Unitasking – The Simple Beauty of the Solo Long Run

AJWs TaproomThere are many challenges facing us as people in the new modern era. And, these challenges impact everything we do; our jobs, our families, our passions, our values, and our faith. Additionally, we are increasingly challenged by things we can’t control, don’t understand, and, in the end, don’t really care about. These are the things we may want to see sustained and may be things worth pursuing but they are also, ultimately, distractions. And that is the biggest problem I see with the world today; complete and total distraction.

There was a time when doing one thing at a time was enough. Doing one thing well was what society expected of us and it was the way in which a meaningful life was lived. It gave us purpose and made us human. But, over the past decade or so, we have lost touch with this idea and we’ve, consequently, been overwhelmed by multi-tasking. To be perfectly frank, these days it is not good enough to do one thing well, or even two or three, we are in midst of the age of doing everything, all the time, everywhere at any time. Sometimes, I think that if you don’t have a sense of urgency you have no sense at all. This is precisely the reason that, to me, running is as important now as it’s ever been.

You see, I am as guilty as the next guy about being caught up in the multi-tasking fury. My days are filled with intermittent, seemingly random jumps from one activity to another with no sense of connection or meaning linking things together. I go from meeting to meeting, contact to contact, task to task in ways that are never reflective and rarely even interconnected. It’s as if my life is made up of a series of random tasks determined by a force far beyond my ability to comprehend. And, at the end of the day, I am often left asking the question, what did I do today?

Well, most days, the answer to that question is oblique at best and downright pathetic at worst, but if I have succeeded in getting in a run that day, the mundane, superficial, sometimes-hard-to-define stuff is a little easier to justify and that is why the long solo run is a place of such solace. When I am running, alone, on the trail, with only the sound of my breathing and my foot plants in my head I have no choice but to unitask. Nobody can call me, interrupt me, or usurp my moment. Is this selfish? Perhaps. Is this my way of detaching myself from the Real World? Certainly. Is this some sort of an “escape” for someone who can’t handle the demands of 21st Century society? I’ll let others be the judge of that.

What I do know is that my run allows me to find some sense of balance. It allows me to address the good and the bad on my terms and in my time. It gives me the opportunity to slow down and breathe and it allows me to do one thing and one thing only. In an age when doing one thing at a time is generally frowned upon, I like to think it gives me joy. And, at the end of that run, that’s all I need.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Hardywood Belgian DIPAThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from a small, new brewery in Richmond, VA called Hardywood Park. Their Belgian-inspired Double IPA is actually the result of a mistake in their brewing process and stands as a good lesson to us all that sometimes doing the wrong thing is the best thing. :-)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • So, what DID you do today?
  • Did you unitask? If so, when and how’d it go?

There are 8 comments

  1. Andy

    You've echoed my sentiments when folks always ask me why I do this. And why, despite the family's dismay, I *never* bring my phone on runs, no matter how long or remote.

    Of course, reading and replying on iRF is a bit of multi-tasking (I should be working!), but couldnt' resist being the 4th Andy in a row …

    And bottoms up — what a great choice for UROC weekend in the Blue Ridge!

  2. Brandon

    My wife always asks me, "How was your run?" I never feel like I have the words to describe to her just how much I needed that time on the trail, away from all the things that demand my attention. A place where I can just allow my brain to meditate in the rythmic sounds of my breathing, a place where the only demands are by my heart, yearning for more trail. So instead I just smile and tell her it was good. Great article, great perspective!


  3. OOJ

    Uni-tasking is very tough and terribly rare: in a real sense, not only is it performing only one task, but to truly be mentally present-centered on that task, ALONE. Many (too many) of my runs are spent mulling other life things, instead of being truly absorbed in The Run.

    I think that mental multi-tasking is why most of us enjoy running: being able to think things through. But there IS something to truly being present-centered, running only to run, and that may be the source of the true "flow state".

    Yoga's been a good tool in practicing being present-centered and truly uni-tasking – both physical and mental!

    1. Mike B.

      Running is like meditation. I spend my time running thinking only about running and don't allow my mind to drift to other subjects. The act of focusing on one thing allows my mind to relax. When I am done with my run my mind feels refreshed even if my body is exhausted.

  4. Mary

    So appreciated this, AJ. Especially with a morning that included emails at 4:30am. I may have to post this in my office for people to read while I am out unitasking.

  5. Capn_Q

    Thanks for an eloquent illustration of why so many of us run, Andy. The focus and clarity I find when alone on the trails has brought me to some of my most important decisions and revelations. "Detachment from the real world" by immersion in the natural world.


