Everything Talks

They are out. Have you heard them? I’m talking about the spring peepers–you know, the frogs. Spring doesn’t officially start until March 20, but here in Pennsylvania, Mother Nature has sounded the alarm. I noticed them just the other day while rolling down Elizabethtown Road on my bike. I passed the same spot a day or so later and they were singing again.

I’d have missed them if I were wearing headphones. Thank goodness I wasn’t. There was a time in my life when I would have tried to drown out the discomfort of pushing the pedals with noise in my ears, but those days have passed. Nowadays, I treat cycling like running, and I want to be engaged. I like to hear the hum of my tires, the ebb and flow of my breathing, and the sounds of all that surrounds me. From garbage trucks to geese flying overhead, tuned in is where I want to be.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about these sounds. Howling wind, rustling leaves, falling water, mooing cows, and bleating goats: this is the soundtrack of nature. And then there are humans. We talk and yell, sing and cheer. We cry and grumble. We congratulate and reprimand. We also play instruments and sing songs. Meanwhile our gadgets ding, bing, beep, and buzz. Our machines hum and whir. Gas pumps click. Doors bang. Everything seems to make noise.

And you know what we often do? We block it out with more noise. We jump in the car and turn on the radio. We listen to the news as we eat breakfast and drive to work. We stream podcasts and music. We crank up the volume and pop in noise-canceling headphones. We sit down to dinner and click on the television. Sometimes we do it simply to enjoy something. Other times we do it to distract ourselves.

It’s not all bad. The noise, even the sounds meant for distraction, can have their place. And yet, I can’t help but think about what we’re missing when we plug in and check out. It’s not so much that what we are listening to is bad. It’s more about missing out on whatever it’s drowning out.

I feel like a lot of people experience a very similar dynamic when it comes to training and racing. Even when you enjoy something such as running, cycling, or cross-country skiing, there is still an element of discomfort that is associated with these activities. Often our response is to try to ignore or drown out such feelings. We tell ourselves to “quiet the voices.” At times this can be helpful, but I think there may be a better solution.

What’s better than tuning out? Tuning in! We spend a lot of time doing uncomfortable things, things that take us to the intersection of pleasure and pain. What have I learned at that intersection? I’ve come to realize that one of my biggest sources of motivation is a competitive spirit.

When I am standing at that intersection, there is a war being waged between myself and all of those voices in my head. If I pretend that they don’t exist, then I miss my opportunity to compete with them. If I allow them to say their piece, however, I create a competition and give myself an opportunity to fight back. To quote Jens Voigt, the great German cyclist, it is in these moments that I have the opportunity to let the competition rage and respond by saying, “Shut up legs! Do what I tell you to do!”

As many of my thoughts go, this one is not only for training. This extends to the rest of life as well. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that sometimes life can throw some very challenging curve balls. But if running, cycling, Jens Voigt, and the spring peepers have taught us anything, it is that we should listen and respond to the sounds of life.

I imagine that Jens Voigt’s legs don’t usually stop feeling fatigued simply because he told them to shut up. What I do think, however, is that he is motivated by waging war against them. His mindset is not to lay low and wait for the pain to pass, but instead to fight it head on. So next time life cranks up its volume, stay engaged, listen closely, and let it bring fuel and fire to your stride. After all, everything talks. Let’s all join the conversation.

Call for Comments

  • What sounds do you hear if you turn off distractions and listen to the world around you?
  • And what does your mind say when there is nothing distracting it?
Zach Miller running

Photo: Nathan Miller

A pretty lake at sunrise

Photo: Zach Miller

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 6 comments

  1. Graham

    I have tried running with music once. I pulled out the earphone (I couldn’t face the idea of having two in) within a mile. I felt so out of touch with myself and the world around me.

  2. Dan Pfistner

    Well-articulated and so true! There is so much in life to engage with. I have only recently started running with headphones (sometimes), and have had to gradually introduce them, because I thought it was so strange to feel cut off from the world. I think I’ve concluded that there is a time and a place for “tuning in” but I don’t ever want it to come at the expense of being able to tune in. So much of what I love about running is the space it provides to clear the noise and be present. Let it be a lesson to us all that we can not only enjoy while running, but also learn to carry with us into the rest of our busy and too-cluttered lives. Thanks for the reminder, Zach!

  3. Pierre

    It’s so true,without headphones running or cycling is a kind of meditation and you are alone with your thought and embrace nature around you.

  4. Lars Laird Iversen

    Last evening I was running along the well preparere path towards the windmill here i Wellington, NZ. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a sheep, bleating! There shouldn’t be sheep on this trail, I thought. Turned the corner, and there stood a small black bird, a tui. A master of imitation. On my way back, a rabbits eyes reflected the light from my headtorch. Magic to be able to meet wildlife (that can imitate domestic animals) so close to a capital city.

  5. Greg Veltkamp

    My mother was an elementary school music teacher and I grew up with moms’ idiom that “there’s music in everything.” I often find that music in my running, whether it is from listening to the world as I pass through it, or from my long run playlist. I see my running as an orchestra of give and take, effort and rest, crescendo and diminuendo, and for me, music can be the conductor. During periods of increased effort (and conversation with my legs and lungs), the right song does not tune me out, but rather focuses my efforts on the task at hand and inspires me to reach that point where effort and recovery begin to balance back out. I also notice that the “right” song often has a tendency to come on at just the right moment!
    All that said, I have to be in the right headspace and moment to listen to music while running. A beautiful sunrise, the pittering of rainfall and the quaking aspens all hold magic and inspiration of their own and a special bond is made with the surroundings when you listen to this “music.”
    To keep my orchestra fresh and vibrant, I’ll keep both approaches and hear moms’ voice in my ear reminding me to keep searching for the music!

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