And The ‘Why Do You Run?’ Essay Contest Winner Is…

I have read through each of the 103 essays received for our now-complete ‘Why Do You Run?’ essay contest. Before I comment on what I found, I want to say thank you to everyone who took part in this contest. I went into this thinking I was going to be doing a selfless and generous thing by offering the prize of a free entry into the Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. I didn’t realize how much I would be receiving by having the opportunity to read more than 100 heartfelt responses. It was interesting and informative to read the little bits of wisdom found in nearly every essay, as well as to identify the trends inclusive in large numbers of essays. I feel like I understand the people that make up this sport a decent bit more than I did a couple weeks ago. This isn’t to imply that I can now say with total clarity why I run, but having such a direct and intimate look at why so many other people believe they run has certainly given me a good bit of inspiration, and a good bit of insight into the collective mindset of runners.

The most distinct trend I found is that at least 50% of the runners who submitted responses see their running as having what I would call a therapeutic quality. In other words, running for a large number of people is used as a means to cope with a wide range of life’s challenges. Grief, anger, sadness, stress, anxiety, depression, poor health, and the logistical busyness of everything else in life where just some of the challenges that respondents mentioned using running to cope with. Statements like the following were not uncommon:

…anger turned to sadness. I didn’t want to cry in front of others, so I would go off to run. Funny, I found I couldn’t cry and run at the same time. Because of this, my runs became increasingly longer.

These kinds of statements are certainly no less intimate, personal, and vulnerable because they are surprisingly ‘common.’ As someone who has at times used running as a coping mechanism, it feels comforting in a way to see that so many other people use running in this way, too:

I felt myself free-falling into a spiral of anxiety, overwhelmed with feelings and emotions I didn’t know how to process, practically vibrating from the fear that I was so inherently flawed that no one could ever love me. To cope I started running…

The other very distinct trend, which was also included in about 50% of the essays was the practice of using running as a way to get into a different head space than where we spend most of our life: “to connect with self,” “to feel the ‘flow’,” “to experience a runner’s high,” and “the space between the noise” are just a handful of the phrases used to describe this process.

For me, this was the most inspiring and beautiful thing I took away from reading these essays. It makes me very happy to know that so many people “…run to feel the thoughts strip away… run for the silence… search for the Zen.” It brings a smile to my face to know that it’s not just me that feels like “I do it for moments when everything clicks and I get at least 3 ft. of air bounding over rocks, roots, and wildflowers… and when the tears come pouring out, unwarranted in the last mile of a race.” I’m apparently not the only one who sees running as “…a vehicle for me to find a rhythm, a synchronicity, and a connection to something greater and intangible in this fascinating world.” It’s very exciting and comforting to know that so many people use running as a way to get to a unique, transformative, and special place.

The vast majority of essays fit into one (or both) of these two categories, but there were also several folks who touched on the idea of running because of the sense of accomplishment it gives them. Here is one particularly well stated example of this:

For that moment I am doing what most others are not–I am beyond human and average and thus it makes the return back to my life enjoyable. I got to wear the super hero cape, I rescued someone in distress–even if it was just myself…

Several other folks mentioned that they run “because I can.” This was a phrase that was used in a few different ways, but in most cases fit loosely into the category of feeling a sense of accomplishment as in the following:

I run because I can. I can run 3 miles hard. I can run 10 miles slow… everywhere I go and everywhere I look I have people and voices telling me that I can’t, but when I run I can.

There were also a handful of entrants that touched on the idea of running simply because they are instinctively and inherently runners. I particularly liked these thoughts as well. “I run because I am a runner.” It sounds so simple, and almost too cliché, but perhaps most of us are fueled by something this simple and inherent. For me, personally, I know that there is some larger, inexplicable ‘thing’ that goes into my process of stepping out the door for a run. Perhaps it’s simply that I am a runner, and I have no choice but to run. I will always be a runner, even if I go years without running.

There were even a few people who used fiction, poetry, or a more-creative/less-direct process to depict why they run. I found these essays to be creative, enjoyable, inspirational, and valuable. One of these made such an impression that it was chosen as the runner-up to the best overall essay. This was written by Lawrence Rowland, and is titled, Why She Runs: Training in the French Alps. Here it is in its entirety:

Isabel reached the darkening refuge after Esther. Absorbed with making tea, Esther does not hear Isabel. Esther’s face is quiet, composed, and beautiful in its absence of regard.

“Isabel!”, its joyful note was unmistakable  and it made Isabel joyful too.

They drank tea standing out before an endless but dying light, thronged by hills. As natural as the fall of dark, there comes the desire to push on.

The heat was fading from the ground. There were already two bright planets lying across the course of the low but rising moon, itself set against the black and turquoise lower sky, itself broken by shoals of dark brown cloud.

Broken limestone underfoot still showed whiter than the sky. Leaves brushed foreheads as they crossed a slim watery cleft; even in twilight its rowan-trees had brilliantly orange berries. Isabel noticed a smaller path that broke off. It was definite, as if some animal or person had set off, several times, here where there was no obvious change of prospect to take you from the main path. But up it went, boldly, diagonally; you would have to want to go that way, and now Isabel too, Isabel wanted that. Because it had, so would she.

Without a break in step, she turned. The gradient steepened, she strengthened her effort. Esther followed; Isabel was leading, and if she was to take them this way, then she would; it was not conscious but in that trust they were partners.

