Friday, January 31, 2014

In Defense of Running Outside

For a long time, I tried to run at a gym. I used ellipticals, treadmills, and indoor tracks; something that let me read a book or watch TV was ideal. But after enough visits, I would lose interest and stop exercising. At the time, this process helped convince me that I was not cut out for exercise. After eight months of running outside, however, I think I understand why it’s so much easier to stick to outdoor runs: texture.

Running at a gym is a microwavable dinner. Better yet, it’s like the cafeteria lineup in a dystopian future where all nutrients are eaten in paste form. And yes, gray protein paste and blue fiber paste get the job done, but where’s the fun? You need more than that to avoid the thought-police.

Okay, let me explain.

Distance running in place on a machine, or around the same track, is a smooth and flavorless experience for your mind’s taste buds. Sorry, weird description. What I mean is that there’s no flavor or variety, and thus no reason to keep coming back. You’re never going to bite the fork squeezing nutrient-tubes into your mouth, sure, but for every fork-bite while running there might be some new zest for your legs.

Please, let me continue unpacking this weird metaphor.

When I was running at the gym in front of a line of TVs, I confused two things that should never been confused: running and convenience. I tried to do something I really enjoyed to distract myself from exercise. If I can watch Maury when I run, I thought, I will have everything I want. I will be doing something good for myself while watching people publicly air their poor decisions. Maybe I'll read, thus improving my brain and body. Unless I’m reading transcripts of Maury episodes.

Words alone don't do them justice, though.
Here is what I learned: running cannot be convenient because it is inherently a difficult and ridiculous thing to do. It demanded my full attention, because fundamentally no part of my brain understands it. Are we running from a predator? Hunting? Chasing a food truck that has waffles? No? Then why is this happening to us? My body likes being at rest, and it objects to being put in motion. When I used a treadmill to “do” thirty minutes of cardio, running was a process that needed to result in something else. It was a loading bar that slowly filled up in completion of “exercise," and I thought I could ignore it. I needed to ignore it, because all I was doing was staying in one space in one four-walled room.

So at a gym, running became about distracting myself from the process of this bar filling so that I didn’t think I was running. But like the other woman in a melodramatic movie about adultery, running doesn’t like being ignored. If you make it a chore, it will be harder and harder to do it and your willpower will burn up. Now, I’m not knocking willpower. Sometimes we have to do things that we hate, like working a boring job or returning to your long-suffering wife in that same melodramatic movie about adultery (the other woman kills them both in the end, though). But running doesn't have to be a chore. In fact, running can GIVE you energy if you pay attention to it, and running outside forces you to pay attention to things. Some of those things will be muscle soreness, your quick heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Don’t tune these out. Run through them, and you will also see the world moving around you. Your mind needs this texture. Mine sure did.

Oh look, some kids playing street hockey with no skates. My feet hurt. Hi, woman jogging with a stroller. Is she going faster than me? Wait, what if she fell? Would the baby be catapulted skyward at a million miles-per-hour? Could I run fast enough to catch it? Of course not, I can barely breath. Have hearts ever exploded? Once, I ate an entire meat-lovers pizza and washed it down with a box of red wine. I bet my heart has been plotting its revenge since then. Yup, my heart is going to explode. Great, passing a sewer grate shooting poop-steam across the trail. If I hold my breath for the three seconds it would take to cross it, my lungs will join my heart in exploding. Got to just breathe it in…ack! Heading under a bridge. Hope I don’t get stabbed. Let’s see how much graffiti I can read as I pass…aaaand none whatsoever. Nice. Oh a doggie! It’s playing! Now, it’s spotted me. Approaching, approaching, don’t speed up or show fear…dog, where is your master? Oh, there he is. Hello!

If you pay attention to these things, the good, bad, and inconsequential, a wonderful thing happens. Running fades quietly to the background instead of being forced there by purposeful distractions. It becomes automatic rather than a chore. I’ll never forget the feeling of being completely in my own mind before remembering that I have also been running. I didn't shunt the inherent difficulty of running aside; I had worked through it and was in a symbiosis with the work I was forcing my body to do.

Is it still hard? Yes. But while you never start a run with this runner’s high, I believe it is best achieved by heading out your front door and running in the living, breathing world. Our minds need that texture to understand momentum and be truly comfortable with distance running. Gyms and exercise equipment are great for certain kinds of workouts, but if you want to become a distance runner, you need to run outside if you can. Distance running on a treadmill gives your mind nothing palatable, and you begin to resent the work. 

You need the texture that reminds you to enjoy the experience, not just the end result. Then, distance running will be easy to do.


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