Reasons to run

Today, I am in the best shape of my life. It took me over 9,000 days to get here. In another hundred days, I expect to be in the best shape of my life still, but that best will be better than this one, and I intend for that trend to continue on for a while.

I have never been in great shape before. I would hesitate to say that I have ever even been in good shape. In high school, I played basketball (starting only because our team was awful) and lacrosse (barely), but I only ever liked to play. I never really liked to train, and I never really did much of anything that I didn’t like to do, so I never really did any sort of training at all. In sprints, suicides, and 17s (named for the number of times we had to run across the basketball court), I was always near the back of the pack. I was physically beat because I was mentally weak, not for a lack of will, I do not think, but rather, a lack of knowledge about, experience with, and belief in a number of ways by which I could systematically improve my steady state, ways in which I could grow and get better.

When I was 19, I left the university I was at to start my own company. The venture failed, but the experience instilled in me a belief in the positive power of positivity, and in the rewards which are granted to those who dare to be different. My gap year made me realize that I could effectively improve myself as a person, and my three-year education in human and organizational development that followed helped train my brain to see the world from a perspective which would allow me to do just that.

After graduation, I moved out to San Francisco to begin a job in investment banking. Journaling every morning was the first thing that I noticed helped me wire my brain in a positive way. I do the same thing today that I did then. Open a blank, lined page in a medium-sized notebook, write the date at the top, underline it, write a first sentence that says, “Today is going to be an X day”, where X is some positive word like good, great, excellent, awesome, or extraordinary, and continue on to fill the page with sentences of intentional positivity and gratitude until I run out of room, often ending with a sentence about how lucky I am. If you write something as if you believe it over and over again, it does not very much matter whether you do or not, eventually, you will.

I have written in previous posts about a number of other habits that I have introduced and/or practiced over the years, but today my intention is to write about running, and more specifically, reasons to run.

With that said, the following reasons are some of the many why I run, in no particular order. Maybe some of them will inspire you to do the same. I hope they do, but if nothing else, this will be a great reference for me to come back to if ever my conviction in running weakens, or if my belief in its merits become faded or forgotten.

Discipline – this must be one of the most important characteristics to develop. Fortunately, I believe it is in my blood from both parents, but that does not mean it did not have to be actively awakened and developed. For a while, I used to take cold showers every morning. That is a good way to learn about discipline. The first day it sucks. The next day it sucks. It continues to suck until one day you realize it doesn’t suck that much anymore. Some days you might even enjoy it. Part of discipline to me is about doing things that you do not want to do over and over again until they are no longer painful or hard, until you no longer dread them, and until you can sometimes or even most of the time come to enjoy them. Discipline is also about much more than that. As much as discipline is about doing things we do not necessarily want to do, it may be more about not doing things that we want to do but which we know are not good. It takes discipline for many people to cut back on drinking, smoking, binge eating, binge movie-watching, or binge anything you are tempted to binge. More than only doing and not doing, discipline is about a third thing as well. Discipline can be exhibited in the way we do things, demonstrated by how we do them. Running five times per week as I have hit my literal and figurative stride over the last couple of months has helped me become more disciplined in all three of these ways. The first is by just doing it. Some days my runs are enjoyable but many days they are not. I do them for all of the reasons I am writing about but none of them are explicitly about enjoyment. Running keeps me disciplined to do things daily that I believe in but do not necessarily want to do. The second and third ways in which running has made me more disciplined, these ones related to the not doing and the way we do things, are drawn from a beautiful quote that I often am reminded of from my friend Eric. Eric, more than anyone, deserves credit for convincing me on the merits of running and kickstarting my training which has persisted to this day. That began back when we were traveling around Japan for a few weeks last fall, by train and by foot. During a run one day, he told me something like this, “we must have the ambition to go fast, but the discipline to go slow”. From this, it becomes obvious that the thing to be disciplined enough not to do while running is to go too fast and that the disciplined way to do it is to go slow. It feels nice to run a mile or two and improve upon your time by pushing harder and harder and harder, but these quick hits of dopamine released by the satisfaction of speed-related achievements do not last long. They are fleeting, like all things, and they will not allow you to experience many of the other benefits of running and the reasons to run that I am about to continue on writing about.

Patience – closely intertwined with the prior reason to run, patience is a virtue that both requires discipline and is required to build it. Running far, slowly, is less about testing your lungs or your legs than it is about testing your mind. I once had Siri take a note in a moment of clarity while I was on a run. It said, “Running is all about pain. Pace takes threshold. Distance takes tolerance.” To run far, one must learn to tolerate and eventually accept the uncomfortable state of running in which breathing is more difficult and the body is constantly working. We must normalize the feeling of hitting the ground over and over again through the impact of one foot which, without any chance against the relentless force of gravity, must will itself anyway to push one’s body weight off of the ground and forward once more. “Onwards and upwards”, as Eric and I said. In a world in which Ivy League educated psychologists are employed by media and social media companies to help guide developers on how best to program computers to automatically gain and keep our attention, it is more essential than ever, I would argue, to develop patience. It is crucial to build the ability to keep one’s attention on something chosen, something good, and to stick with whatever that might be without any immediate expectations of a return, or a dopamine hit, or a like. Just a number of months ago, I used to become impatient running on a treadmill for a single mile or two. Three miles was daunting and seriously tested my patience. Now I run outside, and that helps, and in the last couple of months I have never run less than three miles, and I have developed the patience to keep running for an hour or even two or more for the longer runs, and I hope to go longer than that.