The track ended in a gully where the small animal had desired water; Isabel laughed, that was all it was, but again that was everything. Isabel leaned against the side and took water in her hands. The water was so fresh; perhaps it is the air that gets into the water as it tumbles, perhaps it was the exertion, it didn’t matter; Isabel and the animal, Isabel and Esther, all had chosen the happiest line, and they secretly rejoiced in the unspeaking closeness of friends. The half-moon was dark, and water spilt down their faces.

Creative, well written, and full of poetic symbolism. Thank you, Lawrence, for taking the time to share this.

This leads me to the essay that was chosen as the one that answered the question ‘Why do you run?’ in the most creative, thought provoking, and well-stated way. It was nearly impossible to choose just one winner from among so many great choices, but this one stood out to me for the way in which it combined nearly everything mentioned above, and ultimately settled, at least for now, on running “because it is there.” I’m also a sucker for well-placed, self-deprecating humor, and the winning essay, written by Steve Luker, contained just enough of this to make it funny without becoming silly. Congratulations Steve, you are the winner of a free entry into Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. I look forward to running with you this year in Alaska! Without further ado, here is the winning essay:

‘Because it’s there.’ Mallory’s famous Everest quote is either A.) a profound riddle for the ages that perfectly explains my running motivation or, B.) just really stupid. Unwilling to concede that one man in tweed figured it all out 100 years ago in just three words, I looked for better explanations. I had 347 more words and a World Wide Web at my disposal and, damn it, I was going to use them!

Employing data mining techniques, K-NN regression, and sentiment analyses, I compiled and analyzed every reference ever made on the Web containing any iteration of the phrase “Why I run.” (I’m quite fun at parties.)

The results were uninspiring. Top key words like strongfit, and happy mirrored my own thoughts but seemed too cliché to be believed. While browsing friends’ Instagram lunch/vacation pics, I got the idea that maybe the Internet isn’t the richest vein to mine when looking for truth. We tend to keep truth under wraps because, like Hokas or men’s compression shorts, being honest with ourselves, though beneficial, can get ugly. I had to dig deeper for answers. But how?

Hypnosis, Rorschach tests, Jagermeister – attempts to circumvent our own defenses take many forms. After an embarrassingly emotional run that MAY have involved T-Swift, I realized that music tapped into my pure, unfiltered essence. Could it be that my true running motivation lurked on my iPod? I promptly copied all lyrics from my running playlists onto a spreadsheet and created a word cloud showing terms that appeared the most. The results were startling.

PainLossFear – the opposite of my previous results – topped the list; exposing the undeniable truth that my motivation comes from subconscious struggles. It seems past shortcomings accumulated until they formed a mountain impeding my happiness. Running – this sadistic sport that is every other sport’s punishment – seems to help. After each run, this mountain of shadows seems a little smaller, as if the dirt shaken off my shoes came from its summit. With enough miles, perhaps it will eventually disappear. But not today. Today I run because it is there.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate how thankful I am for everyone taking the time to submit such thought provoking and personal essays. I feel honored to have had this glimpse into all of your lives.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts about the common themes Geoff recognized in the essays: coping, to get some peace and head space, and to just be ourselves? Do any of these themes resonate with you?
  • How about the winning essay by Steve Luker or the runner-up essay by Lawrence Rowland? Do either of those essays speak to why you run or why our community runs in a universal way?

There are 5 comments

  1. KenZ

    Awesome. Although it really makes me want to ask, so I am: any chance we could see some of the others? Or compile them into a short stories book (with permission of the authors)? I'd love to read through 103 moving essays, well written or not, at my leisure.

  2. Raiderxc

    Hmm. I guess I skipped the day the essay contest was announced! That will teach me. Great reading.
    Like so many others Geoff mentions, I run for the simple reason that, at my core, at the depth of my soul, I am a runner. I was born to run, and I knew it from an early age. A high school classmate of mine recently remarked on Facebook that her most vivid memory of me dates back to 5th grade, running in the annual field day at the end of the year. I run all the disciplines, to this day, because I can't shake my love of the track or the turf. In 2014 I completed a 60k trail run, qualified for Senior nationals in the 1500 meters and the 800 meters (by winning those races in the Michigan and Kentucky Senior Olympics), ran USATF XC nationals, paced the 4:00 group at the Rite-Aid Cleveland Marathon, and raced numerous club and team events to support my team and sponsor. 30-plus races this year at age 52, and I hope I am not slowing down yet. I still have a few bucket list items to accomplish. (If anyone has a good idea for my first 100-miler, I'd love to know it…something non-mountainous, as I don't have the ability to train on large hills here). Nothing else brings me the peace, the joy, the fulfillment of being out on the road or in the woods, or running scalding hot laps on a track. Running was and always will be my first true love.

  3. UltraRunnerPete

    Thanks for hosting this contest, Geoff! It was both fun and challenging to try to think of a way to present the thoughts and sensation that can come with a good trail run and put those feelings into words. I hope iRunFar will have more writing contests like this in the future.

  4. juandatabase126

    I was wondering what ended up happening with your overtraining syndrome? did you finally recovered? i am right now 3 months into my recovery from chronic overtraining. When I read your post it just feels exactly like me and I completely understand what you went through because this is where I am right now. Do you probably have an advice ?

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