The Perfect Run

There are so many aspects which are a part of every run we go on that it seems almost impossible to expect to ever have what we might call a ‘perfect run.’ The weather could always be a little more pleasant, the scenery a little more breathtaking, and our bodies a little stronger (to name but a few reasons why a run could be made even better). In this sense it would be easy to subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect run.’ The reason I can’t subscribe to this belief though, is that I have had a handful of perfect runs.

By no means are these perfect runs an easy thing to come by. Ninety-nine percent (or more) of the runs I’ve been on could have been better if certain aspects of the run were better. Every now and then though, a run in its totality seems to trump all of these individual aspects. When this happens it doesn’t even really matter what the weather is like or how our bodies are feeling. We can get to this place more often when the weather is great or when our bodies feel really strong, but a perfect run is a run in which the weather, the scenery, your body, or any other external factors seem to cease to exist. It is a run when you get done and you don’t even know what the weather was like or you don’t care how your body felt. This isn’t to say that you are not noticing these things around you, but instead that you are so in tune with everything around you that you cease putting any quantifiable value on them. It is when the scenery becomes not something that you see with your eyes, but something that you see yourself as a part of.

In a sense I would say that I am touching on the meditative, or maybe even spiritual aspects of running. This isn’t really something that has a specific explanation, but instead something that you must experience to understand. If you are unsure if you have felt what I’m talking about then you could start by looking closely at the handful of most satisfying runs you have ever had. If you can pinpoint the specific things about these runs that made them so satisfying then you are probably thinking about a different type of run than I am talking about here. On the other hand, if you seem to have a few standout runs that you simply know were your best runs ever, but you can’t really quantify aspects of these runs that made them so great, then you are likely thinking of what I’m calling a ‘perfect run.’

I wish I could better put into words what these ‘perfect runs’ feel like to me. The most telling specific things I can say about these runs is that I feel like I have more overall energy after them than I had before (no matter how tired my muscles might feel); that I find myself laughing, crying, or smiling for seemingly no reason several times throughout the run; that I am often reminded (typically at seemingly unlikely times) of these runs for days, weeks, or even years after; and that when thinking back to these runs I can’t remember any specific thoughts that I had during them–only the things which stimulated my senses: sights, sounds, smells, and body sensations.

To me, these perfect runs are the primary reason I maintain a habit of running. Sometimes they are frustratingly elusive, but one of them is enough to encourage me to run for weeks, months, or even years in hopes of having another. I have had these kinds of runs in such a wide array of settings (races, roads, trails, bushwhacking off trail) such that I am drawn to all types of running in search of more. The longer I go without one of these runs the more I crave them. It has been over six months since I last had one (and more than 18 months to the one previous to that), and thus I find myself constantly hoping and searching for the next one. Of course, as with most things like this, trying too hard to achieve one of these runs makes them even less likely to occur. More often than not these runs have come to me when I least expect them.

It may be several months (or longer) until I have another, or I may have one tomorrow. But no matter when it is, I look forward to every run I go on knowing that I will have another of these perfect runs eventually, and knowing that I will come out the other end a wiser, more satisfied, and more enlightened person. Searching for this is the primary reason I lace up the shoes and step out the door as often as I do.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you had the kind of run like what Geoff describes, a run where you just disappear into the sensory act of motion?
  • If you have had one of those runs, can you describe what you remember from it, what it was like for you?

There are 13 comments

  1. @runssober

    I often wonder if this is isn't the reason why I enjoy running so much. What Roes describes here is similar to what addicts/alcoholics do when they chase that euphoric feeling, (which is almost a spiritual, transcendental experience,) of their first high. The difference is of course, that in running you will eventually have another "perfect run", while with drugs and alcohol you will chase the perfect high into the gates of death or insanity.

  2. ClownRunner

    I am always seeking to write the Perfect Top Ten list in the Comments Section of iRunFar. But like the Perfect Run, the signature of a Perfect Top Ten List is the absence of any signature.

    However, I have looked back through the iRunFar archives, and herewith are my top ten "Top Ten" lists:

    (sigh)

    Oops, can't do that. Would violate several Zen rules. But take my word for it, it would have been a Perfect Top Ten list.

  3. jdavid5

    This is why I run. I can find fitness in a hundred different directions, but it is in running where I am able to hit the mental reset button and find peace (even if only for minutes at a time).

  4. nykosba

    Love this article Geoff.
    Looks a lot like something called the "flow" isn't it ?
    I've been up to some really close calls while running, but my past rock climbing flows make me confident that sooner or later I'll catch more of these "perfect runs" !
    The triggers are subtile for this to happen, and surely "trying too hard to achieve one of these runs makes them even less likely to occur". One's gotta let it flow !

