Sometimes it’s the simple things that bring us to peace.
In this feature series, we share your answers.
This is reader Ben Shaberman’s:
On a trip out West in August 1991, I annoyed my traveling companion, Curtis, every morning, because he had to wait while I went out for a 45-minute run. Never mind that we spent our days hiking in hot weather across rugged terrain, including a few exhausting excursions in and out of the Grand Canyon, I still had to get my running fix. It’s all we bickered about; once I got back from my run, we got along well the rest of the day and had a great time.
Late afternoon on the last day of our trip, after a relaxing boat tour of Lake Powell near Page, Arizona, Curtis zonked out on his hotel bed more than an hour before our dinner reservation. So very quietly, I threw on my favorite shorts, a little lightweight orange pair, and left a note by the TV that simply said, “Gone Running.” It was a great opportunity to get in one more run before the end of our vacation and to do so without any guilt. Though the sun was low in the sky — it would be setting within the hour — the temperature was still in the 80s, so I didn’t bother putting on a shirt. I had far more energy for a run than I had on any other day of the trip, namely because we didn’t hike that day and Page is only about 4,000 feet above sea level, half the elevation of most of our other destinations.
I began the run heading west down the two-lane road that ran past our resort, directly toward the horizon of the setting sun, which was glowing ever brighter in pinks, yellows, and oranges. After about a half mile, the road began to follow an elevated ridge along a vast canyon of sandstone, limestone, and red rock. The road provided a perfect vista for this seemingly endless geological expanse that, as I had learned from a guide earlier that day, had been covered by tropical seas hundreds of millions of years ago.
I didn’t see or hear any civilization during that entire run, except for a lone old pick-up truck, its driver eyeing me with incredulity as he rumbled past me. For an hour, it was just me, the quiet canyon, a big empty sky, and the spectacular sunset. For miles, I was the only visible movement. For me, it was existential perfection.
I never imagined or sought out such experiences when I started running in 1985 on a 20-laps-per-mile indoor track at the Jewish Community Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. In fact, I didn’t even set out to become a regular runner at that point. I just had some time to burn before playing racquetball and wondered how far I could go. I couldn’t even do a mile at first, but over the weeks, I worked my way up to 40, 60, and then 80 laps. I just kept on going farther, and even bought a little counter, so I wouldn’t lose track of my lap count. I never stopped running.
So, almost 30 years and more than 30,000 miles later, here I am — a running junkie. I’ve run through almost every condition known to man — traffic jams in New York City, blizzards in Des Moines, and stifling heat and humidity in Miami. Sure, I might miss a few consecutive days every couple of years if I get sick — really sick — but rarely do I run less than 5 days a week.
For me, it’s not about speed or competition. I am a slowpoke; I’ve run in 50 or 60 races and never come close to winning a damn thing. And though I’m not an unhealthy person, I don’t seek out much in the way of non-running exercise, except for yoga once a week. And while I enjoy my evenings of yoga — I benefit greatly from the top-to-bottom stretching and strengthening — I often find myself lamenting the fact that I’ve foregone an opportunity to run.
So why do avid runners like me get hooked? Everyone has heard of the runner’s high that many allege comes from endorphins — a natural opiate-like chemical that is released by the pituitary gland during long, strenuous activity. However, this theory is not without controversy; many experts contend that the endorphin molecule is too big to pass through the blood-brain barrier and make a person “high.”
In 2003, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology conducted studies of runners and cyclists, which pointed to another naturally produced chemical, anandamide, as the possible source of the high. Classified as an endocannaboid, anandamide is similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the buzz-producing component in marijuana.
I do feel great after a run, but not exactly stoned; I don’t have a sudden urge to turn on a black light and listen to Dark Side of the Moon. Rather, I feel physically and mentally exhilarated, alert, and highly creative. As a writer, some of my best passages and ideas come to me during and just after a run.
The addictive quality of running also appears to have genetic components. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that if you give a mouse an exercise wheel, it will keep running until it runs out of gas. If you take the wheel away from these furry little marathoners, they get cranky. Though all mice want exercise, the investigators found that they could breed mice, which especially crave running; for some, it’s in their genes. But not for me; the only running anyone in my family ever did was to get to the bakery before they sold out of chocolate éclairs.
