The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: Why Running is Bad for You

I went running today. One and one-tenth of a mile around my neighborhood. It was mostly downhill, except for right near the end, which was one prolonged inclined plane. I didn’t time myself because, well, I’m the kind of person who prefers to ignore bad news.

Thirty strides in, I was in complete, Ron Burgundy “I immediately regret this decision” mode. I considered turning around before deciding such a move would look bad to my older brother, to whom I’d already announced—unnecessarily proudly—that I was going for a run. Of course, I only decided this would look bad after carefully considering the various places I could hide from him during the 10-15 minutes I would be “running.”

It was a tortuous thing to do. This was unsurprising because running has always been tortuous to me. I have tried running on numerous occasions—at least biennially since my youth. I tell myself I should run at least once a week throughout the year, and one percent of the time, I talk myself into it with things like (cue the Mitch Hedberg voice), Last time wasn’t so bad. I was just really out of shape then; you know, that time two years ago after I finished that basketball season. I was totally tired and out of shape by all the exercise I had been doing. Now that I work 12 hours a day on a computer and sit around watching TV when I’m home, running will be a breeze.


What amuses me the most (in retrospect, of course) is that the real reason I do (biennially) go for a run has almost nothing to do with my physical well-being. Most people will tell you they run because it is good for you—the “you” here ignoring the obvious deleterious effects running has on one’s knees and back. And the first step in my deciding to run does hearken back to the goal of getting in better shape.

But the real reason I, and most of the people I know, run is more mental than physical. It’s about the sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a run, from pushing yourself, from crossing the finish line. Runners often refer to the “high” of running, or its “thrill.” They talk of post-run regurgitation as if it’s a matter of pride.

The problem with this, though, is that it’s a contrived sense of accomplishment. Think of what running is at its core: It is leaving one place, and then, some time later, returning there—having done nothing of substance in the intervening time.* But if I ignore this fact and run one and one-tenth mile shortly after I wake up, then the rest of the day is a freebie. I can sit around and do nothing because I ran this morning. I can eat every unhealthy thing I want because I ran this morning. I can act all self-important and condescending to others because I ran this morning.

*—Hey man, I’m going for a run.

—Where?

—Around the block.

—No, I mean, where are you going to?

—Oh no, I’m just going around the block, and then back here.

—Right where you started? Like this exact spot?

—Yep.

—Seems a bit superfluous if you ask me.**

**I, in fact, know people that drive several miles in one direction, get out of their cars, run in a big circle, get back in their cars, and then drive those same several miles in the other direction. They do not understand that they are fruitlessly using one mode of transportation simply in order to use another, less efficient one. I find this to be nothing short of mentally deranged, not to mention environmentally reprehensible.

To the people that run daily, it becomes a habit that’s easy to cross off the to-do list, like showering or eating lunch, and any day can be ended with an “At least I ran today.” This attitude thus infuses what is essentially an exercise in transportational futility with a purpose that isn’t actually there. Furthermore, it deflects attention from the real problem, which is this: Why do runners feel this need to accomplish something, to be productive? Is it an extra need, or a compensatory one? And if the latter, why do they feel that the other aspects of their lives are unproductive?

Runners, I know your plight. But your running is not for your physical or mental well-being; instead, it’s an instantiation of a real and much bigger crisis of self-confidence.

And it’s a problem you can’t just run from.

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