Why Do You Have to Run So Much?

[Editor’s Note: The beauty of life is the beauty of life, no? There are so many things to love. It’s the nature of the human spirit, perhaps, to grow deeply attached to many beautiful things, our family, friends, hobbies, adventures, homes, to name a few. In the following essay, Leon Lutz articulates his love for both his family and his sport.]

“Why do you have to run so much, Daddy?”

My dear Lily (and your little sister, Piper Bea),

If I’m being honest, and for the sake of both you and Piper Bea, I must and will be, I’d seen the question in your eyes a time or two before you actually spoke the words. More than likely I assigned that look to long days and a child’s want to always, always, always move on to the next adventure, hoping that the sentiment existed only on the very surface and lacked actual residence in your worries.

Lily and Piper

Lily and Piper

As the words hang there in the air, waiting for me to accept the challenge of offering an acceptable response, I now recognize their sincerity and beginnings rooted more deeply than just in moments of exhaustion or boredom.

At six years of age, you must find two hours waiting for my return to be interminably long. And that, of course, allows for only a short run in comparison to half days, full days, days on end in the backcountry seeking, perhaps, the answer to the very question you just posed. The older I get, the more fleeting hours and even days seem to be, but you haven’t yet been saddled with the sobering perspective of aging, the consciousness of expiration dates and a notion of fewer years ahead than behind. Thank goodness. I actually find relief in knowing that this is not yet graspable for you or your sister. I celebrate it and ache at the idea that you both one day will comprehend the ceaseless, unrelenting march of time.

By the look on your face, I can tell that you’ve decided I wasn’t listening or don’t have any intention of answering your question, but I do. I’m trying.

Many other children, husbands, wives, partners, parents, friends have asked this very same question of runners scattered all across this enormous (though not so enormous as you might think) planet. Each of them has deserved an honest answer just as each person who asked the question is equally deserving of his or her right not to provide one. But, for you, I am trying.

Much of my answer lies in the sensations conjured by watching you and Piper Bea race about the backyard. It is the same emotions I experienced the first time you twisted your little newborn hands into my beard and unfurled a yawn seemingly too big for your little body before falling asleep nestled beneath my chin. Witnessing inaugural smiles, first words and teetering, exploratory steps elicited similar feelings. All of those initial revelations and awe-inspiring discoveries were connections to a world so breathtakingly beautiful when uncluttered by all that you at six do not, simply cannot, yet know. How sad it is for me to accept that you will not be and cannot be kept from one day knowing.

When I run and especially when I run long and far, all that I’ve come to know (or think I know) of the world washes away and I am better, much better, for it. The connections that came so easily at four and six years old, connections that seem nearly impossible to make at 39, become quite possible. Not only do they become possible, Lil, they happen. Bodies that would pass wordlessly on a city street or a suburban neighborhood engage effortlessly in comfortable conversation. Laughter, genuine heart-happy laughter, is the norm amongst ultrarunners and occurs without the reservations of political correctness or the shadowy assessment of present company.

That furrow in your tiny brow reveals your frustration at trying but failing to understand that last sentence but I couldn’t be happier that the weight of social constraints is one foreign to you, at least for now.

I’ll say it another way. You don’t like closed doors, do you? I’ve watched you approach them with the same disdain I feel, your posture almost demanding access to the other side. Life is full of closed doors, Lily, and I too tire of them. Out on the trails, doors that are closed in our everyday are opened wide. No, that’s not quite right. They aren’t opened so much as they just aren’t there at all.

Please don’t mistake my yearning for the outdoors and my passion for running as a need to escape the world on the whole or a suggestion that all of life is constraints, enclosures and nuisance. There is so much to love about our family, our home, our neighbors, school and, yes, even work. You and I have talked quite a lot about balance both in the physical sense of avoiding toppling over on the playground or while riding your bicycle and in the less easy to understand way of keeping from feeling like you’re being pushed, jostled and overwhelmed by everything being asked of you by your friends, your teachers or Lindsay and me… Sorry, Mommy and me.

