Running & Happiness: Joy Amongst the Tribe

A year ago, I quit my job as an attorney in Washington, DC, sold my house, and moved out West. Aside from getting to spend more time with a wonderful girl, the purpose of this life-spanning U-turn was to devote my working day to iRunFar.com. No single decision in my life has created more happiness in my life than this one.

I’ve been trail running since 1992. Few things provide me as much joy as rolling down singletrack at a good clip. If the singletrack is in a gorgeous place, all the better. On these outings I’m free. I’m powerful. I’m myself. The joy is inherent in the movement. The urge, primal. I thought the flexibility of my new job would allow me to sate this urge and provide nearly endless miles of joy. This was true throughout the summer of 2009’s trail running roadtrip.

After traveling from trailhead to trailhead throughout the intermountain west for nearly three months, I made my way to my new home in California. I quickly learned that there were no trails that I could run to from home. Barely two months later I was beset with plantar fasciitis. My mileage plummeted while I stuck to running the flat highway that travels past my home.

So here I am so near running paradise with a flexible schedule, unable to indulge my trail running fantasies for half a year. How’s that for irony?

I could wallow in self pity, but I’ve got no reason to do so. I’m happy and enjoying “trail running” more than ever. How’s that, you ask? Well, what this time away from vigorous trail running has taught me is that I derive a great deal of my trail running related happiness from the community of runners.

Trail Running WasatchDuring my downtime, I’ve vicariously run grand adventures through my friends, traded knowledge and encouragement with complete strangers, and wildly daydreamed of trail running related projects with potential collaborators. I could, perhaps, think of these interactions as proxies for trail running itself. That’s not the case.

The running community and, in particular, the trail running community foster group happiness a few different ways.

As a sport, running is an individual pursuit. Yes, some runners focus on competing versus others and we all may in the course of a race, but, in the end, running is a battle versus oneself. This leaves us able to encourage one another to achieve our respective bests without second thought. This, in turn, creates a positive environment for all of us.

Of course, running is a near universal experience whatever one’s fitness level. This means that the fastest runner can communicate directly with the slowest runner and vice versa. Hang around the finish of any trail ultra and you’ll see this in action. What’s more, this communication reinforces the community. I’ve often see the top runners at races like the Western States 100 hang around the finish to encourage slower friends and complete strangers until the final runner is across the finish.

Those are just the more tangible aspects of happiness that can be found in running. No doubt, the ethereal aspects create as much, if not more happiness. I can’t pin down (nor do I need to) the reason behind the joy I find bouncing between aid stations at a race I’m covering, in hanging out at the finish of a race, when chatting with a friend about possible running adventures, in helping a coaching client achieve his or her goals, or simply emailing with a long time friend about providing iRunFar bumper stickers for the race that he’s directing. It’s these day-to-day interactions that keep me happy when other parts of my life are more troubled. In the end, those interactions with all of you are why I do what I do.

I’d love to hear how the running community adds happiness to your life!

[I wrote this piece for another website six months ago, but it rings every bit as true today.]