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Why we run: A treatise on motivation

Posted by on May 11, 2010 | 12 Comments
Okay, so this really isn’t a treatise.  It’s barely an essay.  It sounds better than “Why we run: A string of nonsensical drivel.”  At any rate, this is a question I like to ponder.  Why do we run?  What is it about the physical act of placing one foot in front of the other over a given distance that is so damned addicting?  What drives us to do what we do?
Some would suggest we’re evolutionarily and biologically designed to run.  It’s known as the “running man” theory.  The oversimplified version goes something like this:  Humans evolved as long-distance runners for persistence hunting.  Persistence hunting is the process of chasing an animal to death.  While the logic of this theory is very appealing, it is the primal sense of satisfaction and inner-peace I experience after a very long run that sells this theory for me.

Others suggest we run as a form of therapy or self-medication.  Us runners are a little messed up.  For us, running serves as an escape.  Or maybe it serves as a masochistic penance.  At the very least, running serves as a stress reliever.  I like this idea, too.  I certainly have my own inner-demons that seem to be silenced while running.  Sometimes that takes the form of dissociating from my inner turmoil.  Sometimes it allows me the solitude to work through problems and issues.

Of course, some run for fitness.  That fitness may manifest itself as losing weight, lowering blood pressure, or reducing the probability of heart disease.  While I like the fitness benefits of running, it is a a secondary benefit at best.  Maybe even a tertiary benefit.  Running does allow me to pretty much eat what I want, which alleviates the cognitive dissonance from eating 3,000 calories worth of pizza in one day.

Some people run to gain the approval of their peers.  If you are relatively fast or run relatively long distances, the amazed comments from friends and family can be a powerful ego boost.  I have to admit, I like the response people give when they find out I run very long distances.  I generally consider myself to be fairly humble most of the time, but that’s motivated by my desire to inspire others.  Deep down, I like knowing that I have done what few people even consider possible.  Never mind the fact that I’m one of the slowest ultrarunners in any given race…

Running is a fraternity, and some will do it simply to belong.  As humans, the vast majority of us have a strong desire to be part of something.  Running affords that opportunity.  Running itself gives people endless topics of conversation.  We talk about training, racing, diet, injuries, shoes (well, some of you guys talk about shoes), and clothing.  We also share the bond of mutual suffering in the waning miles of races.  All of these experiences bond us; they create a family.  It feels good to be part of that family.

Some people actually make a living off this.  Running can be very lucrative.  If you are fast, there are plenty of corporations in existence that would love to slap their logo on your chest.  Even if you are not fast, there are other opportunities to make money from running.  I’m starting to get a taste of this now with the exposure of this blog, my website, and my book.  For some, making money off your hobby is the pinnacle of success.  For me it is scary as Hell.  Nothing drains the intrinsic joy of a hobby like cold, hard cash.  A quick study in the power of secondary reinforces will reveal a disturbing trend- as soon as the focus shifts from fun to profits, the hobby becomes a job.  I’ll write about my solution to this problem later.

Running can be a method to achieve personal goals.  In his book “Ignore Everybody”, Hugh MacLeod talks about all of us having our own personal Mount Everest.  At some point in our lives, we all have to give it one serious shot.  Otherwise we will be burdened with the regret of never having tried.  For me, this is a major motivator.  My Everest changes.  Right now, it is the Burning River 100.  I failed to climb that Everest last time.  THAT fuels my current fire.

Each of us has our own reasons for running.  Some are acutely aware of the reasons, others only have a vague understanding of their own motivation.  What do you think?  Why do you run?
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12 Comments

  1. Stacey Jehlik
    May 17, 2010

    I started running to lose a significant amount of weight (nearly 50 lbs. off what was a 185 lb., 5'3" body). I kept running because I was terrified of putting the weight back on. As that became less of a worry (though I doubt it will ever be a complete non-issue), I started running half marathons, and last year my first full. So now I run because it makes me feel strong– physically and mentally, and I am now addicted to feeling strong!

  2. seangavor
    May 13, 2010

    Michael Shane Helton: WITH. I have a Parakeet of Protection who guards the soles of my feet from harmful objects when I run barefoot.

  3. Bryan
    May 12, 2010

    Pleasure :D (especially barefoot on grass)

  4. Duncan and Joan
    May 12, 2010

    Really enjoy your postings, Jason. For years, I asked myself why do I like running so much – and found lots of reasons. Recently came upon a book by Benjamin Cheever in which he summed it ALL up for me…completely. He writes, "Running is my anchor. It's not what I do, but it's what makes everything else I do okay." And that's about it. Keep up the great work! Duncan.

  5. Barefoot Brandon
    May 12, 2010

    I run for many of those reasons you mentioned, except for maybe the one about making money…my blog isn't bringing in the big bucks quite yet! I just love the feeling of accomplishment I get after finishing a long run, which allows me to justify any other lazy activities I've done throughout the day…or maybe the previous day too, depending on how long the run was :-)

    I blogged about something similar to this after reading Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run (great book by the way!) Here's the post if anyone is interested:

    Barefoot Brandon – Why we run

  6. Michael Shane Helton
    May 12, 2010

    seangavor: Do you run TO or FROM the Parakeets?

  7. seangavor
    May 12, 2010

    J,

    Great Post. I run for each and every one of the reasons you mentioned and one that you didn't. Parakeets. Good luck in the Burning River. Keep your focus and you'll be fine.

    Thanks for the great blog,
    Sean

  8. shel
    May 12, 2010

    all of those reasons you named and ones i can't explain that are summed up by my favorite overused dictum: 'to run is to really live'. yes, a lot of the time i go through my days feeling very night of the living dead, but running through some trail or on a darkened snow covered road when the rest of the world is asleep or putting the gas on and running from the demons or backing off the gas and moseying round town for 6 hours all make me feel as if i am finally; finally doing something 'right'. just feels right. i am very sad for people who will never get the chance to feel that relief and joy.

  9. Claus Møller Jensen
    May 12, 2010

    I run simply because I can..because I taught myself how. I trained myself from being able to absolutely NOT run, to now training for my first marathon in september. The joy I get from every single run, is one of victory and satisfaction which I get while actually relaxing, experiencing the world around me and simultaneously putting my mind to rest and working on mental cleanup.

    In other words, there are no reasons NOT to run and any number of reasons to just go.

  10. gobarefooting
    May 12, 2010

    Nicely said my friend. I have tried to honestly answer this question a million times and I think the true answer is I dont know. I know when I'm stressed it helps or if I'm stressed it might be because I havent run. I know that I may have zero desire to run on any given day but the minute I put on my running shorts I am suddenly overly pumped to get going. Why? I dont know. I just know that something inside me calls for it and I oblige. In the end I feel good about it and maybe thats why I do it…

  11. Michael Shane Helton
    May 11, 2010

    Great post.

    For me, the "why" is reflected in the many times reflected in the distance. There are different things which drive/inspire/motivate/question me when I am running 5 miles versus 20 miles.

  12. barefoottyler
    May 11, 2010

    I run for relaxation. I noticed that before I ran I was a complete spaz. I went through moods of OHMYGODIHAVETODOSOMETHINGRIGHTNOW!, but not I have something to do, which after about 20 minutes of doing it, I am relaxed and cool. So essentially, I am like that dog that you need to play fetch with in the back yard so you can go to sleep.