Soul Running and the Selfie

No pretty pictures today, just a short essay. Some thoughts on running “in pursuit of” and the elusive nature of quality time – which comes in so many ways. Maybe a day at the beach with the family just going with the flow, an afternoon spent swinging in a hammock while sufficiently intoxicated, or just going out for a short run. I can’t help but fixate on the dichotomy of this simplest of activities. Running can be a meditative experience, a way to busy ourselves while at the same time letting go of all the busy-thought. It seems to be something that, as a running culture, is appreciated less and less though. So, what’s going on? Are we losing sight of the path while trying to win the race? That would be such a shame…

Victory vs. Love
Which Way?

The Ego

I run because I want to. I run because my ego wants me to. There is some truth in both of those statements. I’m not really what you’d call a spiritual guy but I accept that the ego is a real thing. Sometimes it hides, sometimes it shows itself. When we start asking “what is the ego” it’s inevitable that we wander into the realm of spiritualism. To that end, let me quote Ram Dass…

One of the ego’s favorite paths of resistance is to fill you with doubt.

That’s probably the opposite of how most of us Westerners normally think of ego, but how many people do you know who aren’t really content and who would make some major change in their life “if only” they could, who fear doing what would make them truly happy (chasing their dreams) – or at least taking a shot at it? Most of us if we’re honest. Sometimes where we first find resistance, we later find an inability to relent. There’s a reason after all why the hundred-mile run is now considered the “marathon”. The other side of the ego is a powerful influencer… this intangible thing that exists as the manifestation of our desires . When we have a strong desire to challenge ourselves, eventually we’ll find our self toeing a starting line somewhere. The Ego: “Oh, so you think you can run 50 miles through the mountains? Prove it!”. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s a component of our progression; all things in moderation, but what often begins as a sense of awe somehow leads to an urge to prove… something.

Being More, and More…

As a firm believer in living a balanced lifestyle, I can’t say that I see all desire as a bad thing. Far from it. To quote another spiritual thinker, Sakyong Mipham (The Running Mind)…

Of course, we all go through our own experiences. If we do not push ourselves enough, we do not grow, but if we push ourselves too much, we regress. What is enough will change, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In that sense, the present moment is always some kind of beginning.

Desire to push and grow is probably a healthy and positive thing, it’s hard to argue otherwise. What then when that desire can’t be satiated by completing an event? Should that be seen/realized as being unhealthy? “I need a flatscreen TV in every room of my house.” || “I need to be running a race every month.” Not much difference. We see this manifest in running in the form of burnout and overtraining syndrome; a threat always lurking just around the corner. Runners come and go too often in this sport, sometimes leaving with serious and obscure injuries.

I put endurance challenges in front of myself because they give me an outlet to experience some amazing places; they give me a sense of accomplishment, a deeper understanding of my limits, …and because I want to be the one who can do it, the one who can overcome whatever obstacles are in front of me. To put it in a spiritual context, I do these things because it makes me feel like a badass. We are the physical manifestation of our ego, or at least that’s what the ego wants, to be given life. It’s a tough act to balance – and it’s not a huge leap to conclude this behavior can become addictive.

Looking at the climate of endurance activities – the people who partake, the spaces and agencies involved, there is this ever-growing disconnect, spreading like The Nothing through Fantasia, in what could and should be a balanced ecosystem. Endurance running popularity is skyrocketing across the boards – people running marathons, trail marathons, ultradistance, going for fastest known time attempts, and obstacle races – and forget about the competitive level, this is just the mid-pack crowd who aren’t even thinking about podiums! Let’s be real about it, for some of us those introductory events are a taste of the heroin.

The ego stoking tends to escalate into a downward spiral. For some non-competitive runners, it’s no longer enough to just enjoy going for a run; solace is found only after immediately uploading that run to (insert social app), commenting on other’s activities, clicking “thumbs up” on all of them, making sure to get each one on the list. Maybe doing some comparison against others. Then there’s still completing the registration form for the next race. Then the next, and some more after that. The running experience is replaced by the “collect them all mentality” and ticking checkboxes off. The activity of running becomes the means to an end, no longer the prime objective behind being heard and seen and doing more and more.

As I write this, some runners, especially ultrarunners, have been getting largely unwarranted negative press. It doesn’t make sense. Generally, people on trails (including runners) have a positive relationship with the outdoors. They understand trail etiquette, they practice Leave No Trace, and tend to have a friendly and good-natured attitude. Unfortunately, there also are those who don’t – and it could be a growing segment. It’s tempting to say that this segment consists of people who are transitioning from sport background to trail running. Although there is a competitive element in trail running, it’s a very different culture from say track and field or cross country/road racing. There is also the social media-driven crowd who need to show to prove and are maybe secondarily concerned with being a Steward of the trails. Regardless of background, once you’ve degraded into a checkbox-checking-off drone, you’ve probably taken a step toward becoming an asshole. That’s true even more so when you bring your drone-mentality to non-event runs so you can bag another one for your trophy case. A true appreciation for the trails and the experience is sadly something that seems as if it’s being replaced by the desire to be some sort of conqueror of the trails. I’m all for social running, but this kind of attitude and behavior reflects badly on all trail runners (hence one reason running the RRR will soon require a permit).

Bleh. Living an active lifestyle has never looked so unhealthy.

Soul Running

When we strip down the races, strip away the early morning commotion at bib pickup, the free tech tees, cheap finisher medals, corporate branding, bullhorns, and elbow to elbow runners at tables buried under piles of goo packets, pretzels, and orange wedges… what are we left with? Hopefully something more than an empty feeling between now and clicking “upload”… between now and whatever’s next.

How about the cold morning air, dew on knee-high grasses waiting to catch a ride, deer, coyotes, turkeys scrambling off the trails, those first rays of sunlight, fingers of mist retreating up creek beds, footsteps thumping along forest trails, footsteps crunching down rocky fire roads, solitude – or the company of a friend, a pair of running shoes, some water, a destination. We didn’t forget about those, did we? There’s so much to appreciate that goes by the wayside when we just let it.

It’s all about getting to the root. Being present in the experience. It isn’t done “because”… it’s just done. Think PR’ing a course is hard? Try turning off your running apps – that’s hard.

Run something self-supported – better yet, do it solo. Pick a route, do something long – longer than you ever have on your own, give yourself some time. There’s something humbling about completing a long “selfie”, with nobody there to commiserate with on the hard climbs or when you’re out of energy. No cheering crowd waiting at the finish, maybe not even a single person to greet you when you finally arrive at some quiet trailhead, completely spent and yearning for some validation. There’s nothing but love out there, running for no other reason than wanting to, and there you find the payoff in those quiet hours. Put the soul back into running, at least once in a while.

At the end of the day, nobody remembers the runners who didn’t make the podium, if they bothered to notice them to begin with. So what’s all the hurry for? Sure there are races to be run, goals to be realized, and peaks to be bagged. There’s plenty of time though, and so much to see along the way; the trails have gifts to give when we open ourselves to accepting them and letting them create contentment from within us. -JD

Jacob D Written by:

Dad, Runner, Student, Berserker, Questionable Partner... on my path to living an exceptional and real life.