Sunday 26 February 2012

Why do we run? Philosophy and the treadmill

Dean (left) poses for some pictures
Dean Karnazes. Big chin. Big muscles.

My colleague gave me a torn out article about ultra marathon man Dean Karnazes the other day. In the article, Karnazes is asked the ultimate question: "why do you run?"

His reply is interesting. He says "there is magic in the misery." Karnazes feels more alive when "struggling to persevere against insurmountable odds and untold adversity."

He goes further to state that the Western World is conditioned to link being happy to being comfortable, and avoiding pain. Yet this comfort is not bringing the happiness people thought it would.

Now I'm not religious, but these type of thoughts that Karnazes has relates well to the concepts of Buddhism.

The four noble truths contain the essence of what Buddhism is about. The first noble truth is about suffering. It suggests that humans are susceptible to cravings and desires (Karnazes' reference to us wanting to be comfortable all the time).

To rid oneself of suffering, we must remove ourselves from attachment (get out there and run!). Enlightenment is reached when craving, and thus suffering, ends. The Tendai monks of Japan go as far as running extreme lengths to reach Buddhist enlightenment.

Now, where Karnazes statement deviates from Buddhism thought is his attachment to pain to make him feel more alive. Though this seems a rather warped way to live a life - going from one extreme (comfort and luxury) to the other (pain and constant challenge), I can understand what he is talking about.

There is nothing like taking on and achieving a challenge - whether it be a 5km or an ultra marathon - that will make you feel more alive, proud and happy with yourself.

As John Hanc, running writer said "I've learned that finishing a marathon isn't just an athletic achievement. It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible."

There is magic in the misery.

But there is also the opposite. There are times when running just lets your mind be. No mindless chattering, no worrying about what you look like, no wondering what the time is. Just you, the sounds of your breathing and your feet stamping out that oh-so-comforting rhythm on the ground.

With all the current buzz around mindfulness - could running be considered a form of meditation?

It certainly works for me. There are nigh on nil times when I can get my mind to rest, other than when I'm on a run. I can just be when running.

Karnazes also highlights this. Sticking with the pain theme (you sadist you!) he suggests that the pain of running forces us to live in the moment. "In life, we can get ahead of ourselves, which can be demoralising. Those times when you think: "I'm so tired, how am I going to get the the finish? Don't think about the finish, just be in the present."

Certainly when running endurance races, the first half of the race is physical, the second half is mental. There would be no way I could have completed the Country to Capital 45 ultra race without some mental preparation. You cannot let your mind wander to where the end may be. It has to stay with you and just not think.

Why do I run?
Well, it's just for those reasons above I guess. I run because it makes me feel like I can achieve anything. I run because it helps me focus my mind. I run just because I can and I love it.

And one more zenlike thought before I go...

When I was mindlessly (mindfully?) jogging along on the treadmill I thought to myself this may look like a load of runners going nowhere on a dreadmill, but it is in fact the opposite - we are all pursuing dreams or goals, and are running fast towards them.

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