For providing me with that second kind of balance, trail running should be given significant credit. Rather than serving as an escape, my time spent running and exploring keeps me from getting dizzy and losing sight of all that there is to love in a sometimes crazy world. I may lose my physical balance, take a misstep and fall while running, but the rest of life seems to spin a little less out of control thanks to my time spent on the trail.

I suspect that doesn’t make much sense either, does it? But it is true.

Me and the Kids

Me and the kids.

Remembering how much I love you, your mother and Piper Bea is easy and doesn’t require any reminders, but other things can be taken for granted. Mowing the lawn, paying the bills and fixing all the little dings and flaws that need fixing can definitely add up to my not fully appreciating how lovely it is to have our house. Eight, 12, 24 or more hours on my feet and many miles of effort have a funny way of making home seem really, really precious. Solitary runs which I enjoy nearly as much as those shared, if in a different way, make me that much more appreciative of conversation and interaction upon arrival back home and at work. Even the end of long races that included time spent with others brings the promise of reuniting with loved ones or, best of all, receiving big hugs from sign-toting daughters! Long hours on the trail and the freedom from external demands also provide a clear focus, otherwise often lacking, when I go to work day after day, week after week without a break.

All of that perspective is a wondrous benefit of running so much, but it isn’t the honest answer to your question. The answer, getting back to my earlier point, is joy. Innocence, sadly, is fleeting. Unrestricted movement and an unfettered engagement of the senses with nature are the closest I’ve come to reclaiming innocence and restoring the naiveté that makes each new discovery a miracle. Being outside is on its own nearly enough, but coupling the outdoors with running gets me all the way there. When I run, I am not jaded. When I run, all that I see, hear and feel is seen, heard and felt anew, experienced for the first time. For the first time, every time.

When I run, Lily, I know joy. I really do. I’m fully immersed in it without any interference. It isn’t something that I’m reading about or seeing on a television screen and recognizing as happiness. It is happening right there inside of me. Inside of me and all around me. It’s the same unencumbered joy that you experienced (and your adoring parents, too) with those first smiles, first words, first steps. It is the astonishing sparkle in your eye when you waved to me before stepping on the school bus for your first day of kindergarten and the corresponding pride that brought tears to my eyes. Remember how excited you were to show me you could hang upside down from the swing set and do flips underwater at the pool? That joy, that’s what running gives me. Racing down every new trail (or old, familiar trail for that matter) is like pulling off that first flip or realizing that I’m doing it, I’m doing it… I am actually hanging upside down!

It’s wonderful, isn’t it, Lily?

I don’t ever want to miss out on your latest achievement, your newest discovery. More importantly, I do not ever want to be present only to then take any of your joy for granted. The balance of running and all else that life is and can be helps to ensure that I never overlook the things that fill you with joy. Maybe you’ll even find in time that running is for you too one of its sources, but it doesn’t ever need to be, not ever. So long as you find an activity, a person, something, anything that helps you find connection, balance and love, I’ll be there to help you celebrate it.

Oh, how I look forward to one day asking you why you do whatever it is you decide you best like doing so much. Even if I think I know the answer.

Love you always and at every moment,

Daddy

There are 75 comments

    1. Leon

      Amen, David. I do 80%+ of my day-to-day running after the kids have gone to bed or in the morning before they awake, but the time away still adds up.

  1. JL (London, England)

    A beautifully written piece – thank you for sharing and for brightening up my day (also nice to know I'm not the only one who is asked this question regularly by loved ones!).

  2. Emil

    Eloquent. I will ask my wife to read this. I will show it to my children when they are older. Thank you for putting into words a feeling that I could not describe myself.

  3. Leerunner

    Well spoken, Leon. My kids and I can relate well to you and yours. I'm just glad that we have found a way to experience that childlike innocence you describe so well–even if only for a few hours–over and over.

  4. Shelby

    This brought tears to my eyes as I think about the incredible number of hours I've spent away from my husband and children finding pure unadulterated joy on the trails. They both want to run with me, but at 3 & 6, it will be awhile before they do. I've found that my running is more satisfying knowing that they are waiting for me at home — the joy of "having it all", I suppose. Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel, but can't quite express.

