Running as Reflection

AJWs TaproomI don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, modern life has become increasingly complicated, busy, and chaotic. I know this is not a new phenomenon but between jobs, relationships, kids, and the seemingly explosive growth in informational technology, I barely have time to breathe these days. Pile on top of that the need to take care of myself physically and emotionally and it’s a wonder I haven’t gone completely crazy. Yet, alas, that is where running comes in.

Over the past couple years, as I have left my most competitive running days behind me, I have found a new wave of satisfaction in my running. While I have grown less dependent on mileages and splits, I have become more dependent on the restorative power of my daily run to provide a rare and often fleeting opportunity for reflection. My daily run has become a place where I can truly take a timeout from the daily grind and look within, address challenging personal questions, and seek to find some direction in my life. Running is now much more about my mental state than my physical state.

The late great running writer Dr. George Sheehan wrote often about how his daily run gave him the grounding he needed to live the rest of his life. His famous quip, “The first 30 minutes is for my body and the second 30 minutes is for my soul”, has resonated with generations of runners. In his experience, an hour out on the roads gave Dr. Sheehan the strength and focus to live a life of meaning and purpose in the midst of his full-time job and myriad responsibilities. I would suggest that as life has become more complex and immediate, the need for reflection time is greater than ever.

Certainly, there are those who find those moments in truly contemplative practices; yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and etc. are all great ways to take a few moments away to find that center. But for me, I must admit, nothing beats running as reflection.

For example, just yesterday morning I went to my local track before school. The main reason I ended up there was that my 13-year old son Logan was doing his speed work with his cross-country coach and I needed to drop him off. I certainly was not going to jump into the workout with him but I figured I might as well log a few miles, so off I went. It was a typical September morning with the sun rising over Carter’s Mountain and a handful of runners putting in their paces around the track. I gently settled into an eight-minute-per-mile shuffle and turned inward. Seemingly random thoughts flooded my head: plans for the day, my youngest son’s field trip, tomorrow night’s Board Meeting, the ultrarunner of the year voting, our new iPad program at school, and the 2013 Western States 100. Finally, my mind settled in on that last one and I realized that even though I am hopelessly obsessed with that race I had not, in the 12 weeks since the event, truly reflected on that experience in any meaningful, tangible way. Amazingly, this random September Wednesday on the Monticello High School track opened the way for that reflective opportunity and I took it. Five nondescript miles on a boring nondescript track became my best run of the year!

Running takes us to so many places. Expansive mountains, breathtaking deserts, deep forests, and rolling roads. It opens up the world to us in so many ways and allows us to connect to the natural world in ways that are often difficult to articulate. But, perhaps more importantly, when we let it, running connects us to an internal world that can be every bit as expansive as the Rocky Mountains and perhaps even more revealing. Running can expose an inner world of reflection allowing us to ask questions we didn’t know needed asking and seeking answers to some of our most challenging internal dilemmas. Even in the midst of an ever-increasingly fast-paced chaotic world, putting one foot in front of the other can provide a reflective place that can truly change our lives.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Stone Brewing  in San Diego, California. Their Levitation Amber Ale is a subtly sweet ale with a rich finish and a warm aftertaste. I had it on tap last week at a local pub and was impressed with how it did not feel heavy like some ambers. If you’re an IPA person looking for a decent amber, this one’s worth a try (like just about everything else from Stone’s).

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Let’s be totally honest here, how much do you think running helps with your mental health? Are you far closer to ‘sane’ because of it?
  • When do you find yourself reflecting inwardly during a run? Is it when you’re running in a beautiful place? Is it related to how you feel? Is it more randomly?

There are 6 comments

  1. Charlie M.

    Top ten things I reflect on during a run:

    (1) Why is my body in the "Entropy" phase of life?

    (2) Why does no amount of rain gear keep me dry?

    (3) Why do the neighbors make fun of my yellow Hoka Mafate 2's?

    (4) Why do gnats always find my eyes on a run?

    (5) Why can't I bottle the runner's high? Better than champagne…

    (6) Why can't I afford a Hypoxico Tent and an Anti-Gravity Treadmill?

    (7) Why does a Farmer's Blow make running so much easier?

    (8) Why do I like regular laces more than speed laces?

    (9) Why does compression make me cranky?

    (10) Why did I buy a vest the same color as my shorts? Stupid…

  2. Neal Gorman

    Early yesterday morning I ran hard downhill repeats from atop Carters. The Harvest Moon dropping below the Appalachian horizon was really something. Of course this sort of drama always adds to the experience of you're babbling about in this Tap Room addition. : )

  3. Joe Troyer

    I have to agree. I ran for the longest time just focused on my health. Don't get me wrong, if that's all we do with it then that is great. But in the last year and a half I have found a greater connectedness. Running has helped me learn who I am, reconnect me with God and nature and not to mention other people. Great thoughts Andy.

