meet, and talk to other people. Others use running as an opportunity to participate in a fast-paced runway, wearing expensive brands popular within the microcosm of amateur athletes, intending to show off and be seen. But the majority falls outside these categories. Most runners I meet are loners who wake up at 5am to go for a run, wanting to enjoy the silence, meditate, breathe the nature in, or simply escape from the busyness of everyday life. I certainly associate with the latter, with those who run to escape, mostly from their thoughts.
Running is a humbling affair. A high impact, repetitive exercise; an assault to the body, whereby endurance is achieved with great effort and physical pain. Once the body adapts to the distance and the pace, once it acclimates to the hardships it has to endure, then the runner embarks on the next adventure—going faster, further, higher. Somewhere in this circle, there are also endorphins, pleasure, and a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction; small wins in a world that seems rigged against us.
The preparation for a race starts much earlier, typically a few weeks beforehand. It begins with a small spark; entertaining the idea of running that extra distance, subscribing to that challenging race. The spark ignites self-doubt: am I up for it? There is something very human about feeling uneasy when stepping outside your comfort zone. There is the excitement of the daredevil wanting to smash boundaries and the reluctance of habit underpinning our sense of safety. A balancing act follows with consideration of the risks, especially the great risk of injury, and the feasibility of the feat. A plan is gradually set: a training schedule which somehow needs to fit within a myriad of other responsibilities—work, family, socialization, and, often neglected, sleep.
Once the training plan is set, then the real work begins. This means waking up before the sun rises, putting on trainers and getting out of the house, one step after the other. Not all runs are enjoyable, but it doesn’t—or shouldn’t—matter. The plan is set. What distinguishes runners from regular folk is discipline, which is why you should hire endurance athletes. Running requires faith, not in a divine being but in a process. I know that I almost always regret cancelling a run but rarely regret having gone for one. There is faith in the emotions that come from completing a run. Not all runs are forced. Others are effortless and make you feel at the top of the world. And this goes on for months, day after day, persevering, enduring, believing, enjoying the small wins.
And then the plan goes wrong. You feel a pain that should not have been there, which should not be that acute or persistent; not an easy diagnosis given that runners typically build a high threshold to pain. If you are sensible enough to distinguish regular from extraordinary pain, you maintain a chance to meet your end-goal. The plan is being adjusted, factoring in periods of recovery, slower and shorter runs, physiotherapy sessions, reflection. The idleness of recovery, of turning the knob down, is, again, humbling: runners are characterized by perpetual motion regulating not only their physical endurance but also their mental balance. Discipline, so integral to a runner’s mentality, is grounded in routine, and when routine is disrupted, it poses an existential threat to its subject.
In the meantime, a runner is always bargaining. You bargain with your spouse: can you take care the kids today as I will have to head out for a run before any of you wake up? Give me that, and I will take care the afternoon shift; I will take care of bath and bedtime routines. You bargain with your friends: can we plan for early drinks on Friday afternoon rather than a late dinner? I will have to wake up at 4:30am tomorrow. You juggle work responsibilities making sure that the arduous plan does not get in the way, which is the easiest of the bargaining as early morning runs typically make one more productive during the day. You plan when to shower, what to eat to fuel the next run, what clothes to lay out at night, how to spare energy for day-to-day pleasurable activities such as playing with the kids, talking with your spouse, having sex, reading. You also bargain with yourself, trying to limit talking about your training to non-runners, not always easy given how integral it is to your life.
No run is the same as the next one. Some runs are easy and effortless, full of enjoyment. Others are harder, requiring grinding your teeth. The thoughts run wild. Sometimes you think about the future: the kids growing up, the long trip you want to organize, the fancy dinner in the evening. Other times you troubleshoot: you ponder about a problem at work that seems insurmountable, a draft that is stuck, the pointless fight you had with your spouse, the friend who broke up and needs your support, the kids being ill keeping you concerned and awake at night; worries are never-ending, a bottomless pit. Some runs have therapeutic properties, enabling you to take stock of your feelings and explore them, classifying them as warranted or unwarranted, considering how to deal with what matters and putting the rest to bed. And there are also those runs that are all about enjoying the nature, typically when the seasons change and nature blossoms, the poetic runs. In most cases, it’s a combination of all the above, mixed and criss-crossing, projecting into the run the messy nature of everyday life, allowing your thoughts and feelings to run wild in the safe space that is the run. Nothing is off-limits during that hour or two.
At the end of the process, you find yourself at the starting line of the race surrounded by thousands of others in lycra, amidst a fury of sounds from the speakers with the same empowering music. Some official is there making a small speech, whilst anxiously waiting for the race to begin. You look at those around you. You feel like an impostor: they are fitter than me, they wear more appropriate gear, have I overdressed, I should have lost some weight, gosh what am I doing in this crowd? Then you try to size people up: will this middle-aged man with the beer-belly pass me, should I try to match the pace of that guy who looks like me? You also think about the logistics: have I eaten the correct food, drank enough fluids, do I need to pee, where is the first toilet or water station? In the last minute or two before the race starts the spirits run high, a combination of excitement and anxiety. There is an energy in the atmosphere that cannot easily be described.