    It was a pleasure meeting you at the Delaware last Friday (I just realized that was you I met on the stairs!). I hope your pacing at LV was a joy and that your runner finished well.

    1. Leon

      That was me, Shelby, and I was already missing my girls like crazy at that point! Small world, eh? And it sounds like we had more in common than just pacing for friends at Leadville…it was another great day (and long night) amongst the tribe. Be well!

  5. bart

    Man, thanks for sharing. I know those words fall short of what's going on in my head, but I'm not sure what else to say. In a world like ours it's reassuring to know that if you and I ever met, we would instantly be friends, and so would our daughters.

    Here's to meeting one day!

  6. Jeff Browning

    Well said, Leon, well said. I can so deeply relate to this post. As you know, I have 3 kids (ages 2, 7, and 11). That question has been posed to me. My oldest is starting to understand there's something deeper than just running. Eloquently put, my man. Giddyup.

    -Bronco

  7. Running Steve

    Nice fluff but the real answer is you (we) don't have to. We can assuage our guilt with niceties and real benefits but that doesn't change the fact that running is incredibly selfish. Even if it is the best selfish pursuit Children are remarkably in tune and will let us have our time….to a point. Even once in a while you gotta just skip the run and play.

    Because you will find that joy you seek playing with your kids too and they won't question which joy is more important

    1. cp

      An individual's view of the rest of their world has great bearing on how they view running. I think Running Steve has it right. Running can be very selfish. We get pretty good at justifying our decisions. If I am able to have kids, I think it might be cute if they notice and ask me about my running, but I will be more impressed if they aspire to be like me for my integrity or other positive traits. Perseverance and other positive qualities can be demonstrated through running, but I would rather these be demonstrated through my relationships than activities.

      1. Leon

        Thanks to both Running Steve and cp for valid counterpoints. I can assure you that the written sentiments here do not exist in a bubble and my children are well aware of the joy that they bring me and it’s a joy that isn’t surpassed or in competition with running. Both Lily and Piper are huge cheerleaders for me and I'm grinning from ear to ear to look up from desk as I write this to see the signs that they've spent painting, pasting and stickered to waive at me at aid stations and finish lines. This letter was scripted on the heels of a long weekend away and the first (and to date) only time that Lily has asked me this question in this manner. I've been asked by them with far greater frequency when my next race is and if they can come or whether they can "race up the mountain with you, Daddy" when their legs get a bit longer. I'd give up running (and any other hobby/habit for that matter) in a heartbeat if parenting and running needed to be a "vs." or "one or the other" debate. Thankfully, it isn't.

        Yes, running is selfish, terribly so, and, to Running Steve’s point, the guilt is hard to assuage. Most of my day-to-day to running is actually done at night after they've gone to bed or long before they wake up, but it is still indulgence. Balance is a recurring topic in my home and a never-ending challenge.

        Thanks for reading and weighing in. Genuinely, I appreciate it.

      2. jenn

        Huh. Well, as someone who was the kid with a frequently running father, I thought it was great. As I mention below, I can't remember not thinking that his running was awesome. I was proud of it, I was inspired by it, and it was what started me running, which frankly has stood me in good stead over the years. It was fantastic to have some blocked off time for us to talk. And it's not like there wasn't plenty of time and opportunity to talk outside of running, because there was and we did, but for some reason, that running time stood (and still stands) out.

    2. Aaron

      You know, I think most runners posses the necessary self-awareness to recognize the selfishness inherent in the act of running. This isn't "fluff." It is a genuine meditation on what, if any, meaning there is in our sport of choice, considered in the context of family life. I can only speak for myself, but I have vivid memories of my father training for marathons and long cycling races when I was a young child. I also vividly remember real feelings of wonder, admiration, and respect for those athletic feats. Sure it was more of the "my dad can kick your dad's butt" kind of respect. But it was there. And I'm grateful for the example he set.

