Running & Happiness: Joy Amongst the Tribe

A year ago, I quit my job as an attorney in Washington, DC, sold my house, and moved out West. Aside from getting to spend more time with a wonderful girl, the purpose of this life-spanning U-turn was to devote my working day to iRunFar.com. No single decision in my life has created more happiness in my life than this one.

I’ve been trail running since 1992. Few things provide me as much joy as rolling down singletrack at a good clip. If the singletrack is in a gorgeous place, all the better. On these outings I’m free. I’m powerful. I’m myself. The joy is inherent in the movement. The urge, primal. I thought the flexibility of my new job would allow me to sate this urge and provide nearly endless miles of joy. This was true throughout the summer of 2009’s trail running roadtrip.

After traveling from trailhead to trailhead throughout the intermountain west for nearly three months, I made my way to my new home in California. I quickly learned that there were no trails that I could run to from home. Barely two months later I was beset with plantar fasciitis. My mileage plummeted while I stuck to running the flat highway that travels past my home.

So here I am so near running paradise with a flexible schedule, unable to indulge my trail running fantasies for half a year. How’s that for irony?

I could wallow in self pity, but I’ve got no reason to do so. I’m happy and enjoying “trail running” more than ever. How’s that, you ask? Well, what this time away from vigorous trail running has taught me is that I derive a great deal of my trail running related happiness from the community of runners.

Trail Running WasatchDuring my downtime, I’ve vicariously run grand adventures through my friends, traded knowledge and encouragement with complete strangers, and wildly daydreamed of trail running related projects with potential collaborators. I could, perhaps, think of these interactions as proxies for trail running itself. That’s not the case.

The running community and, in particular, the trail running community foster group happiness a few different ways.

As a sport, running is an individual pursuit. Yes, some runners focus on competing versus others and we all may in the course of a race, but, in the end, running is a battle versus oneself. This leaves us able to encourage one another to achieve our respective bests without second thought. This, in turn, creates a positive environment for all of us.

Of course, running is a near universal experience whatever one’s fitness level. This means that the fastest runner can communicate directly with the slowest runner and vice versa. Hang around the finish of any trail ultra and you’ll see this in action. What’s more, this communication reinforces the community. I’ve often see the top runners at races like the Western States 100 hang around the finish to encourage slower friends and complete strangers until the final runner is across the finish.

Those are just the more tangible aspects of happiness that can be found in running. No doubt, the ethereal aspects create as much, if not more happiness. I can’t pin down (nor do I need to) the reason behind the joy I find bouncing between aid stations at a race I’m covering, in hanging out at the finish of a race, when chatting with a friend about possible running adventures, in helping a coaching client achieve his or her goals, or simply emailing with a long time friend about providing iRunFar bumper stickers for the race that he’s directing. It’s these day-to-day interactions that keep me happy when other parts of my life are more troubled. In the end, those interactions with all of you are why I do what I do.

I’d love to hear how the running community adds happiness to your life!

[I wrote this piece for another website six months ago, but it rings every bit as true today.]

There are 20 comments

  1. EricG

    Bryon, Your words ring true for me and I'll bet many others. I wrote in a recent post "I do want to point out one of the things I love about the ultra community. I had a conversation, no matter how brief, with every runner I passed or that passed me during those early morning hours. We all made sure the other was OK and encouraged each other to keep it up. What other racing community sincerely encourages others to keep going like that. I hope there are others, I just don't know them." Peace EricG

  2. Max

    Damn….that's a nice post! I've been a runner since a long time but only a "serious" one since this year. The more I participate/read/watch videos/etc about trail and ultra running, the more I want to discover it. The more I discover, the more I tend to be happy.

    By the way, that kind of post is really inspiring. I like when I can feel that it comes **directly from the heart.

    Cheers

  3. Ian Campbell

    Here's an article I wrote for our local running club. I totally agree with what Bryon says and have a similar message in my own article.

