THE BLOG
06/05/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Why We Run: A Philosophical Look at the Value of Running

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Note to readers: This piece is a bit of a departure from my regular writing that focuses on population health issues, which will resume with my next blog. In the spirit of National Running Day/Week, this one is for the runners (and potential runners) out there...

The reasons we run are often extremely personal, and being a runner can take on various meanings. At the same time, though, there are things that many runners hold in common, none of which may be more salient than the hallowed value we place on our sport. My inquiry into the value of running began as an admittedly self-interested attempt to shed some light on why I run. Over the course of my reflection, bits and pieces of insight emerged that I think many runners will understand and share.

Broadly speaking, I run in pursuit of achieving something that is "objectively good," defined simply as having a clear and measurable objective (e.g., a sub-three-hour marathon). I love that in running, my body is the only conduit I have to attain this good, providing me with a sense of individual agency and subsequent self-worth that is crucial to my health. In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, I rarely find opportunities to strive for this clear-cut type of objective good in other domains of life.

To elaborate, many of us spend the overwhelming majority of our day working in a knowledge economy office, where "despite the proliferation of contrived metrics," today's jobs "lack objective standards" of the sort found in running. This is not a negative critique of the modern-day workplace, but rather, an inherent consequence of a highly complex and interconnected economy that produces non-material goods and services.

This is in stark contrast to the sort of objective standard that can be measured by running a sub-three-hour marathon. Here, the definition of success is clear. Ask someone what it means to do a good job on an intricate knowledge-economy project, and it could take them upward of an hour to explain (often necessitating charts and graphs). Ask them what it means to do a good job in their next race, and I bet they can tell you in less than a minute.

While many people are completely fulfilled spending their days in pursuit of the subjective good afforded by the typical knowledge economy job, perhaps runners are not. For instance, the modern day philosopher Matthew B. Crawford eloquently explains that:

The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy. It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.

Crawford -- who is a mechanic -- ushers in this manual competence and the intrinsic satisfaction it breeds by fixing motorcycles. Perhaps runners find it by striving for new personal records ("PRs").

In setting new PRs, runners engage in something that produces tangible results that can be traced back to the self. When a runner sets out to run a PR, her body is the major tool at her disposal. This forces her mind to be keenly aware of how best to use it, resulting in a Zen-like harmony between the cognitive mind and physical body that is constantly evolving with every training experience. In order for a runner to avoid injury, let alone improve, the mind must be fully attentive to all the cues it receives from the body. In real time, these signals determine how to approach the next stride. After a thoughtful post-run reflection, they influence what the next run might look like: should she push to build on gains, or pull-back, giving the muscles more time to recover? It follows that over a broader horizon, the buildup of bodily cues and a runner's reaction to them shapes her training program, and ultimately, the outcome it produces.

Since the recognition of and reaction to these cues is so central to successful training, it is necessary to approach each run with full engagement and caring. This fosters a relationship between runner and running that embodies what I'll refer to as the utmost form of "Quality," something that only occurs when an actor and her act are so seamlessly interwoven that they are hard to separate -- they nearly become one (note: Robert Pirsig first introduced this notion of "Quality" in novels Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila).

This special type of Quality often emerges in the process of training for a race. There is hardly a form of engagement more intimate than that with one's own body that occurs on a training run. Runners are inherently involved in every step of their act, acutely aware of their muscle contractions, breathing, and the lactic acid that is boiling under their skin. As runners develop a closer relationship with their body over time they improve their understanding of how it works, and as a result, with keen and mindful attentiveness, they can make it work better. Parts of this process are undoubtedly satisfying ends in themselves, like the enjoyment of a beautiful day outdoors or the stress release brought about by pounding the pavement. That said, for runners who race competitively, there is no denying that the training process is geared toward a concrete end: when hard work manifests itself in a race well run that is measured by the most objective and honest standard of all: time.

As a result of this wholly-engaged process and the special Quality it generates, following a good race, runners are extremely proud of what they have created and truly cherish it. They relish in the knowledge that the manual labor involved in transforming one's body in preparation for a race breeds a sort of self-reliance that is extremely rare in today's world. The deep satisfaction, confidence, and fulfillment that comes with this is something that many runners can appreciate and share. This may be why the running community is often viewed as cultish by outsiders. It is a small (but growing) world whose members possess a common grasp of the process required to improve and do "good" at their act. Runners share a unique understanding of "Quality" that often leads them to say things like, "There are few things that make me feel more alive than running."