      1. MS

        I have to respectfully disagree with the idea of running being pure selfishness. The mind-body connection is incredibly strong. Allowing yourself to detach yourself from your family and give yourself what not only your body needs but also what your head needs benefits not only you, but also your family as well! Sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves with the guilt of not being present 100%. But really, if we don't give in to our own needs, how good are we to anyone else???

  8. Tom Caughlan

    Leon,

    Wonderful peice. My five year old is just starting to grasp what I'm doing out there in the early mornings and nightr after he goes to bed. My one year old recognizes that I have running clothes on when I tuck them in. My son will say "You're going to run up mountains in the dark" and then he stays up excited. Very cool being able to share the love with them.

  9. Steve P

    Very nice writing, Leor…when my children were young and started to notice my running all the time (back in the 70's), I ran to and from work as to not have it be during "our time". Nice side benefit of that was that it improved me as a runner and helped me be a better Dad to my kids at the same time.

    Just last week my 32 year old daughter called and asked me what running shoes she should buy as she returns to running after having her first child :-) It all comes back around and I hope I can someday talk to my granddaughter about which running shoes she should get :-)

  10. Gabe

    This is so good. I'm a relatively new dad and these thoughts tare me up all the time. I've certainly gained some perspective after reading this exceptionally thoughtful and eloquent letter. Thank you.

  11. cory feign

    thank you for writing this, as it captures a sentiment that can by hard to express and brings to mind some fresh, joyful memories of last weekend.

    bounding down hope pass with my buddy mimi pacing, yelling out to the mountains at the top of our lungs, with absolute pleasure just to be alive and to be where we were.

    and later, circling back around turquoise lake, with the beautiful early morning sunlight illuminating the mountain backdrop, blasting minecraft parody songs and thinking of my little guys back at home in illinois, apart for another weekend, nonetheless weeping with pure joy for the love that we share whether we are near or far

  12. jenn

    Nicely-written essay! Have you brought your family along to be a part of your adventures (racing or otherwise)? Growing up, my dad was training for marathons a lot – mostly I think he ran really early and ran his commute – but there was a lot of other running time, too, and I can't ever remember not thinking it was awesome! I'm not sure when I started running with him in the mornings, but I think it was fairly early – he'd head out for an early morning run, then head back and snag me for another couple of miles. It was probably a nice cool-down for him :).

  13. Michael Kealy

    Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! Very moving – I resonate 100%! Love the analogy about hanging upside down. This imparts deep wisdom.

    Thank you!

  14. Ned Barrett

    My fifteen year old son teases me for my self-admitted mid-life crisis. I've run for 30 years, but have recently started running longer races. This year, at age 50, I ran my first 50 miler (while putting some of that selfishness to good work by raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research). Every time we're in the car behind a balding guy in a hot sports car, my son says, "Dad, if you had a normal mid-life crisis, we could have one of those." I take it (half my job as a parent is to give my kids things to tease me about, and the other half is to take it). the reward came in another conversation when he told me, with an air of conspiracy, "But Dad, what you're doing is pretty bad ass." Doesn't get any better than that.

  15. Brian T

    Thank you, Leon, for this. It's wonderful, from this father to 7- and 5-year-old boys.

    It's joy, pure and simple. When my boys and I race down across the playground or down our alley to the gate, they experience the pure joy of running fast and of competing. What we do over so many hours a week is a close cousin to that. It's not quite the same concentrated dose of the 30-second sprint/chase with all the giddy laughter, but they are absolutely related and not so difficult for them to understand. They certainly understand the races, which are, frankly, much less foreign to them than they are to non-racing adults. All of their active play involves some level of racing or competing with friends. So, it seems natural that grown-ups should do it, too.

    The time away? And getting them to understand that? That's harder. You've tapped into that here, and I thank you for putting words to something that has been unspoken – inarticulable – somewhere in many of us.

