I’m not sure when it happened – but I crossed a line somewhere along the way, and became a morning person. I’d regularly find myself sitting by the window, waiting for the sun to come up, watching the steam rise from my coffee, letting the quiet and the wakefulness and the possibility of the day course through me. And then… I would run.
On one of those mornings this Summer, I was about six weeks into a marathon training plan, and halfway into an eleven mile run along the Potomac River. On some runs, I just listen to my own ideas. I think about what I see, or I think about myself and assess what’s going on in my life. But on this particular morning, I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” – going for the meta-experience, forcing reflection into my morning’s effort.
I put on the brakes when one particular line struck me. Meditating on his own training, Murakami shared a mantra he repeats to himself on hard runs: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
There are moments of clarity on some runs, lingering beneath the surface of the repetition – simple truths that bubble up, instigated by a few words, a melody, or some dormant experience.
I started repeating Murakami’s mantra to myself. I pounded the trail, counting my paces. One step, two, three, four.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
A week later, on a tennis court: the “inevitable” pain came, along with the “optional” suffering: a torn calf. I couldn’t stand or walk. My wife had to leave me on the curb while she found a car to drive me home in.
Three weeks of physical therapy went by before I could even think about stepping on a treadmill, another three weeks before I could comfortably log a few miles. I still had a marathon to run.
Running does something to the brain. It lights up cannabinoid receptors, a part of the nervous system that regulates physiological processes like memory, mood, and pain sensation. If cannabinoids sound like cannabis, you’re on the right track. “Runner’s High” is not just shoe company marketing bullshit – it’s science. Running gets you high. High enough that you don’t listen to your body, that you give it a heavier beating than it can withstand, and that you don’t really care.
When I was a teenager in gym class, and we had to run “the mile” – it was death. An entire mile might as well have been a trek across the Sahara. I was not an athlete. Candy bars, soda. Video games and smoking. Those were my things, my highs. Not running. I never let myself go far enough to feel the runner’s high.
I gave up smoking during college, but I didn’t adopt any healthier habits in its place. Instead, I learned to love traveling. It took me a while to connect the dots, but now, when I lace up my running shoes and start going, the relationship is clear. Travel is the essence of running.
A run is a journey like any other – for joy, for necessity, or for any of the infinite reasons people choose to move their bodies from one place to another. The name of the race isn’t an accident: In 490 B.C., following the battle of Marathon, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens – 26 miles – to announce that the Persians had been defeated. To run has always had a purpose.
A few years after graduating, I was working in an office and a group of colleagues invited me to sign up for a 10-mile race with them. I considered it, and running 10 miles somehow didn’t seem any crazier than the other things I was doing that once seemed inconceivable: being an adult, traveling, having a job and an apartment. OK, I said. Let’s run.
I trained for that race with focus and discipline I hadn’t known I was capable of. That I had never run more than a mile before wasn’t important. I inched my way up, night after night, on the treadmill in the gym that overlooked the parking garage. Two miles, then three, then four. Running felt like an easy problem to solve. The equation was simple. Keep adding.
Years later, I’ve grown as a runner and a person. I finished that race and I’ve run lots of others, of various lengths, in a variety of places. Despite the injury, I crossed the finish line of my second Marathon last weekend.
My memories of different runs stretch across the palette of human emotion: from indescribable euphoria, to complete suffering and misery. Anything can happen as my body nears its tipping point; my knees screaming, my feet black and bruised, and under several grimy layers of dirt and sweat, my mouth twisted into a grimace.
Running is a rush of something… a feeling… what is it? I look up into a beautiful cloudless sky, a breeze shushes Spring cherry blossoms, the right song plays. I jog across a car-free bridge, look up at a skyscraper, at a waving flag, or over to the sea. My skin is freezing, or it’s scalding. An old man passes me going uphill, a child in a Superman costume hands out a high-five.
Everything else stops, except for me. I am in motion, I am motion, and my heart pounds. My feet ache, my mind smiles.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.