The joy and practical wisdom of running

I am not a runner. I nearly failed high school gym because I walked the required cross-country course run. I...

Posted: Dec 3, 2018 3:26 PM
Updated: Dec 3, 2018 3:26 PM

I am not a runner. I nearly failed high school gym because I walked the required cross-country course run. I didn't run for exercise at all until age 27, when my now-wife (two-time marathoner, lifelong fan of "Chariots of Fire") and I started dating. I've done it sporadically since, usually running to coffee shops where the pie I enjoy undoes the work it took to get to it.

But, at 45, I added marathon to my list of firsts and, surprisingly, enjoyed a good deal of the preparation for it. In the three months of training (approximately 434 miles of running), I learned new things about myself, like how much I can physically endure and what my body and mind require to push past ingrained impulses to quit.

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I didn't finish with a "good time," but my goal was just to complete it.

"It does not matter how slowly you go as long you do not stop," Confucius purportedly said. It's estimated that he was a preteen when the Battle of Marathon took place 8,000 miles away. According to legend, a runner covered 26.2 miles between Marathon and Athens to announce the Greek victory and, upon arrival, died of exhaustion.

The wisdom I have to share on the topic of long-distance running -- as a novice, not an expert -- is both practical and philosophical. And I think the first lesson is that having a goal like a half- or full marathon is an excellent motivator, giving you a this-too-shall-pass goal, bragging rights and structure.

Heart and soul

Evolutionarily speaking, running long distances is a defining characteristic of being human. We are among the slower animals on the planet, but our ancestors were able to catch the other ones and eat them because we have a stamina they lack. It may have taken all day, but eventually, the cheetah will tire out and slow down to rest, and that's how you made ancient cheetah burgers.

Beyond species' destiny, there are many compelling reasons to run your first (or next) marathon or half-marathon. Barring some injury or other health issue, long-distance running is, primarily, an excellent workout.

Obviously, exercise in general is fundamental to a high-performing mind and body, but running has been specifically tied to living longer through improved heart health (by up to three added years), staving off cognitive decline and getting better sleep. It's not even necessarily bad for your knees, despite conventional wisdom.

There's enormous psychological benefit, as well. I sometimes ran with a worn-out copy of Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala's "The Joy of Running" in my backpack, a bestseller in the 1970s -- an unenlightened age in which, it seems, very few people ran recreationally, some doctors apparently thought it was harmful to health, and sports bras had barely been invented.

But one of the key arguments the author, a psychiatrist, makes is the therapeutic benefit of running. The book includes anecdotes of patients lowering their stress levels, managing addictions and improving relationships through what he called "running therapy."

Since the book was first published, the research has caught up to Kostrubala's thesis. Running has been found to be just as effective as psychotherapy in alleviating symptoms of depression, according to studies starting in 1979, and to improve self-esteem and reduce stress. There are even psychotherapists who will run with you during your session, which Kostrubala pioneered.

Vigorous movement releases the brain's own feel-good endorphins, producing the well-known "runner's high." Kostrubala goes beyond that neuroscience in his book, arguing that slow long-distance running is akin to hallucinogens, producing an "altered state of consciousness" that lets you glimpse the workings of your own mind or even facilitate a religious experience. Borrowing a metaphor from Aldous Huxley, Kostrubala writes that running may "help each individual open new doors into his own soul."

That framing -- running as a beneficial tool -- is a good reminder when all those hours training feel more like a clock-gobbling chore. "Sport is not a test but a therapy; not a trial but a reward; not a question but an answer," wrote George Sheehan, author of "Running & Being."

Personally, I found running a reliable distraction from -- and physical antidote to -- work stress. It's difficult to mentally multitask while running, so music or an audiobook happily hijacked most of my attention. When my mind did wander, it was usually in more creative, rather than practical, directions.

And though running can be physically difficult as your body adapts to new longest-ever distances on a training schedule, it can also be highly enjoyable. You are outside, usually among trees. You're listening to your favorite song or talking with a friend. And when you're done with a run, you're rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.

Training schedule

I rarely cook and have little confidence when it comes to making a meal, which is why I follow recipes to the letter. Same for a running routine. There are many marathon and half-marathon training schedules available, all employing an interval method that prescribes how long to run each day of the week. It's about 12 weeks for a half and 18 weeks for a marathon. I used the Hal Higdon novice marathon training schedule, ideal for first-timers.

Then -- and this was fun for me -- I plotted out routes for all these runs of varying lengths. The tool I found to be the most useful was Google Pedometer. It counts the mileage online as you click various points, and it allows for paths (not just roads). I printed the routes out and wrote street directions on them. If I deviated from the course, my phone's GPS was my backup.

The longest distances in a training schedule are reserved for weekends, but I had runs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that required not just plotting out routes to and from work but creating a schedule so that I had clothes at work on the mornings I ran there.

Once you establish your schedule, you'll figure out the flow of clothes and gear. And you'll make mistakes too, like the time I had to run with a work shoe in each hand. Later, I just started leaving all my work shoes at work.

Alone or with others

Some prefer to run in groups or with a buddy while others like myself prefer to pass the miles alone. Running with others creates accountability and gives you someone with whom to talk or commiserate. One recent study found that running in a group reduced anxiety and depression, further evidence that Kostrubala was on to something more than 40 years ago.

