Running For Courage

"If you train your mind for running, everything else will be easy.” Written by marathoner and writer Amby Burfoot, this wise and pithy quote captures the essence of an important lesson that most runners learn: Running teaches us how to live better. Running doesn’t simply burn off stress. Although running does help with that, more importantly, running teaches us courage. Life is filled with adversity. On a most fundamental level, running helps us find our true strength, reminding us over and over that we have the power to persevere in the face of trials and tribulations of everyday life.

I have written a lot about running, a short book, blog posts, both on my own blog and as a guest blogger, a few articles for wellness websites. I could write (and talk) about running ad infinitum. Reason being, running for me is not just an activity, it’s a way of life – the way I live. I am a runner no matter what I’m doing. At the most basic level of my sense of self, I am a runner. Not simply because I run, but more because I know the importance of courage and will and endurance for living.     

When I first started running in college, it was about staying fit, building lean muscle, burning oodles of calories, keeping my heart strong and my mind sharp. The post-run, relaxation was definitely an added bonus. Quickly, running morphed into something else, though, something greater. I wasn’t sure exactly what, but I knew on some basic level, that I was growing from the experience of running. The ability to endure the pain required to run, changed me.

When I was in my twenties and into my thirties, running was very much about competition. Boy, did I love those long runs. I could run for hours and hours, teetering on the threshold of pain, holding a fast pace, I would enter a zone, a place of sheer oneness, then I would push harder. And I loved pushing myself in long and sometimes brutal races.

I learned to run toward the pain, not away from it. There is nothing like that feeling: pushing, your legs like two powerhouses, your cadence a seemingly effortless rhythm in sync with your mind, every emotional pain you ever experienced washed away by your power to endure. A personal thought I often have after a great run: The pain of running relieves the pain of living.

I realize this may sound masochistic to some. In fact, a few times I have been asked if I thought running was a form of masochism. This couldn’t be further from the experience. I don’t run to punishment myself; contrarily, I run because it relieves pain, not because it causes it.

Jason Dias, friend, fellow existentialist and writer wrote, "No drugs here, no manipulation of neurotransmitters that leaves our worldly problems unattended. And no talking cures because explicit insight is not needed. All that is required is courage: the courage to encounter discomfort and stay with it long enough to be changed by it, strengthened." He is referring to running not only as an activity, but as a metaphor – a way to live.

True courage is being able to act and sustain in the face of fear, pain, adversity. If we try to avoid these things, we don’t really live. We may survive year after year in an endless, monotonous cycle, but by attempting to avoid pain, we deprive ourselves of other feelings. We deprive ourselves of experiencing love, joy, beauty, hope. For example, we can never deeply love unless we our courageous enough to risk our heart, knowing full well that at some point it will be broken. And a life without love or hope, a life without moments of joy, is an empty, vacuous life – a life void of meaning.

Running teaches courage on the most basic level, in our body, in our mind. The will and strength to endure in the face of tribulation becomes triumph; running embodies this. Runners know the importance of risk and courage, and the meaning and resilience found when we learn to endure.  

I write this today because the New York City Marathon is this weekend. Running the NYC Marathon is one of my most treasured memories. Of all the races I have ever run, even other full-distance marathons, NY was without a doubt the hardest. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, period. I always feel wistful as marathon weekend approaches. This year the longing to run the marathon seems greater than usual.

In my middle thirties, I suffered an injury. It debilitated me for a number of years. I wrote about in it my book In the Long Run. It took me ten doctors, one surgery and a couple years of rehab and a lot of hard work to get back out there. I truly believe the only reason I recovered from the injury and I am able to run again, is because of what I knew as a runner: to face the adversity, push through it, persist and persist, not to give up.

I am grateful to be able to run. I never take it for granted. But running a full-distance marathon is probably not a good idea, anymore. My long runs are usually more like 75-90 minutes, as oppose to 2 ½ - 3 ½ hours and I do most of my running on dirt trails and grass now.

As a runner, I have never been good at accepting physical limitation. And truth is, before the injury, I was constantly pushing my limits and surpassing and surpassing, so it was pretty easy to deny that there were limits, even though I knew that there were. The injury forced me to confront my limit. This was no easy emotional endeavor and it is still something I struggle with. I mean, running is still everything it was before, but now I can’t push myself quite as hard. I’ve had to slow down a bit. It took a long time to accept this.

But maybe every cloud really does have a silver lining. I dunno. Maybe we look for silver linings to make losses more bearable. Or perhaps with every painful loss, if we look hard enough there is something to gain. It no longer matters how fast I am or what place I take in a race or if I even race at all. Only the experience of the run matters. What I garner from running, everyday, year after year, is a mental strength which has made other challenges in my life easier. Running also makes my days better. This is a priceless gift and one that I never, ever take for granted.

“If you train your mind for running, everything else will be easy,” wrote Amby Burfoot. This is the truth. When we battle the demons within ourselves, alone, through our runs, we discover something immeasurable, something beyond race time, split time, something beyond the amazing feeling of crossing finish lines (which is amazing, and should never be diminished); we find endurance. Out there on the road or trail, with every step, every mile, every hill, we discover that everything we need to live is already within us. We discover our courage, our courage to live.

Looking for inspiration or motivation? In celebration of the NYC Marathon, the eBook version of In the Long Run is free this weekend on Amazon.