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Is Running Selfish?

Finding a silver lining to the question “Is running selfish?”

By on November 20, 2013 | Comments

In running, as with any unique pursuit that we choose to partake in, there is often a distinct divide between those who are runners and those who are not. Things which a bunch of runners can discuss for hours can sound like complete gibberish to non-runners. Conversely, when I am asked questions about my running from non-runners, the questions often make little to no sense, making it obvious that they don’t run and they have very little understanding of what it is to be an avid runner. Sometimes, though, this deep divide can be a very enlightening and valuable thing. Sometimes these seemingly oblivious questions can be the most important ones to consider. Through the lens of an avid runner a lot things can become taken for granted that really are worth questioning, even if on the surface the question seems naïve or out of touch with the things that runners might typically question in themselves. In other words, I think we as humans (and as runners) have a tendency to become so immersed in our habits and in our cultures that we oftentimes begin to overlook some very obvious and substantial questions about our most consistent habits and our deepest passions.

One example of this that has come up in my mind a bit recently stems from the question, “Why do you run?” First, I need to clarify this question. I think there are two variations of it. The more common one is simply asking what is it about running that makes us so motivated to get out and go for a run most every day? Do we do it for the health benefits, or for the pure enjoyment, or is there something else that draws us so consistently to do something which many people view as painful and unenjoyable? There is a second version of this question, though. It is the more critical version and, thus, the less-commonly-asked version. But nonetheless, I have been asked this question more than once by curious, non-runner friends. This is the version of the question that is really asking, “What good does your running do for anyone but you, and if it only does you good, is it then not selfish to devote so much of one’s time to it?” Of course, people don’t often ask it in this direct and critical of a way, but if you run as much as I’m sure many of the readers of this website do and you have friends who are not runners, you have probably been asked some variation of this question. As avid runners, it’s easy to dismiss these kinds of questions and simply answer them with some shallow answer and not ever think about it much again. After all, another avid runner would never ask a question like this to a fellow runner.

This could easily be the end of the conversation about this, and we could just push it aside and file it under the premise that non-runners just don’t understand runners. This is what I have done with these types of questions for most of my years as a runner. The reason this doesn’t totally work, though, is that this is actually a really valid and important question. A question that we might never ask of ourselves if we didn’t have friends and family far enough removed from running to think about things in this way. As runners, we just ‘know’ that there is a larger meaning to our running, and that it is beneficial to more than just us, and thus not entirely selfish. In many cases, though, we may not understand why this is the case, but we just know that it is so we don’t explore it any deeper.

Again, this is what I have done for most of my life as a runner. I’ve always felt that my running has a positive impact on people around me so I’ve never really taken much time to think about the reasons why. For much of the past year, though, I have taken large chunks of time off from running including the better part of the past six weeks. Because of this, I feel like I have started to identify more with non-runners in many ways than I have in several years. This is to say that some of these questions which I’ve thought were simply a function of non-runners not understanding runners are actually starting to make more sense to me. And, thus, I have taken some of these questions more seriously than ever before because I see more validity in them than I have previously. This then brings me back to the question of whether running with the kind of focus and dedication that so many of us do is perhaps a selfish act because it really only provides a benefit to us, and not to others in our lives.

Over the past 12-plus months, I’ve come to see that this is a very valid question, and in taking this question more seriously, I’ve come to more clearly understand why the answer to this question is a resounding no. Running is most certainly not a selfish act, and it, in fact, benefits nearly everyone and everything else in our lives. When we build a consistent practice like running, we tend to develop a level of stability, health (physical, mental, and emotional), and contentedness that does so much good for the world that we interact with. People don’t typically run long distances hundreds of times a year unless they have a deep passion for it, and I believe that anything that we have a deep passion for gives us a deep sense of joy and accomplishment which in turn does an immense amount of good for the world around us. This might all sound vague or even wishful thinking, but I believe this is as true and definitive as any other indicator of things that we do that make the world a better place. It may not be as quantifiable, and this is part of the reason it is often doubted, but in my mind it is no less real.

Think of all the times in your life that you have encountered someone who seems excessively joyous, balanced, content, and excited about life. Have these interactions not made you a better person in some, small way? Not to say that runners are automatically more joyous, balanced, content, and excited about life than they would be if they didn’t run, but I have run enough in my life to know that, when I’m really tuned in to my running, that I am more joyous and feel more alive than when I’m not. Not to say that running is the only path to feeling so much joy and passion about life, but it is a path that works really well for a lot of people. In going out most every day and seeking this balance, joy, passion, and excitement for life through our practice of running, we are most definitely doing good for more than just ourselves. We are spreading an energy and a mindset to everyone we come in contact with that makes each of them just a little bit stronger and a little bit more alive than they were before that interaction.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In your mind, is running more selfless or selfish?
  • Do you think you interact with the world a little better after you’ve been on a good run? Do you have an example from when this has been the case?
  • What other hobbies do you have that make you feel balanced, joyful, passionate, and excited about life?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.