Last Saturday morning, my friend Mikey and I found ourselves standing on the shore of a place called Deep Cove, in a pack of 125 other maniacs, waiting to run 15km up and down a mountain. I was wearing a spandex shirt and shorts, shoes more embarrassingly high-tech than my television, and I had just purchased a new water bottle vest with bladders approximately at the height of my nipples. I looked like a yuppie cyborg that was lactating gatorade from a pair of artificial breasts.
You don’t get to that point all at once.
As a kid, running wasn’t a form of exercise, only a means of transporting my body from one place to another.
As a teenager, I would run home through the suburbs after a particularly exciting night, a bush party, a concert, a first kiss. It didn’t matter that I was wearing Doc Martens. And though the feeling of the wind on my face was incredible, I never thought to go running for the sake of running.
In my early twenties, when I lived in Japan, a friend and coworker asked me if I wanted to jog home with him from work. He looked at me like I was an idiot when I told him I was going to wear my boots to do the 8.5km run with him. He was right. I was (am) an idiot. Once my body stopped hurting, I bought the largest pair of running shoes that I could find in Osaka, which were still a bit too small. This is how running as exercise begins: a pair of shoes. That’s the point at which I started to think of going out for a run as the activity, rather than transportation.
In my late twenties, I relived my teenaged years, secretly running home from bars on Bloor Street, half in the bag but giddy to clomp down the Toronto side streets without anybody noticing. I also put on those Japanese runners and went jogging for its own sake, but I didn’t know what I was doing, how long or how often to run.
It took me until my thirties to find a routine. A friend and I, concerned about getting old and lazy, signed up for the Sun Run, a 10km race in Vancouver. This is the optional second step for running: a training buddy who holds you accountable and reminds you that, despite what society often says, physical exertion feels good. And that third step, having an impending race for which you must be prepared, forces you to run regularly and to a higher standard. It also leads to the yuppie cyborg thing.
The progression is subtle and insidious. I started running in nature, so I bought fancy trail shoes. I started running longer distances and wanted to track my progress, so I got a running watch with GPS. I wanted to run in the winter, so I bought a headband, compression tights, and gloves. And so on, until you’re some freak who bites his silicon nipples for electrolytes while ascending a mountain. None of these things are necessary, of course; all you need to run are a pair of shoes and to get over the fact that you will look ridiculous. But every piece of gear reduces the excuses you have for not running, and makes the process that much more fun.
The emphasis for me, if I hadn’t made it clear, is fun. Maybe some people will run with the possibility that they will be faster than other people. Maybe some people have to win, or beat others, or be competitive. I don’t give a shit about any of that, and I’m never going to be fast. I run because I’m beating myself and my worst inclinations, because I feel more alive when I’m not wasting the body I have, because it feels good to exert effort, because a race is a significant accomplishment I can share with a friend. I run because it feels good to put one foot in front of the other.
Case in point. Despite some reservations, I convinced my illustrious colleague to run his first race with me, a 10km run down Yonge Street in Toronto. I got to relive the first-race experience vicariously: the begrudging regular training before race day; the race-morning doubt, of whether he would be able to run all 10km; the nervousness as droves of us stood around in the cold waiting for the race to start; the effortless first few kilometres that disappeared because we were buzzing with energy; the newfound confidence and self-knowledge he gained at the halfway mark, when he realized he could run the whole thing; the fatigue that hit around kilometre 6 or 7; the excitement of the last kilometre; the calm of the post-race; how everything tasted unbelievably delicious (and not just because we went to Sneaky Dee’s) after a long run. It was a real blast to see it all through his eyes, to have someone who (justifiably) makes fun of me understand why I bother with all this running nonsense. I was immensely proud of his accomplishment, and I think he was proud of himself, too, even if he’s too much of a curmudgeon to admit it.
There are plenty of reasons not to run. Maybe it’s an issue of safety, health, or ability that prevents you from running; these make total sense to me, and there are people much more intelligent and nuanced who can speak on the subject. Or maybe you have another form of exercise that you prefer, like crossfit (which made as little sense to me as running made sense to those folks) or soccer. It’s fine for you to remind me that running isn’t a particularly good form of exercise, but so often this is coupled by people just sitting on their asses and not doing anything at all, as if that’s better.
But there are also plenty of great reasons to run. I like it because all you need to start are a pair of shoes, because most of us spent our childhoods doing it unselfconsciously, because it doesn’t have to be competitive or social or public, because in the moment-to-moment I can feel all my self-criticisms ease into the background and I can just exist, because it’s a good experience to share with friends, because I don’t have to be good at it to accomplish something. I like it because it feels good, and the more I do it, the better it feels. I run because it’s fun. Hopefully you have something similar, and if not, I’d be happy to meet you at the base of the mountain. Just don’t mind my outfit.