The signal is given and you start running. In the first minutes you try to settle in. A lot of people are faster than you, which is upsetting, realizing that you have not been as fortunate in the distribution of physical attributes; an accident of nature that left you both advantaged and disadvantaged. You are, after all, also faster than others and try to find space on the road. You pass some, you are passed by others, and the distance between runners gradually opens. There is now clean road ahead and you have time to consider your pace. You look at your watch and realize that the energy of the start made you run faster than your training times. If the race is short, then great. Otherwise, you need to pace yourself and have the discipline to stick to your planned split times for otherwise you will hit the wall—running lingo for burnout—during the latter parts of the race.
You look around. You see the odd barefoot runner, the people wearing funny or crude costumes, the senior runners grinding along or being faster than you, the attractive physiques, those pushing people on wheelchairs, people from all walks of life. You take stock of your situation. How am I feeling? Is it possible to finish within my target time? May I even exceed it? Can it be? I’ll not push harder now, let’s keep that for the end. The race is different from the training runs. There is less space for self-reflection given that you are closer to the threshold of your abilities. Less thoughts, less feelings, more focus. Eventually there is internal silence, you only think of continuing to put one foot in front of the other at a certain pace, trying to ignore that pain on the ball of your foot, or the lingering back pain from the smashing of the road. The focus, which is generated by the pain, is liberating—there is no space for any other thoughts, you are momentarily free.
In your head, you are running multiple races. The race distance is broken down in parts. You find the first water station, then you pass on the first toilet and you hope that you will not need the next one, and suddenly you are at the middle of the distance. You are hopeful that this is doable but realize that something might snap. The next few kilometers are manageable. Your pace is a bit slower, but you are still grinding the miles and feeling reasonably decent. It is you and your body, trying to block external stimuli except for the cheering fans. You are surprised by the boost you get when people, strangers, cheer you up. You see little children by the side of the road with their hands extended. You high-five them as you go along and you feel good. There is a fury of positive emotions, which balance your deteriorating physical state.
You are closer to the finish line, a few kilometers away. This is when you realize that you will likely finish this race, which is not something guaranteed from the beginning. You need to decide: do I have enough energy to give it all or do I have to reduce my pace to make sure that I will indeed reach the finish line? If you have loved ones, family or friends, waiting for you, everything changes. It all becomes about them. You generate energy from the expectation of seeing them. The objective is to finish the race with an empty tank while maintaining a big smile, putting on a good face for your kid who will be cheering as you cross. You suddenly see him, you run even faster and can barely breath, you realize that you can only make it to the finish line and not a step beyond. Suddenly it’s over and someone puts a (finisher’s) medal on your neck and hands you a bottle of some sponsored electrolyte drink that tastes awfully. You toss it away and drink some water while munching on a banana. You get off the running course and find your family. The medal goes around the kid’s neck who is in awe of the crowds but also his dad.
Upon the completion of a long race, runners exchange wishes for good recovery, for a fast-paced long-run is an assault to the body. Weird creatures. Once you cool down, everything aches. You crave unhealthy food, beer and water, ideally all at once. After the immediate needs are met, many will head home for a hot shower and rest—there’s no better sleep than after a race. Those of us with families will only have the former, with the rest of the day being an attempt to remain functional; it’s the weekend, after all. And then the evening comes, and you find yourself in bed. Your legs and back ache, but you are glad about yourself, feeling a rare sense of achievement. You pat yourself in the back and snooze off. Right before you close your eyes you think “what’s next?”. You put that thought and yourself to sleep, but first kiss the person next to you and tell them how much you appreciate their support during the training, as well as their presence at the race.
You wake up at night to go to the loo. You’ve drunk loads of fluids trying to refuel. Everything aches and you walk with difficulty. The next day is full of contradictions. You are pleased with yourself but also in pain. The day after the race is an emotional one, as your body is filled with hormones trying to explain and manage the stress it has endured. You hug the kids a bit more, you kiss the spouse more passionately, you eat like there is no tomorrow, and you fight the thought of “what’s next?”
The next day finds you in a void. This is what is sometimes called post-marathon blues. The routine, which has been so militantly established, is now disrupted, and you try to restore a balance in your life, all the while your muscles are recovering from the assault they have endured. You take a few days off and then you gradually get back to it. You start with a few slow runs to remind your body of what it loves to be doing. You sometimes wonder whether what you are subjecting yourself to is sane: how can pleasure, obsession, misery, pain and satisfaction be so intertwined? How am I different from addicts? Am I running myself to exhaustion just to manage my feelings? Then the runs start to be enjoyable again. There’s something liberating in going for a run without a plan. I always do some analogue runs after a race, without a watch, without logging anything on Strava, just to enjoy the simplicity of getting a moderate sweat and raising my heart rate. Once you get back into a rhythm and feel again the high generated by the endorphins, you then start searching for the next race, the next fix. Is it possible? Can I do it? And it all starts again, but this time you have a bit more confidence in your abilities and more faith in the process. The next race is booked.