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Michael Chan
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a rather long entry - and what i think about when i think about running

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I’m often asked what I think about when I’m on my long runs. I used to think that I never thought about anything, probably because I never remembered anything that I thought about. I suspect many people might not have done the exact same repetitive motion for two, three, or four hours straight, and hence the curiosity of what goes through our heads.

Having just finished the final long pre-marathon run last weekend – I rewarded myself by reading Murakami’s memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” again. He has been running for 27 years now, and Murakami’s brutally candid words describe so poignantly the experience of distance running.

On closer examination, I’ve begun to realize that there are in fact many random thoughts that float in and out of the mind while I run. Some fleeting ones of no consequence, some self-motivational ones to get through those miles, some existential ones pondering whether I really exist. Over the last year, and I have felt compelled to write down some of these things.

So, as a bit of a homage to Mr. Murakami, here’s my little version of what I think about when I think about running. At least, it’s what I think I’m thinking about.


I have been a bit apprehensive about this particular long run. This was the last long one before tapering started. It has been my target to go sub-4 hours for the full marathon. Not a particularly lofty goal, but with my haphazard training it was already looking to be an impossibility. But just to give myself a fighting chance – I had to do at least 32km, preferably 40km. People often think that because I’ve done it before, 30 odd kilometers should be a breeze. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Anything above 20km still intimidates the hell out of me. It’s at least 2 hours of non-stop pounding on the pavement. It’s not fun. Most people might not know this, but marathon training is much, much more painful than running the marathon race itself.

The first 32 km I survived relatively unscathed, but the last 8km destroyed me. It seemed like the marathon wanted to remind me that it was to be fully respected. The 40km took me exactly 4 hours and every ounce of whatever I had left to complete it – so a sub-4 hour marathon was essentially out of question. But like past runs, it was the fourth hour that was the most interesting – it is when the suffering is at its maximum. Struggling with every step, I kept asking myself, what is it that actually hurts? Was I out of breath? Not really, yes, I was breathing hard, but not out of breath. Cramping? No. Did I pull anything? Negative again. But the whole body was screaming to stop. My legs, my back, my lungs, all wanted me just to stop. It was almost a curious feeling. There’s no true, intense pain but the feeling is the verge of imminent collapse, but you can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. It’s almost like a system shutdown, or, more appropriately, the little dialog box that pops up and asks if you are “sure” you want to shut down.

But it is at those precise times, that I unfailingly get the epiphany – that I am not my body. I will not delve too much here on what this “I” is (my brain? self? consciousness?) – but it becomes clear there is a tangible separation between my body and “I”, or this thing, my mind. The body makes it plenty evident that it really does not want to continue, whereas my mind is forcibly imparting messages to get the body to continue. Nerve pulses of equal strength are sending immensely strong signals back that this is wrong and must cease. It's a damn bloody battle and it's all happening inside my head.


I think everyone has a "natural point of pain". Anyone who has run a considerable distance has probably encountered this. This point varies person to person, runner to runner, due to our fitness levels, genes, and all sorts of different factors, but for everyone, there is this point when the body starts to rebel. Beyond this, you summon your mental strength, inner will, and call upon your faith to power yourself through. You might be a beginner doing your first fifteen minute run, you might be going for twentieth marathon. But at some point, you know if you’re going to do this, you have to override your body. Unfortunately, the mind does not always win. Sometimes, it simply gives up fighting, and the body wins out by slowing or stopping altogether. You feel better but a lot worse at the same time. After a few moments, the battle resumes… are you going to continue or throw in the towel?

It actually is very hard to describe what the point is of running long distances and marathons. It’s not fun, and far from it in fact, and really can’t be considered to be a “hobby”. It’s self-imposed pain. Of course, there’s a degree of pride and a sense of accomplishment in finishing a marathon. At the same time, I had always thought marathoners had to be slightly insane. Runners had always struck me as a weird breed, and I had always considered myself to be fairly normal. I think.

So, why do we run? More specifically, why do I run?


