We talk all the time about why we run. For clarity, for physical health, for mental health, to get outside, to meet people, to challenge ourselves, for, well, something to do. What it’s not is about how fast you are.
But… it is, isn’t it?
You and I and that guy over there in the short shorts, we run for many different reasons. And being fast doesn’t have to have anything to do with it. But yet…
It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to trouble any podiums. If you’re not going to be the runner cruising across the finish line to break the tape with your chest, or be charging up that Parkrun hill ahead of the crowd. It doesn’t matter if you can’t beat the winners. You can beat yourself.
And there’s nothing like the pure rush of that hard-won PB. Kicking round the corner for the final 200m – seeing the clock and knowing you’re going to do it; making that final push for the line and crossing, arms aloft, grinning with your entire body. Then, when your heart rate has slowed back to normal, the adrenaline has drained from your veins and the sweat been wiped from your eyes, you think, “well, I could do better…” And the whole brilliant, brutal cycle starts again.
Purpose. It’s the reason we get up and slog through the cold dark mornings, slip out of work to squeeze in “just a quick one” at lunchtime, or pull on gloves before striding out into the driving winter rain. Runners are masochists, and addicts, and a little bit crazy – and that identity becomes a part of you.
Yes, I am that person who can’t go on holiday without my running kit. Yes, that does look like a fun hill to run up and down. Yes, I am going to spend my Saturday morning chasing a pack of other people through a muddy park. Yes, this evening, I am going to run in circles for an hour. Just to get that little bit better.
But why? Most of us will not make even the footnotes in the annals of running history. The only medals we’ll get are ones we’ve paid for; the only people who (pretend to) care about our race times are our long-suffering friends and family.
Of course, sometimes we do these things just for the pure pleasure of it: psychologists have classed running as an autotelic activity – one in which the activity itself is the reward, something which (like art and music and, say, playing chess) prioritises the process over the product.
It’s this curious tension that lies at the heart of why runners run. The journey is itself the destination, while we also have larger goals that get us through the bad training runs, the failed races, the seriously-can’t-be-arsed afternoons. And those larger goals are ours; not a team’s, not a coach’s, not a country’s hoping with baited breath for the shared pride of a gold medal. There’s a purity, a simplicity to that which is rather lovely. We do it despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter. Absurd, perhaps, but it’s our own dear absurdity.