And running has become much more than a cardiovascular exercise or a way to get some very cool chemicals circulating through my brain. It’s a way to project myself onto the world, and watch the world as it responds to me. Admittedly, my encounters are, unlike Page, usually mundane. I scatter squirrels and birds, mouth obscenities to drivers who run stop signs to nearly bowl me over, and frustrate leashed dogs which would much rather be running with me than strolling with their slowpoke owners. Neighborhood cats are often transfixed by my running, but aren’t sure what to make of the situation; their instincts tell them I look like prey because I’m running, but another part of their brain is telling them “that mother fucker is just too big.”
Sometimes while I am out running, it’s just a straight-ahead man versus nature situation, as I, for example, work my way up a steep hill into a 25-mile-an-hour headwind of snow while a driving Philip Glass-like orchestral melody loops through my head. Or at the other end of the meteorological spectrum, I lumber down the sizzling pavement on a summer day intent on eeking out just another half mile knowing that the reward of a quart of ice-cold lime Gatorade awaits for me at the finish. Or there’s the rare moment of perfect conditions — 55 degrees, low humidity, light winds, bright sunshine — and the feeling of virtual weightlessness as I glide down the road, seemingly able to go on forever.
It’s remarkable how many unsolicited comments I get from people as I pass by. I hear a lot of “you’re crazy” when I am out in extreme conditions, and also “good for you” from the folks harboring guilt for their sedentary habits. One time, while inadvertently wandering into a rough section of Baltimore on a summer-evening run, a young woman yelled out to me, “What choo runnin’ from?” It’s probably the best philosophical question ever posed to me and for which I still haven’t found a good answer.
Sometimes during those interactive moments, I see myself as an improvisational art form — a kinetic sculpture -— that’s both art and observer. People and animals in my wake watch and wonder as I pass by, and at the same time, I look back at them with my own questions and curiosities. “This is who I am. Who are you?” I always come back from a run a little changed.
No excursion has been as transformational as running through the streets of Beijing in 1993; it is a running experience that has stood out above them all. At the time, China still felt very much Chinese. Western culture was not very evident among the Chinese masses, and the nation’s economic and industrial boom was still at a very early stage. During most of that trip, I went on guided, bus tours of the region’s most popular landmarks — The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. But after a couple of days, I got the urge to go out on a run and do a little exploring on my own. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive hitting the streets by myself. If I got lost, I wouldn’t be able to read the street signs which were all in Chinese characters, and very few locals spoke any English. What would happen if I twisted an ankle and needed medical attention? Hotel staff assured me I’d be OK as long as I had my passport and the address of the hotel. I also brought along a stash of cash in case I needed to bribe my way back.
So I threw on the same lucky orange shorts I wore in Page, strapped on a fanny pack filled with the necessary documentation and a decent supply of yuan (Chinese money), and set off down a crowded road. I was like a ghost slicing through dark masses of cyclists, pedestrians, and people and animals slowly pulling wooden carts. I was the only runner, the only Westerner, the only person with blue eyes and brown hair, and the only guy in little orange shorts. Everyone else was dressed in uniform-like garb of grey, blue, and black. People gawked at me as I gawked back. For a couple of miles, two boys on a bicycle rode ahead of me, like a special escort clearing the way for my passage. Every so often I heard someone yell, “Heh-roh! Heh-roh!” from the sidelines. I waved back like an Olympic marathon champion savoring victory as I’m nearing the finish line. For me, the world had suddenly shrunk. Though the city and its inhabitants seemed completely alien to me at the beginning of that run, by the time I had finished, I felt like I belonged.
While China and the rest of the world have changed dramatically since then, running has remained a constant for me. Over the decades, running has carried me through broken relationships, career changes, periods of loneliness, and the myriad of anxieties and disappointments that, no pun intended, frequently run through our lives. Because no matter how bad things have gotten, I’ve been able to hit the road — almost anytime and anywhere — and say fuck it all. And regardless of the time, the route, or the weather, I always return refreshed, renewed, and, of course, fantasizing about my next run.
For The Good Men Project Sports’ Why We Run feature, we are looking to collect YOUR comments, posts, Tweets, and emails that answer the questions: Why do you run? What are you running from? What are you running towards, if anything?”
Please send us your submission via email to myself at [email protected] or via Twitter @michaelkasdan #WhyWeRunGMP and #GMPSports. Submissions can also be made through the below comments section or on our Facebook page.
Join our Good Men Project Sports Facebook Page!
And, if you like that, you might want a daily dose of Good Men Project awesomeness delivered straight to your inbox. Once a day or once a week for Good Men Project, or sign up for our once a week GMP Best of Sports email newsletter, your choice. Join the mailing list here.
Photo: Flickr/Fernando Rodriguez