In Defense of Running for Joy
Myth: You run for your health.
Truth: You run for the joy of being alive.
So read the quote on the first page of my new running log, given to me by my marathoner of a mom. I underlined the words with a little surge of delight, sprawled on my dorm room bed. Yes, I thought. For the joy!
The book was a Christmas present that I carried across the country from Southern California to my small brick college on Boston’s North Shore. I carried the words with me even longer, rolling them over my tongue and around my mind for years. When I ran my first half marathon, I even sharpie-d them on my biceps. But in between that enthusiastic first reading and becoming someone who wrote inspirational quotes on her arm was the actual task of becoming a runner—which I was not.
I am the daughter of two runners. Before I could walk my parents pushed me in a baby jogger over miles of sidewalk and bike paths. I was given running shoes when I was still in utero, a pair tiny enough to fit in the palm of my mom’s hand. But by the time I could choose my own activities, running had been downgraded somewhere between flossing and extra credit homework—beneficial in theory but not all that enjoyable. Wake up early on a Saturday to sweat for ten miles? Thanks, but no thanks. In high school, my best friend and I made a half-hearted attempt to become runners when we joined the track team. After we spent a few practices hiding in the bathroom, giggling with rebellion and guilt, I admitted defeat and buried my short-lived running career. That is, until college.
My first winter in New England was muffled and dark. Light leaked away by 4 p.m. most evenings and a brittle cold pressed against the classroom windows. By January I was tense and tired of living indoors. When I read the words in my new running log—you run for the joy of being alive—something inside me lifted its head, considering the idea. It nudged me toward my running shoes and whispered, You should. I began dragging myself out of my dorm bundled in spandex, gloves, ear covers, and fleece, hungry for a surge of endorphins and fresh air.
I ran all through that first winter, surprising no one more than myself with my desire to blunder through snowstorms on a regular basis. My neighborhood loops carried me past frosted fields and over snowdrifts, mud and salt crunching beneath rubber soles. My thoughts unraveled and reorganized as I ran, synapses firing and crackling with activity. I loved how running swept my mind clear of dust and made space for fresh ideas. I loved how it infused my muscles with an unfamiliar strength. The term “runner” settled on my shoulders like a jacket, and I liked the way it fit.
Sometimes I feel the need to qualify my running: I'm not, you know, one of those intense runners. I'm just okay at running semi-long distances at an average pace. I don’t compete regularly or follow a strict diet—in fact, one of my motivations for running is that it allows me to pursue dessert and cocktails with passion. Considering my very ordinary dedication, the gifts running hands me feel way beyond proportion.
Plodding around my neighborhood has taught me to be attentive to the present moment. Before I knew what contemplation was, I was practicing it while running. I was paying attention the world as it is, letting objects and smells and colors and textures speak for themselves. It’s tough to multitask while running—imagine replying to an email as you jog. Even on a treadmill—but please run outside!—running demands full-body participation. The act invites you to notice the unfolding world: Look! Bougainvillea spilling over a wooden fence. Look! Light shifting from yellow to gold through the trees.
On the days when I’d love nothing more than to flip my hyperactive brain to “off,” running is the closest thing to a switch I can find. Its physicality, movement, strain, and sweat are the right antidote. My thoughts are free to unfurl luxuriously in the semi-conscious way they do when I’m almost asleep—that is to say, when I’m not prodding at them constantly like a specimen under a microscope, as is my usual habit. When I spent a year swimming in anxiety, running pulled me out of my fearful mind and into a tethered, physical self. Cheapest form of therapy, they say. And it is. When my heart starts kicking, a living animal bounding at the gates of its yard, I put on my shoes and take off.
We are bodies as much as we are spirits and minds. Running links my pieces together, and reminds me that I’m an integrated, embodied person. Before college, I never knew my legs could carry me six miles, then ten, then thirteen, then 26.2. Each new run makes me thankful for what this body can do.
Perhaps the best running advice I’ve ever received comes from my non-runner of a husband, and it is this: You should. Even after years of lacing up shoes and heading out the door, starting a run is still a fight. Whenever I’m curled up with a book or mid-snack, talking about how I might go for a run later, if I have time, if I finish my work, he cuts me off. “You should,” he says, and so I do.
What a wise clerk at a shoe store once said is true: “The blessing is outside of your comfort zone.” Running is every man’s and woman’s sport in that it hands out gifts indiscriminately: to the Boston qualifiers, to the moms pushing strollers, to the clumsy teenager on his first jog. But those blessings are always outside the front door and just past the point of fatigue, sweat, and ragged breathing. My best advice for new runners is this: You should. Write those two words in the Notes app on your phone or tuck a Post-it by your bathroom mirror, because—here’s the truth—running sounds nice until you start tying your shoes. It’s much easier to lie on your bed and read motivational quotes. But the blessing is outside of your comfort zone.
Every so often, that blessing comes in the form of a magic run. You’ll bound down a street lit up gold with evening light, colors saturated and smells sharp, and you’ll feel a little balloon rising in your chest of pride, and of gratitude. Every so often, a run reminds you of the words you underlined so vehemently long ago: You run for the joy of being alive.