But going solo avoids the pressure to maintain pace with someone, or perhaps you prefer music or podcasts over talking. The exception to my self-imposed long-distance loneliness were various weekend races and some runs with my brother-in-law, Morgan, who may be the most agreeable person on the planet. Try to find someone like Morgan to run with.

For weekend training runs over 12 miles, entering local races provided bonhomie, planned routes, herd momentum, T-shirts, water stations and portable toilets. Races are almost always more fun than being alone. I loved two trail runs I did (with Morgan, naturally). And I don't know how I would have finished my longest training run -- 20 miles -- without it being an organized Halloween-themed night race.

Technique

At the beginning of my training, I went to a run clinic at a local athletic shoe store and was given a few key pieces of advice that I employed for the next four months.

  • I didn't worry about my stride, except to make sure I was taking short steps instead of overextending.
  • I leaned forward at my ankles, not my waist.
  • I kept my midsection tall and my arms at the side, pumping to maintain pace.
  • I smiled while running. It improved my mood, and a recent study shows that smiling runners are also more efficient.

Pain

You will ache. You may develop acute pain in certain parts of your body. But you can mitigate that with "dynamic stretching," which emphasizes movement with lunges, hip rotations and leg kicks. Dynamic is better than your grandmother's traditional muscle pulls. I printed a series of these yoga-like stretches on the back of my running maps, which helped me develop the habit.

You may also lose a toenail or two, but there's nothing you can do about that.

Music and more

It was nearly as much fun making a mix of all my favorite songs as it was to listen to them while running. I found that everything from John Williams soundtracks to hip-hop to 1960s anthems have their place in a long run. I even made a second "clutch" mix of the ones that can really push me when I'm spent.

But I also learned that I can't listen to any music for more than an hour straight before I get sick of it. So I broke up long runs with podcasts (favorites include "Here's the Thing" with Alec Baldwin and the BBC's Desert Island Discs) and audiobooks (ones that delighted most for this marathon training were John Irving's "The World According to Garp," "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond, "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn and one my 11-year-old daughter recommended, the YA novel "Lily and Dunkin" by Donna Gephart.)

Fuel

Think of food as an experiment in which you are learning what your body needs before, during and after long runs. Pasta, for example, is considered an ideal recovery meal and good before a race. For some, chocolate milk is a recovery drink, but for others, it's terrible. For me, PB&J makes for a perfect pre-run breakfast, and during a run, I preferred Sport Beans by Jelly Belly, occasional salt tablets and pizza slices to keep me going.

Clothes

Long runs and nipples have a longstanding feud. Do a Google image search for "bleeding nipples running" if you want to be scared straight, or just run 20 miles unprotected. Body Glide is the common solution to chafing, but for me, that was effective only for runs under 12 miles. It was my ultramarathoner friend Ben who gave me one of the best pieces of advice on this topic: a SmartWool running shirt. I don't understand the textile science behind this miracle, but I can attest to it solving the problem.

I also recommend buying shoes in a running shoe store. You'll get gait analysis and other expert guidance, but even more helpful is that if some issue arises (like my Adidas that started tearing at the seams), they will probably replace them with no shipping or hassle. Prepare to pay at least $125 for good running shoes. One pair should get you through your entire training and marathon.

Shopping Content by CNN Underscored: Sneakers for every running gait

Finally, since you will almost certainly be running in the dark at some point, get a reflective vest or crossing guard-type suspenders of some variety. Being seen by drivers could save your life.

Other gear

Lights are also good for visibility. I had one I attached to my running bag and even light-up shoelaces. You'll also need a headlamp for running in the dark.

I eventually bought a Garmin watch because my phone GPS proved inconsistent, but Google Pedometer maps were the most reliable. I carried two phones, mainly for podcasts, audiobooks and music, in case one phone died.

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I often ran with a Camelbak running bag and, for longer non-race runs, used the water bladder. But even without the water, the bag held fuel snacks, work ID, keys, iPhones and the "Joy of Running," which I read on public transportation for runs that didn't take me all the way to work.

I wrote a checklist of things I needed on my trail maps. When I failed to use it, I often forgot something.

Mantras and mental games

Passing the time is one thing, but there comes a point in every long distance in which your body starts sending signals to your brain to stop running. Pain and exhaustion are the foes of resilience. "The trick is not minding that it hurts," to quote David Lean's titular character in "Lawrence of Arabia." There's a physiological Zen riddle in the notion of acknowledging a wall and running through it anyway.

You will probably develop your own mental tricks, but mantras help me. The day before I ran my marathon, I read a New Yorker magazine story about a member of the SAS, the elite British commando unit. I learned that the SAS' unofficial motto is "Always a bit further," a line borrowed from James Elroy Flecker's poem "The Golden Road to Samarkand." I wrote "Always a bit further" on my arm with a Sharpie for the race.

Visualizations help, too. On long runs, I half closed my eyes and imagined in a dreamy state of fatigue that I was running on a beach.

Kaye Anne Starosciak, the registered dietitian, nutritionist and wellness coach at my work, offered similar advice, which I took because she has run more than 30 marathons herself. She recommends visualizing the finish line. That was helpful, especially on marathon day, though what saw me to the actual end of the race was my daughters running beside me the last half-mile, a moment more perfect and emotional than I had imagined.

Starosciak also said her personal goal with long races is to have fun. All this hard work should not be at the expense of joy. Without the joy of running, you're just left with running.

I'm debating whether to try to run another marathon. But if I do, I'll have three goals: finish with a better time, don't walk any of it, and have more fun.

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