  6. Leerunner

    Thanks for this, Andy. I truly need the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other while I soak in the nature around me. It's a real blessing to be able to take the time to simply run somewhere in the woods. Very often a good long run gives me the sanity I need to lovingly lead my beautifully chaotic family of five.

  7. Leard

    I think trail running, in particular, helps foster this, you can't get too wrapped up in any thoughts other than "root, root, rock, stick, spider, snake, root…."

  8. Tahoediver

    I don't think taking time for yourself to run, to be disconnected, to be cut off from all things that connect us to modern society (cell phones, iAnthing, etc) is being selfish. In fact, I think's it's necessary. But I say this knowing full well that I take this time to "unitask" away from family and other obligations, but I think it's necessary to decompress after the stresses of life we face each day. So I go run for an hour, or two, or three, often now without music, so I can try to sort out the clutter in my head. But it's hard. It's like trying to meditate, thinking how easy it should be, and then stopping after 30 seconds because you can't turn off your own thoughts. For me, running helps me to truly be in the moment in a way that is very hard, if not impossible, during the rest of my day. I recently started running trails and one of the things I like about trail running as opposed to running roads/paved paths, is that I'm forced to either focus or fall on my face. I'll repeat the word "focus" as a mantra and I'll often be surprised at how "quiet" my mind becomes. This enables me to shut off the random noise of my day, even if it's for a short time, and it's a great feeling. So here's to running, and trail running in particular, and to double IPAs!

  9. Ross

    I love this piece. It has captured my thoughts and views on why I run so eloquently. I struugle to communicate the reasons why I run to family and friends, so I may use this in future. I would add that perhaps "the real world" referred to may be questionable and that we are the lucky ones to truely know what the real world looks and feels like, when immersed in the beauty of the world while on the trails.

  10. Runwilddc

    Amen, brother. There are many days here in D.C. when running trails is the only thing that keeps me present and focused. It reminds me that life can be simple, unhurried, and fulfilling — the joy of aimlessness.

  11. Amanda

    I love the sentiment- but some people don't seem to get it. Specifically the man in the blue tank top who, 13 miles into a 50K race last weekend, decided to pull out his iPhone and call a friend to tell them how he was running a super long race and "man, this hill is steep!", and then to discuss what seemed to be business issues. Thankfully I was able to get way ahead of him (maybe his phone call was a way of preserving his pride in having issues with climbing said steep hill?); I feel sorry for people who can't find the beauty in unitasking, especially while running.

  12. CJ

    Really appreciate this post AJW…good stuff. My wife and I have chosen to go without having a TV and it's really added more time to our lives, with less distraction. Not that we don't have distractions (phones, internet, iPod) but we strive to live as simply as we can

  13. Matt

    An eloquently stated post AJW! To each their own in how they find their zen, but everyone should have one way or another, and hitting the trail is an excellent way to do it, in my opinion. As a few have said, turning off the other thoughts is challenging when we're forced to do it all day long, but if you run long and far enough, I find that everything starts to dampen to the sound of my breathing and footsteps, as you said. I'll remember this post, and thanks for putting it into words. It makes me want to go run right now.

    P.S. Would a unitard improve unitasking? I see a new running fashion trend coming. :P

  14. John Clark

    Best post I've read. You succinctly capture my need for and the meaning of running. In the ever-so-high-paced world in which we now live, my daily run is my high peace. Thanks for the putting into words what I have always felt.

  15. AllGutsNoGlory

    A great article, I couldn't agree with you more. I've always felt that multitasking is somehow "wrong". It is very much in vogue, but the feeling I get from trying to do or control many things at once is of frustration and mental suffocation, it makes me think that this is not the way things should be done. Of course it can just be my personal lack of mental capacity or ability to remember and manage several different things in parallel. At least multitasking certainly isn't the right way for me.

    Great spiritual traditions have been founded around the idea of the concentrated, single pointed mind being the most open, relaxed and clear mind. This is said to lead to all kinds of positive qualities such as understanding, patience, tolerance, even wisdom and compassionate love. I don't know if running makes me any wiser, and I'm not sure I would compare it outright with meditation. But there is a great serenity to be found in running, especially when the run is a bit more prolonged. So wiser or not, running no doubt makes me happier.

    I don't think going for a long run is selfish. Of course we may have obligations and responsibilities that we shouldn't avoid. But most of us already give or sell away a great portion of our time and share it with others, and few of us have the possibility to dedicate the major part of our time to running. It's about our life, and we all have the right to do things that allow us to feel what we're doing is meaningful and that it is the way we want to spend our lives. And hey, if it then just so happens that you gradually become an enlightened sage radiating wisdom and love to those around you as a result of years of running, who could complain :) !

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