The truth is, I don’t really know. I guess I do have some conjectures. I think I might be subconsciously trying to compensate for my lack of athleticism when I was younger. I played sports but was never good enough to be competitive. Another part is curiousity: I’m also simply interested in the act of running itself. Why would people subject themselves to this? As Jerry Seinfeld remarked, “I think that's why people run these marathons: 'I wonder if I could run that far without dying.' It's idiotic, but it's part of human nature.” My key inspiration has been Dean Karnazes, most noted for his book “Ultramarathon Man” where he describes running a 199-mile 12-man relay race. He ran it alone, over two straight days. 8 marathons back-to-back. I simply did not know that the human body could take that kind of punishment. It was a direct result of the book that I decided to go for my first marathon last year. Just to see how it was like.

Perhaps one of the bigger reasons is that running is one of the few things in life that’s reasonably fair. It’s important not to compare with others – there are always those people who can run a marathon without training, those who can run twice as fast as we can without any apparent effort. But for us mortals, the work and reward ratio is reasonably proportional. We train harder, we run faster. We slack off, then a short run becomes an arduous run. The long runs becomes a struggle for life and death. But as Murakami aptly pointed out, this too passes – we are all subject to the inevitability of age and eventually our bodies do go downhill. However, for many of us who have not been running our entire lives, there is still abundant room for improvement.

Another thing that people ask me about is the legendary “runner’s high”. Even before I took up running, I had read about this, and wondered. Perhaps I am simply not one of the lucky ones. I think it’s possible that the very fact I look for and expect it at some point causes it to be so elusive. As soon as I consciously realize that this might be the “runner’s high”, ironically, it vanishes. But, during my long runs, I do encounter periods of mind void. It’s not a bad kind of void, but more like a state when I feel like a running being. The breath, the feet seem to be moving in unison, like clockwork. The feeling is that I could run forever, and there seems to be no effort whatsoever – like a metronome going back and forth, back and forth. Rather than the runner’s high, perhaps what I experience is a “runner’s void”, if there is such a thing. While it’s a state of mindlessness, paradoxically at the same time I feel curiously connected to something that’s not quite tangible. To borrow a yoga saying, when the dust in the mind finally settles, consciousness takes on its true nature. I really don’t quite know what that means, but during these periods of mind void, I do “feel” a comprehension of existence that’s beyond words.


Running is a very strange and humbling experience. It manages to bring joy and pain, and at the same time. When I’m feeling fine, the effort exerted brings me back to reality. When I’m not feeling so fine, I’m almost comforted by the feeling of futility. Because no matter what day, what time, how much sleep I had gotten, I can absolutely count on feeling tired, exhausted, and encounter the familiar feeling that I simply can’t go on. Maybe, subconsciously I know I’ve powered through these dark times in running, and I’ll be able to similarly do the same in my life. Or maybe, it simply is the familiarity of pain and suffering under a more “controlled” setting that makes me feel relatively at ease again.

This final 8km struggle I did probably came at an opportune time – my recent mental state has just been out of whack. In any case, it seems, for now, I have managed to reset myself.

The pain of running also makes me grateful. Because we forget that the absence of pain actually feels incredible. Grateful for a reasonably healthy body to abuse. Grateful for close ones who have been so supportive and tolerant. Grateful that there’s the opportunity to ponder such things.

Kung hey fat choy, and have a healthy, happy year of the ox![](/attachments/2009/01/23632_200901270035261.thumb.jpg)

over 10 years ago 0 likes  2 comments  0 shares
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Wow, such a detailed blog! Running marathons sounds so painful but, yeah, I can imagine the enormous feeling of accomplishment at the end. I guess running is one of those things that you won't be able to fully comprehend the rush until you try it for yourself, right?
over 10 years ago
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JS
I'm always fascinated by hearing people talk about their experiences, I've never understood running and it's nice to read the thoughts from you. Indeed often the mind can keep going long after the body shuts down in pain and vice versa, pretty much in many situations. Best Wishes for the marathon :)
over 10 years ago

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