Monday, August 15, 2011

The Big Myth: Running is Boring

I have a confession to make: I am never bored when I'm running. My friends and neighbors, and even some family members, wonder if perhaps I have some strange super human powers that allow me to deal with extreme boredom as I venture out on four hour runs, sans IPod (Um, I don't own one), and manage to return home without somehow morphing into a screaming lunatic from the shear tedium of it all. And yet week after week, year after year, I return, swing open back gate and drag my tired, satisfied mind and body home, seemingly unscathed. 

Clearly there must be something wrong with me.

The ad in Runner's World for the "Tougher Muddy" series proclaims in large, bold, burning red letters that "MARATHONS ARE BORING".  The "Warrior Dash" promises "The craziest frickin' day of your life". "Spartan Race" organizers explain that: "Spartans believed while on this earth they should achieve one moment of Excellence and understood they might die trying!" (that's not exactly true, but whatever. It sounds good) and they ask: "Are you unbreakable?".  Then there's the "Muddy Buddy" where legends are made: "They were average men...Now they are obstacle conquering, trail running, mountain biking, cape flying out ladies." Aside from the sexist message, what exactly are these brave men champions of?  What sort of 'excellence' is achieved? And, no, you are not unbreakable!

Call me a grump, but these sound more like a frat party gone bad than any sort of serious (even seriously fun) competition that involves real challenge and real risk. Marathons are serious fun - that is, they require a fairly serious approach no matter who you are and what your goals may be. And they're fun in a twisted sort of way that can only be understood by those who have been there.

But one message seems to shine through with all the "obstacle course" "adventure" races:  Running is boring. Running is so, so very old. We really are beyond all that and we need new, real challenges.  Is this true? What is the appeal of this new breed of competition? Are these races actually targeted at runners, or some other sort of human creature? 
For non-runners, and some new runners, when they think of running they think: boredom. There you are, out on the road putting one foot in front of the other and repeating and repeating, mile after mile, 180 steps per minute. For a four hour run that 43,200 steps - just steps, and after all that you usually just end up exactly where you started from. The most excitement I get is facing down an aggressive pack of cyclists dead-set on running me into a ditch. Or a car playing chicken with me. Or, perhaps the growling dog that's running loose with a broken chain still attached to his collar. Mostly, though, it's me moving through the world putting one foot in front of the other.

Over my 30+ years of running I am constantly asked: "Don't you find running boring?" Or better yet, the condescending comment: "Oh, I just find running so boring." The implication here, of course, is that I'm such a simpleton that I don't even get bored doing something as inherently boring as running. Well, sorry to say, I have a lot of interesting things to think about - in fact, it's seemingly endless - at least I haven't found the end yet.

One of the problems with running is that it's hard. Putting one foot in front of the other is not on its own that difficult, but repeating it thousands upon thousands of time in row is tough. I believe that people tend to confuse 'difficult' with 'boring; as in, if something feels hard then they think it's boring.  As a philosophy instructor, I see this confusion all the time. Students find the material difficult, so they think that the problem is with the material (it's boring which is why they don't understand it), when the problem is actually with them (they really have no desire to do what needs to be done to understand the material). So with the rising popularity of all these new 'adventure' races, are the glory days of running behind us? 

I posed a couple questions to my Facebook friends (and some real blood-and-bones friends) and asked them: 1) What is the appeal of these "adventure" races? and; 2) Do you get bored running? The response to both questions was overwhelming and vehement.

On question #1 - several common themes surfaced in favor of the new races: "new challenge", "they are different and not boring", "fun", "crazy", "on the bucket list", "it's different", "cross training". For those who would never consider doing an "adventure" race of this type (I am not taking about tough trail races, but "obstacle course" races) the single theme that came through with each response was: I don't want to get hurt or waste my time because my running goals are too important to me.

To question #2 - Most runners who have been running for many years claim they never get bore running. They use their time running to get outside, listen to and enjoy nature, think about stuff they need to think about. One friend responded; "I used to think running was boring until I started running!" New runners or more occasional runners were more mixed, citing the need to have music and new routes - and some 'adventure" races thrown in - to keep things interesting.

So, are marathons boring or are they just really fairly hard? They do hurt. The training is arduous and committing. So, is the appeal of these new 'races' the challenge or just good old fashioned fun. Are the organizers really marketing to runners? Now, don't start calling my an uptight, obsessed runner who takes it all and herself too seriously (though I probably am), but it seems that we are comparing apples and oranges - and the fact remains that maybe, just maybe, these 'adventure races' won't test you the way a good ol' marathon will - or a 5k, 10k, etc. where you really push yourself to your limit when you just want to stop. But I suppose that if these races draw the crowds away from marathons, then it will be easier for the rest of us (runners) to secure a spot. And that's fine with me.

And, by the way, Spartans began training their male children to be warriors from the age of seven. Their culture left nothing of great value behind and it lasted a very short time. They did manage to take down a flourishing democracy - Athens - a city state that, in a span of several decades, managed to create wonders of art, architecture, philosophy, political theory, theater, and, literature. As Aristotle aptly commented:  'It is the standards of civilized men not of beasts that must be kept in mind, for it is good men not beasts who are   capable of real courage. Those like the Spartans who concentrate on the one and ignore the other in their education turn men into machines and in devoting themselves to one single aspect of city's life, end up making them inferior even in that."

Hmmmm. I don't want to be a Spartan and I don't want to live in ancient Sparta. I think I'll just keep right on running.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Decision Made

Well the dithering and muttering will cease for a bit. As a follow up to my last post, I've decided to let my gut and the little voice inside my head decide.

My little voice whispers ceaselessly to me these days. This little voice whispers to me in the middle of the night. It whispered to me during a 3 a.m. run this past week and later during a 4 a.m. run. It whispered to me while I ran through the heat, humidity, grime and traffic of New Jersey. It whispered to me when I sat gazing out at the runway in Chicago with clouded, sleep deprived eyes while waiting to board my fourth flight of the week. It whispered to me as I looked at my mother, thin and frail from too much poison being pumped into her body. Enough. I am human after all, and this is all just too much right now. I give. I will stay sane. I will stay sane.

So my gut and the little voice say: "Don't run a marathon this fall, at least don't run the Denver Rock n Roll Marathon - run the half instead". But this is not just an irrational decision based on feeling and a completely spent emotional state. There's always reason beneath emotion, the challenge is to unearth the rational in what seems irrational. This race is not a race I'm jazzed about - and it never was. My idea of a good marathon is not one that weaves it's way through an urban environment - unless it's NY or Boston, or Chicago or London. When the RnR folks released the details on the new course this week it looked like a hodgepodge of twists and turns, and heres and theres, and round and rounds, and I could only think to myself - "Eeewwww". Not very inspiring I'm afraid.

So, I have reason and emotion on my side. And though this is not an easy decision to make, make it I have. I do not back out of things easily. I usually take it as a sign of weakness and lack of commitment - a character flaw (of which I have many). But in this case, I know it's the right thing for me - and it's taken more strength to make that decision then the strength required to push on in spite of it all.

I tell my daughter over and over again that her stubbornness is a strength, but it can also work against her if it's not used properly - if she remains steadfast when doing so only hurts her or gets in the way of what she really wants, then her strength becomes a weakness. Well, it's now time for me to take my own advice.

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