  16. Ric Moxley

    Leon, I posted bits of this well-expressed piece on a couple of my runner Facebook groups' news feeds. I'm in a different place than you though; divorced for years and with my kids now moved out — and I never took up distance running until my youngest was 18. So I don't have the pain of seeing a 6-yr-old's sorrowful eyes when I leave to hit the trails. I remember how much the fam looked forward to weekends when "Daddy isn't gone all day at work," and I can't imagine how those of you who have little ones or non-running spouses deal with it — with trying to be a good family man or woman while also doing the weekend long runs that can take you away from them more than half the day. My hat is off to those making it work … and how the heck do you do it??? :)

  17. Harrison

    What a great article. As a father to be, it gave me a lot to think about. I’ve already started to run as early as possible to make sure I keep the balance with my wife. I see more night running in my future. I hope to meet you one of these times you make it out to Utah.

  18. Mike

    My experience is that my son (7 y.o.) doesn't care if I'm off saving the world, drunk in the gutter, or two hours into a euphoric run; either I'm physically and emotionally present for him or I'm not, and the reason for my absence doesn't matter a bit.

    The upshot is that I run marathons now, not ultras, as I can prepare reasonably well for 26.2 while he's asleep or at school. In my ultra career, I needed to get a lot of two, three, and four hour runs in, and that just isn't conducive to having quality time with your family.

  19. Will T.

    iRunFar is packed with great articles every week, but this one stands out as one of the great articles this year. Thanks Leon & iRunFar for writing/publishing what so many of us runners are feeling but can't quite put into words to those we love.

  20. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Am I the only one who found this piece a little too precious? Wait til your kids are older and have sports games on the weekends, and you face a hard choice between being with them or finishing your long run.

    – signed, a mother of two who's often sleep deprived from waking up at 4am to fit in a long run before taking care of the kids and doing my job, and who would love to run longer but I have to drive my kids somewhere and fulfill volunteer commitments to their schools

    1. Jeff

      Sarah,

      I am sure you are not the only one, but I do not share the view it is "precious." I do not think Leon is denying there will be choices ahead. These choices are already upon me (and you). My boys have games, ski team on weekends from December to March (in addition to soccer and baseball), academic commitments, etc. I try to make whatever I can, but it is mostly work that keeps me away.

      In my mind, we all have things that we need to develop ourselves, whether it is my kids wanting to ski or play soccer or chess or me wanting to run, bike or read a book. We talk about choices, and time spent together. Mostly we favor time spent together.

      I want to support them in their endeavors, and show them my passion for things in life, of which running has become one, without it being a burden to them. So, I do not run as much as I would like, and I miss an odd game or practice, but on the whole we support each other's interests and dreams while trying to maximize time together.

      This past weekend was a profound example of this for me. My bride and two boys came with me when I ran Leadville this past weekend (my first 100). I would not have anyone crew or pace me. I had done too little preparation to ask anyone for anything, and I told my family they in no way needed to come. They did want to be there for the finish, though, and I will never forget running into their arms as soon as I crossed the line, spending the rest of the day with them, and carrying my youngest son around on very sore feet. Is running my first 100 on a base of around 700 miles for the year and on the back of a 90 hour work week smart? Probably not. Was it selfish? Most definitely. Did my boys take joy in seeing me achieve a dream of mine, and do they know I will be there at their next game or school event? Yes.

      The real problem is that in a few years they may want me to run all day so that they can hang out with their friends, undisturbed by their uncool dad ….

      1. Shelby

        I am at a similar stage of life as Leon with parenting young children. My husband and I have purposely not involved them in multiple activities in order to keep some simplicity in our lives. Watching my friends with older children, I've certainly seen that my running (or his MTB) will necessarily take a back seat to their activities as they get older, so I enjoy the longer runs during this brief, fleeting season. It won't stay like this.

        On the other hand, my kids don't get to participate in something that brings me joy, except on the rare occasion of a local race where they had me water bottles or gels. I look forward to family outings where we enjoy hiking (or running) up and around mountains together, something that those with older kids are already able to do together. Each season is precious and if we bend and adjust ourselves to the demands of each, search for the blessings that they contain, we find the gold.

  21. Greg

    This is so well written I am almost speechless. Sir, you need to write a book of your adventures running. I'm sure it would be written, as this article was written, in such a way the reader will totally feel your emotions and intimately share your adventures on the trails. Sign me up for the first copy!

