Running’s not about, um, running

Thanks Patrik for the use of this image under Creative Commons.

When I was 14, my foster sisters told me they were going for a run. It’d only be about 1km, they said. Would I like to come?

By the time I’d ‘jogged’ down the driveway and onto the road, the two of them were blurry, heat-affected smudges in the distance. My ankles were searing. My lungs felt like they were collapsing. My foster sisters tried to help, but I was moving glacially. And I hurt. Oh, my giddy-burning-airways-aunt, I hurt. After about 200 metres, I turned around and went home.

I’d been known to roll my eyes at exercisers before, but after that day I moved to open sneering. The sight of someone in sneakers was enough to make me snort. Ugh, I’d think. So bloody happy, so well-adjusted. Because derision is a constructive way to deal with failure, right? (It’s great for concealing envy, too. No-one can even see that green-eyed monster. Like a ninja.)

Twenty years later, I decided it was time to try again. Armed with some woefully inadequate sneakers and an asthma inhaler, I ‘ran’ the third of one street length on my block. Oh. My. Jelly. Legs. It hurt. But it was great. For 15 whole minutes, I’d escaped the apartment and my ever-expanding parental to-do list. Music blared in my ears, my feet flailed over the concrete, the ventolin worked, actual distance was covered. When I got back, I felt like someone had scrubbed out my brain with a clarity cloth (and like I was about to vomit).

So I got ‘into’ running. I bought better shoes, made an iPod playlist, figured out what baseball caps are for (no windscreen wipers on my eyes). I started going regularly(ish), and even did a few fun runs (the short ones). I was slow and ungainly, but I felt like this was something my body was meant to do. And in a way, it is. According to Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, modern humans (with our big brains and ability to use tools for essential skills such as whipping up a raspberry blancmange) evolved at least in part because we learned to run. Our bodies—long tendons in the legs, sweat glands aplenty and a head able to stabilise itself independent of the shoulders—are well adapted for running. Humans might not be the speediest member of the animal kingdom (Lieberman says horses and greyhounds can reach twice our fastest sprinting speeds), but we’re good at going the distance. Lieberman thinks that early humans used this running ability to ‘endurance hunt’ big game (basically, chasing them till they’re worn out). This led to a protein-rich diet and ultimately, bigger brains.

In other words, people were running before we were thinking big thoughts (and making blancmange). So you could say that it’s ‘hardwired’ into us. And it turns out (much to the irritation of my sneering inner teenager) that it has all kinds of benefits not just for the body (yes, yes, stronger legs, fitter heart, etc), but for the brain, too. Studies have shown that running helps with memory, and that it not only helps with cognitive ability, but it actually builds neurons.

On hearing this, my teenaged self can’t help but sneer. Just a little. So those running types can’t be content to totter past in their expensive shoes and tighty-tights: they have to be so clever, too. Doing what they were born to do, and always striving to do it better. So of course, when you think your 3km lunchtime jog is an achievement, there’s someone doing more—if it’s not the lycra-clad gazelle on the treadmill next to you, it’s the sweaty man shuffling past on your circuit of the park. Or the colleague taking you through their training program for next year’s New York Marathon. Or—perhaps even worse—the friend who thinks it’ll be fun to run together, jovially bouncing along beside you while you slowly melt into the pavement. At which point I’m right back there, gasping after those shimmering figures in the distance.

And of course, people will tell you that competitive sport isn’t a bad thing. It’s about beating your personal best, and all that. But I say hang my personal best. (It stinks anyway). When I go out running, having any kind of goal spoils it for me. Sometimes I don’t run for weeks, or even months. But when I do, I just want to be cruising along, pounding the pavement. I don’t want to be ahead of, or behind, anyone. I’m pretty happy in my own head—and that’s okay. If I’m going to sweat my way to some endorphins, I’d rather do it alone, thanks very much.

It turns out that for me, the problem with running (other than the undiagnosed asthma, which was also an issue) was those figures on the road ahead of me. I can’t connect with my running ancestors if it’s a race. And I’m a bit skeptical about applying evolutionary theories too liberally anyway, since the fact that humans may have evolved one way or another needn’t dictate behaviour today (I don’t see too many people chasing down big game in my neighbourhood). Which is not to say the benefits aren’t there. Running is good for you. As is any exercise: one of the studies about neuron growth looked at older people walking regularly, and found they were neurologically two years ‘younger’ after one year of exercise. So, you know, this whole cardiovascular exercise business is actually pretty good.

If I could go back to that teenaged self now, I’d tell her two things. First: the reason you feel you don’t fit in with your foster sisters is because you don’t. Relax. It will work out. And second: Running doesn’t have to be about running. Think of it like a dance. A brilliant, brain scouring, solitary dance in which you’re free to celebrate the specific arms, legs, ankles, eyes you were born with. Throw those feet at the pavement, and get on with it.

Oh and by the way, you have asthma.