Discipline, Purpose, And The Capacity To Dream

AJW's TaproomLast month, during the waning hours of the Western States 100, I was approached by an older gentleman while I waited on the infield for the final few finishers.

“AJW, I don’t want to bother you but I’ve been dying to ask you a question. After all these years in the sport, what are the three things that keep you coming back?”

As I was starting to think about formulating an answer to his question, a ripple came through the crowd as it was announced that Scott Mills, the oldest runner in the field and on his quest for his 18th finish, had cleared Robie Point and was heading for the track. In that moment, I thanked the gentleman for his question, told him I’d get back to him, and shuffled up the road to meet Scott and his crew.

I never had a chance to get back to the gentleman with my answer, so I’ll do so now. Here are the three things and keep me coming back to running:


Of all the things in my life, nothing has taught me more about the importance of discipline than long-distance running. The willingness to put in the work, day after day, week after week, and month after month is a prerequisite for the ultrarunner. Without discipline the long-distance running endeavor and its inevitable partner, simple, good, old-fashioned hard work, is a shallow and incomplete exercise. However, with discipline, accrued over time and honed through a series of successes and failures, we become better runners and, I dare say, better people.


Many of us who are closing in on middle age have battled a similar internal debate. What am I doing and why am I doing it? What is it in my life that really matters? While most of us focus on the ‘what,’ running has taught me to focus on the ‘why.’ I have found that once I’ve answered the why question, the what tends to flow from there. Running gives my life structure and focus, allows me to address the issues of the rest of my life, and makes me a complete person. Simply put, the absence of running terrifies me and that alone gets me out the door every morning and makes me more of who I am. Nothing gets me closer to the essence of my being than running.

The Capacity to Dream

In an increasingly busy, noisy, and complex world, running propels me into the future. Running opens up my conscience to the big picture and allows me to look ahead to something better, something bigger, and something deeper. The dream of that special something out there is made plain in the daily act of putting one foot in front of the other. I am not sure why this is but I know it’s true. Most of the long-distance runners I know, especially those who’ve been at it for a while, know this inherently, running exposes us to a dreamscape full of wonder and possibility, as long as you let it. That, more often than not, is what brings me contentment at the end of a run and closes the circle on the challenge of beginning.

And so, Mr. Friendly Stranger on the Track at Auburn, those are the three things that keep me coming back. Nothing glamorous there, I know. But in the elegant simplicity of our sport, I prefer to keep the fancy stuff tucked away. For it is through discipline, purpose, and the capacity to dream that I find most of my comfort. And in that comfortable place I have found a home.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Sufferfest Beer Company Taper IPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Sufferfest Beer Company in San Francisco, California. Sufferfest is the first brewery I know of to actually produce a gluten-free beer that is palatable. Their Taper IPA is a solid 7.5% ABV beer that is smooth, flavorful, and crafted in a way that makes you want another. If you’ve eschewed gluten-free beer in the past, give this one a shot.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • First, Mr. Friendly Stranger on the Track at Auburn, are you out there? I have to wonder what inspired this question of AJW? And even more, can we ask your question of you? What keeps you coming back to running?
  • This exercise should be useful and enjoyable for many of us, so what do you think? What makes you come back to running on your dedicated and passionate basis? What drives you to put one foot in front of the other so many times over?

There are 10 comments

  1. Run GMD

    Thanks, AJW! This was an especially refreshing trip to your “Tap Room”. You really challenged me to do some work inside my own head this morning.

    What makes me come back?

    Freedom – On the run I am released from the worries and cares of my day to day life. I choose my own path and experience. I derive as much joy (or suffering) from my run as choose. The only judgement on the trail is my own. No one tells me where to go or how fast to run. The mountain doesn’t complain about how I run it. The mountain doesn’t care whether I run it. My only master is myself.

    Empowerment – Whether good, bad, or indifferent, each run provides a unique sense of accomplishment that empowers me. I know that I accomplished something physical with its own objective reality. “I ran that trail.” “I went from there to here under my own power.” Even when I don’t complete the run I set out to do, when I finish I do know what did accomplish that day and that I did it all on my own. In a strange way, my “bad” runs are sometimes even more empowering, because I know that I faced adversity. Even if I didn’t overcome adversity I know I am better and stronger for having risen to the challenge.

    Individualism – From freedom and empowerment springs this truth: No one else can run my run for me. No one else gets to have my personal experience on the trail. Even running with a group or a friend, my running experience is my own – a singular event, unique in the entire history of creation. My runs are intensely private and personal, and I cherish them.

    Could I find these same qualities in other areas of my life? Perhaps. But after all this time I know that running long is the most direct, most vital way for me to get at them.

  2. Thomas K

    Great take on the universal WHY – why is running, on road, in the forest, on the trail etc so magnetic?

    For me it can be summed up in three words:

    > confidence

    > fellowship

    > satisfied

    See you on the trail – happy running…

  3. Tony Mollica

    Great article and question! My answer isn’t as deep as the other answers provided ( and probably more shallow than the future responses also).

    1. Most of my guy friends my age (59) that don’t run have Santa Claus bellies. Although I don’t have a flat stomach, I’m not getting any invitations to play Santa when Christmas rolls around. I would like to keep it that way.

    2. I like being in good shape and running helps me stay there.

    3. Because I run I, venture out in all kinds of weather when I wouldn’t be out if I wasn’t running. We all see many cool things while running outside that those who stayed in didn’t see. I also am able to explore more of my town and the places I happen to visit while running, than I would see normally without running.

    Run on my friends!

  4. Doug K

    it is one of the few things that makes the voices in my head shut up, a form of high-impact meditation.
    There is joy too, which is not easily found.
    I have no self-discipline anymore but still manage to run somehow..

  5. SKK

    1. Because I can. Many people aren’t able to run and I’m thankful that I have been blessed with good health.
    2. I get to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation….even in our small mountains east of the Mississippi.
    3. Competition (with myself). Being well north of 50 yrs old, I still enjoy pushing myself to get faster and run longer. If we don’t fail occasionally, we are cheating ourselves.

    And it doesn’t hurt the motivation any knowing that I can eat more when I run! Keep moving.

  6. Steve Pero

    What keeps me coming back day to day is one word…Hardrock. It’s the only event I “really” care to participate in and if I fail to qualify this fall at age 66, I will continue to be in Silverton to help the next generation enjoy that same event.
    Ever since that day in 2000 when i pulled into Silverton, I fell in the love with the place, the run and the people.

  7. Nelson Prater

    “The absence of running terrifies me” really hit home with me.

    I’m 56 and must think I’m going to run forever – because I have this big tub in the closet full of multiple brand new pairs of my favorite running shorts, and way more than a lifetime supply of running socks. And none of the shorts and socks I’m currently wearing are even approaching wearing out.

    Back to “the absence of running terrifies me” – to be really honest, I run because the group of people I crave to be with are runners, and I know if I stopped running, I would slowly phase out of their lives. And, that terrifies me.

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