    The parallels of life and running

    Every runner goes through phases in their running career. It’s a bit like life itself. You are born, develop your personality, style and character through childhood and your teenage years, then you head into your mid years, (hopefully you don’t have a mid life crisis!) and then you move into the twilight years. How and at what age you do all this is down to custom but at the end of the day it is really down to you. You can stay young for as long as you can with the right positive mental attitude and equally you can age early under different circumstances.

    Your running career is probably no different to life itself. It is not about being the fastest or the slowest, its about being born a runner, developing your running style, enjoying it, improving and as you get much older resetting your targets. You will have testing periods much as in life, you get injured or you do not achieve your race target. These are all hurdles that need to be overcome and challenge you to take a different approach. With life you have parents to guide you through your childhood and teenage years. (Maybe even much later in life as well!) Well to me, the camaradarie of a running club, coaches, the competition of races and meeting other participants provides that same guidance as your running career develops from whatever your starting base maybe. I bet most people will say that their biggest running improvements, be it, PB's, technique or just pure enjoyment came from being a member of a running club.

    So what am I saying? Maybe I am having my own mid life crisis in writing this article! Running is a beautiful sport. The drug of choice. It can be basically free with a little start up cost, trainers, shorts and top. You can do it practically anywhere, the options are endless. You can start from your home, you can go to the local park, you can run to and/or from work, you can pack your trainers and make sure you get a run in if you go away, and of course there are all the organised club runs, especially leading up to the London marathon.

    The beauty of running is simple, the freedom and expression of the run and the wonderful after effects. You feel much better for having done your run. Whether it was a few hundred yards or several miles. The accomplishment of a training day, week or month. The challenge of a race and the personal goal you set. The beauty of your surroundings. Seeing the seasons as they develop through the year. Do you remember the snow?, now its muddy, soon it will be warmer and the mud will compact to solid earth, the trees and shrubs will have grown so that where you could see right through them there will be a solid bank of leaves, and then it will be autumn and the leaves will come off and the cycle will have come full circle. After all, it's no different to life.

    Enjoy it, live it and believe in it. Its fun!

  4. mayayo

    Superb post, Bryon. :-)

    Hard to think of a point you did not mention…in any case, I would like to insist on how very exemplary is the attitude of the leading trailrunners of the world.

    They fight each other to exhaustion during races, sure. But even in the heat of a 100-miler there is a shared joy between them to be just there, running abreast.

    And, the minute they cross the line, truly many of them trailflyers take pains to cheer, encourage & show appreciation for those that come in behind.

    Looking out from Europe, I must also acknowledge that while this tribal joy is almost universally true, the american trailrunning community shows it far more intensely than any other I have yet enjoyed.

    Go run the trails, young man ;-)

  5. Tony Mollica

    Bryon:

    I am so glad you bagged your life as an attorney to do iRunFar.com! I bagged my life as an attorney to teach Elementary Physical Education.

    Running is my drug of choice;fullfill and helps me do my duty to be a role model for my students by living a healthy physically active life.

    I have gained much more from running, and my running friends that I could not possibly describe it adequately in words. My road running friends are great; but my ultra and trail running friends take it up another notch. They will stop on the trail during a race to help you if you need help. They'll offer you water, a gel or a Tylenol when they could just keep going and pass you. What other sport would even consider doing that?

    I am active on the Runner's World On Line Masters forum. I have many friends from there who have enriched my life. When I get the chance to meet one of them in person it's like I've known them forever. I have no trouble getting to know them, or finding something to talk about. Runners are just like that; whether you've met them in person or not.

    When I get out on the trail or road for a run I always thank God for the gift of running that he has given me, and for all of my running friends!

    Stay healthy and keep running!

