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
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
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
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
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