What is Life Asking of You? How Running Helps Me Find Out

“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” — Christopher McDougall

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“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” — Christopher McDougall

Running only asks one thing of you. It doesn’t ask for you to be from a certain area code. It doesn’t ask what type of shoes you own — or if you own any. It doesn’t ask about your talent or who you’ve beaten. Running doesn’t care how well you performed yesterday or what you plan on doing in the future. It asks you how much effort you’re willing to give, right here and now, on the run you’re on. Just one foot in front of the other.

How much effort do you have? How much are you willing to give? Will you age because you stopped, or will you age only as a result of continuing on?

Your effort on the run yesterday doesn’t count, no matter how much you gave. Between the panting and glances at your watch to see if you got a personal record, you might have thought about quitting and whether or not you’d ever force this suffering on yourself again. You needed a mantra for the run, so you reminded yourself that “it’s always a good day to suffer.” Now it’s a day later and here you are again, ready for what you call your therapy session. Your goals for the future mean nothing today. All that matters is one, foot, in, front, of, the, other.

It’s a grueling sport. Just because you’re capable of covering the distance you’ve set out for doesn’t make the process easier. Some days you’re prepared and fresh for the mileage ahead. Others? You stick to the game plan of focusing on single steps. Whether you’ll answer today’s call is yet to be determined. The days before were practice and they gave you the assurance of what’s possible, but they mean nothing today. New effort is required.

Could there be a better analogy for life? Is our need for new effort not true of every task asked of us? Do our previous efforts ever count toward what needs to get done today? The results and accumulation of our efforts are something to be proud of, of course, but they are just that — effort sustained over a long period of time and many individual days. Days where we didn’t want to show up. Days where we hardly saw the point. Some days the effort felt like it was in vain. But here we are again, ready for another day.

In Genesis 3:17, we get a useful analogy for our toil. After Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he’s warned, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” Isn’t this what running is? What life is? Toil? Hard and tough work that’s asked of us daily?

Any seasoned adult or recent college graduate will gladly attest to life’s grind. Not only does it seem as though we’re forced to grind, but the grind determines how far we get and how fulfilled we are.

And it never leaves us. The moment we celebrate a victory or rest on our laurels we lose ground. Our competition starts to catch up to us. We start to catch up to ourselves. We start losing. Bow-hunter and ultra-marathon runner Cameron Hanes jokes, “Every day I don’t workout I get fat and lazy.” His intensity and spirit are a part of his unique personality, but there’s truth to his joke.

Adversity is the Best Teacher

The business mogul John D. Rockefeller, Sr. would say, “Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life. I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all along the way.”

His efforts and struggles early in life built the foundation for later success. Our adversity teaches us what we’re capable of and where we need to improve. More importantly, the only way out of adversity is straight through it. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said it more eloquently. “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

What choice do we have but embrace adversity with open arms? What if we ask for it? What if we seek out that which challenges us the most, overcome it, and then see how we transform as a result? “We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out,” Theodore Roosevelt said. What would become of us if we aimed to wear out just like Roosevelt?

Lessons in Gratitude

“Sometimes it takes leaving your home and coming back to realize how beautiful you have it around you.” — Jared Ward

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that his formula for greatness in a human is amor fati, or ‘love of fate.’ That we would want nothing to be different, “not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” To Nietzsche, we shouldn’t only bear what is necessary, but learn to love it.

Fate always seems more kind after a run. This might be for the simple fact that the task is finished, but what a blessing it is to have two legs to carry us. What a blessing it is to have the gift of life which allows us to suffer, persevere, and grow.

My friend Leila recently won a marathon in Tunisia. During the marathon she repeated a mantra to herself. It was especially useful during the later miles after she hit a wall. “I feel very alive,” she‘d remind herself. Her message was such because everything hurt. She was totally aware of her body, through pain, and this was an intense reminder of life. Her body was in total use and awake just for the sake of pushing on and persevering. This was Leila’s reminder to not accept being complacent and letting life pass her by, but to jump right in and grind right through it.

It’s obvious that running is a painful illustration and path through suffering to get to gratitude. But if we accept what ancient wisdom says, life is suffering, so we might as well accept it and see what we can make of ourselves through it.

Reminders to be Humble

A run never lies or gives you a false impression. If you set out to cover a certain distance, you’ll know if the task was completed or not. You’ll never be led astray about your times either. Your watch or tracking device always brings you down to earth. And if you’re unfortunate, an injury could knock on your door at any moment, a humbling reminder to be thankful for a chance at today.

I’ve started running 10k’s and a bit higher. For most runners, this is hardly an accomplishment. What amazes me each time I get to the 6.2 mark of a 10k, is that this isn’t even the halfway mark of a half marathon, which is still only half of a marathon. Imagine that. Not even a half of a half of a full. And some runners are out running up to 240 miles. Recently I heard of a runner that is aiming for a marathon a month. These are professionals at the art of perseverance.

But what you realize quickly with running is that you aren’t competing with anyone. The opponent is yourself. Can you beat yourself today? Can you beat yourself tomorrow? Can you beat yourself over a lifetime? Imagine the strength we’d have if we could pull that off.

It often seems as though life gives us optimal challenges. Ones that are designed uniquely for us. Do we accept our challenges with humility, or loathe that we haven’t been given the larger tasks our egos think we deserve?

Gaining Nerve Control Amidst Chaos

“What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Rick Barnes, the coach of the men’s basketball at the University of Tennessee spoke recently about how hard it is to get players to work hard. It isn’t a given that anyone is going to put forth effort. We all know those people who get out of dodge when it gets tough.

As Barnes would say, “It’s the guys that have that mental toughness that can do it day-in and day-out.” And that’s rare. Youth especially blinds us. Not many can people give the effort. “We’re dealing with young people that feel like they’ve got all the time in the world. The window that they’re in closes quickly — quicker than you think,” Barnes warns.

Do we have the guts to get the job done in time? The guts not to waste time? Do we have the ability to calm our nerves enough to not be distracted by our own minds and not lose to ourselves? Are we too focused on fleeting distractions?

We’ve got a long race ahead. It’s called life. What we do today prepares us for tomorrow, just as this year prepares us for the next. The skills we’re building now are what we’ll use for the future. All it is, is one, foot, in, front, of, the, other.

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