  22. MikeV

    One of the best pieces of running literature I've read! Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written piece. One other thought… Can we all stop beating ourselves up for being "selfish" runners? I really tire over all the talk about how running is a selfish activity. Like any other activity there are selfish runners but being a runner does not automatically make you selfish. I know that I am a better father, husband, employee etc. because I am a runner. I'm able give my best in these areas because I take the time to renew myself through running.

  23. buddy teaster

    I just want to thank you for articulating so well what i have tried to communicate, however clumisly, to my family over the years. thankfully, they got most of it. but i can't wait to share this with them. and to work harder to live up to my end of the bargain.

    beautifully written.

  24. Anonymous

    Oh my goodness! literally brought tears to my eyes, not as a runner trying to explain to others but as a spouse trying to understand. Thank you!

  25. zsw

    The difference between good writing and great writing is the ability of the written words to lend meaning to any reader. I do not have children, my background is more in mountaineering, all the same these words had weight and connection to me.

  26. Liesel Bradford

    Wonderful? this tripe is nothing more than overly verbose, self important excuse-making for this guy's own vanity that drives him to try to be the best at exercising.

    If this makes you feel better about missing your kids childhood so you can go be in the woods by yourself, fine. but don't try to get the rest of us to buy into your lie.

  27. SarahJeanne @InMidSt

    I get this! In the midst of my depression because of my overuse injury, I was trying to explain to my kids that 'Mommy just isn't her best because she can't run right now'. When my 9 year old said "I'm glad you are injured Mommy! Because you get to spend more time with us!!" Broke my heart to see his hurt, and definately shook things up a bit for me to be more available and present <3

  28. Evan B.

    Beautifully written. Running is meditation, indeed – I know it keeps me sane and calm and centered, and makes me a generally better person to share with my loved ones. Thanks for sharing this!

  29. Jeff H

    Leon – that was very sweet. It made me reflect on the many shared experiences I have had over the years with my now grown runner daughters – both the joys and the sorrows. Snow shoeing high on the Continental Divide Trail in utter silence, cresting a ridge with one of them at each elbow, the medal ceremony at a middle school XC race, tears after a disappointing championship race, a quiet car ride to my first ultra and cheers at the finish, emails about training and decisions, and most fresh in my mind running up a pass in the Penine Alps and then descending through the forest stride for stride with my daughter leading the way. I hope whatever direction you and your girls' lives take you are able to share these sorts of moments with them. Thanks!

  30. Jason

    Great article, it reminded me of one of things I wonder about during ultras if Agent Smith from the movie The Matrix was right : "But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering."

    Jason

  31. Steve L

    People can be selfish, running is beautiful. However, our four children think running is no fun as did I until my mid 30's. Thanks for sharing the article.

  32. max

    well aren't you bitter. A man explained the joy he experiences while alone in the mountains and how it causes him to appreciate those in his life more, I suggest you try some of that.

  33. HeatherW

    I find that my own running really helps keep the sports practices and games in perspective. There are so many parents on the sidelines that are living vicariously through the kids, and I don't think that's healthy. For me, since I already got MY sport on, I can just sit on the bench and enjoy watching them play. Or, since my daughters play field hockey, and there's usually a track around the field, I'll do laps rather than bark orders at them from the sidelines.

      1. Waldo

        Bryon:

        Agreed. Forgive my transgression. It just blows me away that someone can look at such an honest and thoughtful piece of writing and respond with bitterness and cynicism. Please feel free to remove my prior comment.

        P.S. You know everyone else was thinking it ;)

  34. Mary

    People run for different reasons, because yours happens to be some other motivation, I go to the gym everyday for my vanity and don't need to run; it is one of the few things I love to do and not for vanity at all. I do it in part for peace of mind.

  35. Michael

    I agree! For several years now, I've suffered from depression. Running is one of the few things that has given me hope. It snaps me out of thinking only of the negative and allows me to focus on all the positives.

Post Your Thoughts