  4. Eric C

    I very much identify with two points you made here:

    1) Early on in a run, the thoughts come tumbling out in random and unexpected ways. The more surprising and intense this is, the more it was overdue! The jigsaw puzzle is getting dumped out on the floor. If the run is long enough, a lot of the puzzle gets put back together before I'm done. (useful for solving engineering problems at work too!)

    2) I 'discovered' ultra this year. The transition to a paradigm where "9 minute miles are really fast, walking is good, run when you feel like it, plan on keeping this up all day" … it's been totally freeing and really really healthy for me. Now if I could just FINISH an ultra…

  5. Andy

    Despite being a shrink, I've never found running to help me reflect, gain insights, or resolve internal struggles. On the contrary, the reason running is so salutary is precisely because it allows (forces?) me to focus on the simplest and primal of things (breathe, soft footfall, watch that root, wow look at that hawk, sure hope that black bear isn't hungry) — both internal and external. Yeah, I know, sounds like a trite zen schtick. But it works, at least for me. The ultimate outcome is, I guess, the same: peace of mind and greater sanity. Though if you asked my friends and family about the relationship between running long distances over expansive terrain and my level of sanity they would have a different opinion …

  6. Brandon

    AJW – I have to tell you how much I've come to enjoy your Friday editorials. Reading this today reminds me of so many things, but specifically it reminds me of my internal debate about music while running trails. As I'm getting ready for my first 50-miler I've been wondering about bringing music back into my long runs. I used to think I "needed" music, needed some external source to keep me moving. What I've since found is that my own reflection keeps me going like music never could. I recently brought my iPod along on a longer training run and actually found the music a little annoying as it intruded on my thoughts after maybe 30mins. I ended up shoving it back into my pocket and telling myself I'd never use it again. BUt when I think about all the hours the 50-miler would take, I relent a little. I'll probably bring it with me for the second half. I'm starting to ramble. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us!

  7. Adam S.

    The distance of my mid-week runs is usually governed by how long it takes to stop thinking about the things that are causing stress in my life. Once I hit a point where I eventually realize that I have been cruising along without actively thinking, I know it's time to turn around. The weeks that I force myself to take a rest week the wife notices a difference and even encourages me to get outside for a bit…for everyone's sanity!

      1. Jeff

        Couldn't agree more. The mental health benefits I derive from running stem not from the chance for reflection, but rather the opportunity to quiet the chatter in my head and let my mind rest. My "best" runs as the ones where my consciousness remains alert but still. A peaceful calm that I can describe only as a very "pure" experince of moving through space with awareness but not a shred of self-consciousness.

  8. Seamus Foy

    Great article, thanks!

    I agree that we need to create space in our lives to get away from everything and be reflective. For me, nothing compares to running. No matter what is going on, running recalibrates me.

  9. jhb

    One of the great things about moving slowly in an ultra is that you can chat as you're going along.

    Even if its just 'have you run this before?', 'you feeling OK?' or'is this the right way or are we really this lost?' it passes the time and is one of my favourite things about ultrarunning – how social and friendly it is.

    Yes I know this makes me the annoying chatty guy who won't shut up :)

  10. Sebastian

    To provide a bit of a contrarian view, running can provide stress at times as well. For example, having signed-up for a big race, being busy at work/with family/ fill in the blank, and not having enough time to put in the required mileage. Or, as another example, feeling a slight pain and being worried if it is the onset of an injury, overtraining, or whatever.. Personally I enjoy the running, and the preparing for a race (not for survival, but having a pleasant experience and associated finishing time) to keep doing it. I recently dumped my Garmin and just run on feel/time and that has improved the experience somewhat. Despite the above, I already have jitters for an 100m I plan to run in April and the prerequisite tune-up races.. Why do I keep running, it is bit like the frog and the scorpion, it is my nature (and probably for most visitors of this website).

    Thank you to AJW, Bryon, Meghan, and all the others for highlighting the beauty of this sport and our beautiful earth..

  11. Duane VanderGriend

    Andy, you touch on the main reason why I like being an ultrarunner. It is related to going the distance steadily, even slowly, without guilt for not focusing more on speed. The length allows us, even forces us, to keep our heart rates down. And I cannot run reflectively or meditatively as well when I'm running at higher heart rates. I wouldn't say it makes me saner but running definitely makes me more mentally healthy. And a key to finding a reflective pace is to start a run slowly. Not that starting fast never gets you there, but I bet most of our happiest runs happened with a slow start.

  12. Sarah Lavender Smith


    I read this today, your birthday, because I was too busy and distracted to read it the day it was published. While I'm having some of my least impressive runs these days in terms of mileage and times, I'm having my most productive and needed runs mentally to put my thoughts and life in order. Thanks so much for being this generation's George Sheehan.

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