Nature – this is the critical element that in combination with building patience has helped me to run longer. Most people do not spend a lot of time in nature. We mostly see it outside of home and office windows, through car windshields, or on TV. We literally sit inside and put outside on a screen. Most agree that seeing nature pales in comparison with experiencing it, and running presents a great opportunity to do just that. Another friend I credit largely for giving me the inspiration to start running regularly in the first place is my buddy Jack, alongside whom I survived my first year of investment banking out in San Francisco. I asked him for a quote to include with my post today and he sent me 100 words that he wrote on the theme of “blue skies” for a ritual in which his dad, his brother and him are writing 100 words a day with a given theme. Here is what Jack wrote about blue skies, “Blue skies beckon me to the streets, like swells call a surfer or lamps summon a bug, for a rare mid-day run. Past equestrian statues and up hills, across storied bridges where Taft strode and towards streams where Teddy stripped, supposedly, I descend into Rock Creek, the wooded oasis where Georgetown and Kalorama converge like summer and winter collapse into spring. Thoughts of work release from the kink in my neck, rising like steam before fizzling in a poof or dripping in a bead of sweat. So it seems, for blue skies I have come, and blue skies I’ve become.” Some days, I question whether my writing is any good at all. After reading this passage from Jack, this became one of those days. Nonetheless, running enhances my connection with nature, and Jack’s, it would seem, even more so.

Meditation – going back to Jack’s quote, it is not all about nature. I love his line about thoughts of work releasing from the kink in his neck, rising like steam before fizzling in a poof or dripping in a bead of sweat. I texted him back, “To me it sounds like a meditation of sorts, without taking on the baggage that that can take, it is about witnessing thoughts and letting them pass, rising and falling as you say.” He texted me back, “Exactly. You get it entirely.” We are on the same page because we share similar perspectives I am sure, but more than anything, because we run. We know what it is like to notice thoughts come and go over the course of hours in which we are running in perpetual motion. We understand what it feels like to have our bodies run with our minds still, a welcomed change from having our minds run with our bodies still. Running can be a meditation of sorts, especially, I have found, without headphones giving me audio to focus on.

Podcasts – although running without headphones, in my opinion, can be the most meditative, over the last couple of months, I most often have listened to podcasts while running. Earlier this week, I wrote about how I have committed to the practice of smoga because it combines three things I think would be worth my time into one thing that I know must be worth it. Beyond the fact that I have really come to enjoy listening to podcasts while running, I do it because it takes two things I think would be worth my time and turns them into one thing that I know must be worth it. I listen to podcasts mostly as a means of learning, and a very enjoyable means at that, and I figure if I can spend an hour or so most days running while learning, well, that is not going to be an hour of that day that I regret. I never got into running as much until I got into podcasting and I never got into podcasting as much until I got into running.

Growth – in the introduction of this post, I wrote about how I developed a desire to develop myself. This concept can best be described as a growth mindset. Having committed to a growth mindset years ago before I even had the term to describe it, I do not feel very well if I start feeling stagnant for too long, or like I am becoming complacent with the way that things are or the way that I am, or worse than any of that, like I am actually getting worse. That feels as though I am wasting the amazing opportunity unlike any other, that is, the opportunity of life. I understand that one day my mind and my body may begin to decline in a way that is at least in some part outside of my control, but for now I am 25-years-old, and anything I have done to date is nothing in comparison to my potential. I must grow into that potential slowly and over time, and running helps me to maintain that growth mindset, as well as the patience and discipline to grow slow. I know that the longer I do anything, the further I can go. The longer I keep running, the further I can go, and over time, running slow becomes less and less slow, until it is fast, but still feels slow. Grow to run and one will run to grow. That is the way that it has worked for me at least.

There are many other reasons to run, some that I not have not yet discovered and other that I have but am forgetting. One can run so that one may learn that life is not a race, so that one may experience the saying that “it is a marathon and not a sprint”, so that one can feel true hunger and true thirst and the satisfaction of relieving them, so that one can become grateful, so that one can feel good. Running has made me healthier and for all the above reasons and more which describe why I do it, running, in and of itself, is one of the biggest reasons why I am in the best physical, mental, and overall shape of my life. With great discipline, patience, hunger, and health, among many other gifts for which I am grateful, I will continue to run, and I will continue to grow.