  6. Chanda

    I love what you said about how running is universal, as the fastest and slowest are able to communicate and share. This past summer at a race I was running, there was also a 1 mile kids race. The gentleman who took second place in the adult race ran the kids race with my 5 year old daughter. She loves to run and chatted with him about running as they ran side by side. It was touching to watch the fastest and the not so fast, the youngest with the not so young, universally brought together by the simple yet powerful act of running.

  7. David Kennedy

    "…but, in the end, running is a battle versus oneself. This leaves us able to encourage one another to achieve our respective bests without second thought. This, in turn, creates a positive environment for all of us."

    Well said, as is the post as a whole. While running by itself can and is a selfish sport, i.e. we are looking to improve OUR own time, OUR own goals, but if we allow it then the community of support for each other is vast and not selfish at all. As I graduated from road marathons to trail ultras, the comradarie not only was comforting and addicting, it was energizing and strengthening. This community of ultrarunners is a glimpse of how wonderfully caring and compassionate the world could be, and I'm humbled to be a small part of this sport.

  8. Jim Blanchard

    Byron, yesterday a member of our Wisconsin trail running community completed a 202 mile solo trail run around a 9+ mile loop. At first I didn't understand why someone would want run the same loop for 60 hours. But as more and more members of the tribe stopped into the meager race headquarters, the beauty of it became apparent. People showed up to pace through out the day and night or just to offer encouragement not only to the runner but to the folks that gave up 2 1/2 days to crew and pace. Runners that hadn't been seen in years dropped in. One man's adventure became a reason for the tribe to gather for something uniquely positive. These are the reasons I've loved this sport for 20+ years.

  9. Kovas Palubinskas

    Great post. Without the running community, both real and virtual, I wouldn't be returning to fitness with so much support from complete strangers who have become friends.

  10. Anthony

    I have to say, being a cyclist when I am not running, the Trail Running community is much more open than other outdoor sports. It might be the fact a 3,000 ft climb hurts everyone (some more, some less, but hurts no matter) compared to say Mountain Biking where you may have some uber-fit rider with a $6,000 ride out there killing it, an average work-every-day Father of two couldnt keep up unless he had Dave Weins' DNA. I run regularly with a club of runners of all levels, even a mountain running legend, but everyone is supportive.

    Try this next run, greet fellow trail runners, count the response rate, then run on a road/bike path/etc, compare the greetings. I am sure those on the trail will be more friendly.

  11. Carter Swampy

    I volunteered at two aid stations at Mountain Masochist this past weekend and it was one of the more fulfilling experiences of my life. I ran the race last year and didn't feel nearly as plugged in as I did this year. The experience prompted me to commit to running the entire Lynchburg and maybe Beast series this coming year. Not only is it close to home but the same core group of runners do all 6 races. What a tribe to belong to!

  12. Paul

    I am 40, semiretired, and like to keep running as simple as possible (5 pairs of shoes). I have severe Epilepsy and do not have seizures while running. There is something to the state of mind and a personal sense of security the phenomenon brings on. I consider running a return to nature and basically run in the mountains of BC alone. There are Bear, Salmon in beautiful creeks, Dear, a few Cougars, and fat Coyotes from cats . So I guess along with the huge trees, I am not alone. All the races, clinics and people are fun, but I hide from the type As that run. This is why I love the Ultra scene; it is just about training, solitude, and simplicity.

  13. Sock Runner

    It's always a great experience meeting and knowing people during a race. It takes off the edge and pressure that you have to show off. Joining races and marathons are primarily for personal accomplishment. I think the strive for winning comes later.

  14. George O

    Paul, I am in the same boat as you brother. I love running in solitude and being able to just zone out and let gravity do it' job and allow my body to push forward. The smell of the forest, the sound of the running streams and rivers are calming, the sound of a potential mountain cat following you in the nearby bushes feel almost like he is pacing you, then, you hear nothing but your own breathing as you are climbing that hill, and once on top, you start all over. Solitude, simplicity and training is what ultra running is all about.

    Run free brother.

    George

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