How could a few short paragraphs ever suffice to describe running? What it means to me, its role in my mental and physical well being, how it has shaped me as a person, both literally and figuratively, and how it has influenced my relationships with others and myself. In short, how it has changed my life. These are matters that I’d struggle to condense into a book, never mind a blog! But to me running is life. In fact, I question whether I’d be here without running, and so I feel that I need to at least attempt putting pen to paper on the topic.
The act of running is simple and innate. Children are taught to read and write, ride a bicycle, right from wrong, left and right. But they are not taught to run. They run naturally, merely an instinctive progression from walking. And as soon as they can, they run from fear, they run for excitement, they run with anger. They use running as a form of self-expression which is pure and healthy and primate.
So what happens between childhood and adulthood? Why are adults unable to embrace running as a natural way of life? Why is it that our day to day movement must be controlled by walking? Most people seem either to dislike, fear and avoid running completely, or on the other end of the spectrum, have the need to over-complicate it by constantly planning, timing, measuring and analysing all the statistics of each and every run we execute. It’s as if we feel the need to have complete control over and own our running, or we’re averse to the idea of running entirely. What happened to the freedom of running? How did it morph from a natural way of locomotion and self-expression to this boxed activity that adults either hate or obsess over? And what happened to our childhood outlet and expression? How do we express our emotions as adults, or do we simply suppress them?
I met running purely by chance. It was a rough period of my life following a difficult breakup and I was filling my spare time with all the wrong things. I had so many questions about myself, life and relationships, yet I was emotionally depleted of all energy and so I rather retreated from the world around me. But on a fittingly miserable, rainy day with nothing better to do, a friend invited me to join him on a 12km trail run. I was hesitant at first, but I was craving for escape, for a release, for any form of connection. Subconsciously I seemed to know that I needed something bigger in my life.
The location was a gem of a nature reserve called Waters Meeting near Bathurst, a particularly quaint little village in the Eastern Cape. Despite the run being only a couple of hours long, it remains to date one of the most scenic trails I have ever had the pleasure of moving along. In between dodging kite spiders and their dew-laced webs across the trail, I was mesmerized by flashes of brilliant red belonging to the loeries who inhabited this sublime indigenous forest.
Inevitably, I was hooked.
I felt a sense of belonging and acceptance that I had not felt in years. It was as if all the organisms of the forest were happy to have me share their pristine environment. I realised then that I did not need to own nor be owned. All I needed to be happy was to co-exist in a symbiotic relationship with the environment around me.
Since that day I have dedicated hours and hours of effort and energy to the art of trail running. And in return it has paid me more dividends than I could ever have imagined. From the places it has shown me to the people it has introduced to me, I will be forever grateful. I often reminisce back to that day in Waters Meeting and wonder at what a simple yet life-changing decision I made.
It’s probably no coincidence that most runners have a good story to tell on how they got into running. Whether it is rediscovering running as a means of expression and an emotional outlet, physical exercise done for aesthetic reasons, or a way to compete with others and validate self-worth, the origin of running in adults is generally triggered by an imbalance, insecurity or unhappiness. And more often than not, running proves to be the perfect remedy.
To me, over the years, running has become synonymous with honesty. I realised that I had been going through life lying to myself - changing reality to whatever picture I wanted to see. When you are out running you cannot do that. If you’re not feeling strong it’s difficult to pretend that you feel great and just blaze on; at some point you will be forced to slow down, consider where you are and figure out why you feel the way you do. Once you know the root cause you can deal with it and make a decision to either quit, take a break or continue more slowly.
This is the main attraction of ultra running to me. You reach a point where fatigue has broken down all your barriers and defenses; you reach a most blissful yet painful state of honesty. The rawest version of yourself. You have no energy to alter reality in your head. You have only you – the pure you. And this is where you get to know yourself better. It’s not always good, but it is always a growing experience. You ask questions you never knew you had, and you find answers of which you’d never dreamed.
Running is really a metaphor for life. To me running is escape, freedom, sanity and happiness. It is natural, beautiful, painful, tiresome, creative, destructive and obsessive. It can be fast, slow, boring or exciting. And the list goes on, for running can have a multitude of personalities. It is anything you want it to be. Just as life is. You choose your path. Most of the time there is a definite direction and you move with purpose, a goal in mind, making steady progress. But always in the back of your mind you’re aware that you may stray from your trail. That things can change in an instant and all sense of direction and meaning can be lost.
The beauty of running, and life, is that you do not need to know where you are heading; you simply have to continue putting one foot in front of the other and move along at your own pace. Each of us is on our own path, navigating these trails of life. Sometimes the route is shared and you’re assisted by a friend, a loved one or even a stranger, but the time will come when you have to go solo again. And whether or not you’re on the right path, you have to keep moving, for you cannot just stop and start life at will. But eventually things will make sense and you’ll find your direction and purpose again.
This makes me wonder... Does this piece on running have any direction, purpose or sense? Does it even matter? Writing about running is rewarding yet deeply frustrating. How do you quantify and qualify something so ever-changing, so fluid? I suppose in a way that is the very essence of running. It cannot really be quantified for there is no beginning, and there is no end. There is merely an endless flow of energy to be harnessed and expended along trails and over grasslands, up mountains and across deserts. It also cannot be qualified, for its true meaning is unique to each individual. And ultimately it is up to each one of us to embark on that journey of finding our meaning, finding our run.
My meaning is the purity of movement - What’s yours?
Find your run.