The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner

Ask a hundred runners why they run and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Some will tell you it is simply about the health and fitness whilst others may suggest it is exercising to exorcise demons. Some may even go as far to suggest that that it is about fresh air and space – clearly they don’t run in Yangon – and to others it is a way of hiding in plain sight.

Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author and long distance runner describes running as a space for meditation. It is “…a time not to think”, but a time for peace and tranquillity. Whereas Scott Jurek, perhaps one of the greatest long distance runners ever, runs to achieve a state of mind, “a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.” Chris McDougall, the author of ‘Born to Run’ proposes, “…running [is] mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.”

I run as a form of mental distraction, it is a chance to block out the detritus of life and find solitude. When it is just my footsteps, my heartbeat and me I can find a space where I can think, reflect, and be creative. I could also do with losing a few kilos, so it helps with that as well.

If you’d asked one of the 169 runners who finished the third Yangon international marathon last month why they had just put themselves through the agony of forty-two hot and sweaty kilometres they might not have been so philosophical or metaphorical with their answers. After completing such a monumental achievement the heat, blisters, sprains, strains, and nipple chaffing can temporarily cloud your mind to the gravitas of your feat. And despite going to bed with the mantra “Never again”, rolling around your dehydrated brain by the next morning your legs are itching to hit the road again.

In the cold light of day, with a clearer head and a few aches and pains the marathon runners would probably explain that the reason they’d put themselves through that horrendous ordeal was certainly not for the T-shirt and medal. It is because it is the ultimate goal; to runners the marathon is like Hilary’s Everest, or Chief Brody’s shark.

And a marathon isn’t just 26.2miles of running, it is much more than that. The distance is representative of months of dedication and abstinence. It is a demonstration of hundreds of hours of pain and perseverance, and a symbolic end to the almost monomaniacal focus that is required to be able to compete. In fact you could say that the four or five hours spent on the course are actually the easy bit – alright it doesn’t feel like it at the time, and certainly the last six miles can be a bit of a painful slog. But as Murakami quotes in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, and as the memory of the pain subsides you remember that the actual act of running the marathon is really your chance to celebrate your commitment, it is grand-finale to your months on the road, it is the gong at the end of your Bohemian Rhapsody.

Of course running a marathon is not for everyone – there is after all a difference between a joke and a pantomime – but whether you are seriously training for the big event, getting ready for a 5km fun run or just moving to clear the cobwebs out, running is a fabulous way to interact with your environment and yourself. It isn’t just about avoiding potholes, and dodging street dogs; it is a complete mental and physical experience, and a chance to have an internal conversation with every part of your body.

And if you are thinking about starting running for whatever reason, be they like Smith, the angry young man – the lonely long distance runner in Alan Sillitoe’s short story – who runs for escapism; or just to reacquaint yourself with a long lost notch on your belt, now is as good a time as it gets to get out there.

You don’t have to aim to be like three-time Yangon international Marathon winner Joseph Gitau Kariuki, who can complete a marathon in about the same time as it takes to get downtown from the airport in a taxi on a bad day. Nor do you need any emotional or metaphorical reason. If you can run to the end of the street and back and get a bit of a sweat on then you are halfway there. Running is a great, cheap and easy way to escape your air-conditioned bubble, interact with the outside world and more importantly get a chance to say hello to yourself! And when was the last time you did that?

Happy Running

A version on this article was published in MY Yangon Magazine – February 2015

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