  5. dotkaye

    as nykosba mentions, read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
    most of my runs used to be perfect. I've realized that running is a form of meditation (high-impact meditation ;-) for me..
    now most runs are spent dealing with my new physical limitations and injuries, still the memory of those perfect runs keeps me going..

  6. @OmgItsMittnacht

    This reminds me of a comment my aunt made once about golf. "If I never made a birdie, I could quit this stupid game."

    I think a valid Call for Comments (at least one I'm interested in), is the key to all this: why and how? Why does this 'perfect run' happen sometimes, why does it not happen other times, and how do we make it happen again?

    Great article Geoff; keep it up.

  7. RunningStupid

    For me, it all starts with the right state of mind!! I find it happens most when I run because I love it instead of thinking about some external pressure (competition, time goals, etc)!! I really enjoy turning everything off mentally and cruising! It's great to be so checked out yet so present and alive at the same time!!! The funny part is that not only does it feel like the best run ever, it's usually the fastest, strongest, most effortless, etc. too!! There's nothing else like it!

    It's interesting to hear that you're not having more of your perfect runs, Geoff! For me at least, when running comes from a place of love, joy and gratitude it's easier to find that place (zone, flow, perfect, All Day!)!! I can only imagine how amazing each run has to feel for you after not being able to and all the frustration you went through! Each mile is a gift and we are truly blessed to be able to choose the way we suffer!! I know that you feel that, having had running taken from you and I'm sure you'll be back to perfect runs soon!!

    All Day!
    ~Ken

  8. @Strongerrunner

    I totally agree with the perfect run concept. What I have noticed:
    1. The perfect run always comes after a good chunk of miles.
    2. The perfect run always comes while running in nature. The bustle of the urban setting seems to steal the "flow"
    3. There will always be another "perfect run" as long as you keep running.

  9. @cushyno

    I share many of RunningStupid's views. The state of mind in which I embark on a run is often key to the level of enjoyment. Having time on my hands and with no particular plan, being willing to listen to my body on the go rather than stick with a predetermined pace, and feeling free and confident enough on the day to follow whims and take a new fork in the path, all help. The enjoyment builds steadily and I become aware that I'm smiling or laughing a little to myself as I run, for no other reason than to be free to choose from minute to minute where I go or how fast or slow to travel. Once or twice I've had that sensation of mild euphoria while running, and for me that marks out a run as being special – what Geoff calls a 'perfect run'.

  10. @cushyno

    All our runs must be on a continuum, not just poor or perfect but somewhere along the line between those two points. Is that sense of a 'perfect run' one that is so far out to the right that it causes astonishment that a such a run on any ordinary day could be so good? The quality of the run is on a level that is beyond our normality or expectations that we can't fail to appreciate it.

    I believe that it's possible to find these 'perfect runs' when the conditions suit our personality, which for me would be loose and flowing and adapting from moment to moment. In all our lives we have to have some amount of planning and maintaining control, and some amount of letting go and coping with whatever is thrown at us in the moment, but we prefer a different balance between these two styles. I know I am happier with the latter and having an instinct for what 'feels' right in the moment, whereas many others are happier when they've planned everything in advance and it all goes to smoothly as expected. I wonder if we each have a different perception of what a perfect run is? The best runs for me probably happen when I've done a degree of necessary planning and preparation in order to get to the start in good condition and in good time with confidence over that type of terrain, so that I'm able to switch off from any external pressures and simply submit to what will be on that day with hours of freedom stretching out before me and a degree of flexibility to the occasion.

    Another great thought provoking post, thank you Geoff.

  11. JohanBoerjesson

    For me the perfect run often comes when I try not to push. The body just find a fast effortless pace by itself. It is often a combination of involuntary taper after many weeks of good training, like when there is other life events that take priority and you have to take a few days of and then just want to squeeze that normal weekday run in at the first given opportunity. These runs are often without structure and expectation but with a sense of happiness because I can finally do what I love. There is however another reoccurring pattern to these runs which is that on several occasions they have come during the spring or the fall with temperatures at a nice 60 – 68 degrees and almost always in combination with rain that do a perfect job of cooling the body without making you cold. The air becomes filled with oxygen and very easy to breathe*. Rain has an effect on me when I run. It makes me focused, all distractions are gone and the body just run perfectly on instinct instead of consciously thinking about heart rate and running technique.

    *This could be because I suffer from pollen allergy

    Thanks for all good columns Geoff, looking forward to see you on trails soon.

    /Johan

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