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.


  1. GREAT article.. I am the one who said "I used to think running was boring until I started running!" - I had heard about these warrior dashes (my brother pointed one out to me) and honestly I have very little desire to do such a thing. I am a competitive person, I am not a great runner, but I like the concept of running to be the best at something. With the "adventure" type runs the winner isn't always going to be the best and if you ask anyone who does these runs they say they do it for the experience - because it's fun. Well, people like me who like to compete (even if its just with yourself) don't really "get" it.

    There is, however, one adventure run that I am DYING to do. The Zombie 5K "Run for your Life"... I just want to do this because i'm obsessed with most things zombies and have been planning my survival for the zombie apocalypse for the last 5 years.

  2. To a certain extent I think that adventure races, and the way they are marketed, are a commentary on the society that we live in. We live in an age of 30-minute television shows and microwaveable meals and to a certain extent that's what these races are - an abbreviated adventure so that you can get out there, get it done, and get on to the next thing. It's a "go-go-go" mentality - no chance to enjoy the quiet moments in life. Very few of my friends, or even my generation, understand it, but I enjoy the challenge and the freedom that a 4 hour run gives me. You can't get the same "mental refresher" from a 3 mile course filled with various "obstacles".

  3. Excellent point regarding the confusion of hard and boring.

  4. Good topic and nice points. Not that us runners need to be defensive. Seriously, how can anyone's mind not be working in a constructive yet agreeable way when doing anything? Even busy work. I'm not very introspective by nature, but I find both running and blogging to be good for that; which I believe is constructive. I often run between phone calls during business hours and use the time to strategerize (GWBushism). It's all good.

  5. Great post. Sorry to be late to the (frat) party.

    I'll admit that I find many of summer training runs to be complete drudgery. Same course, same distance, same pace. In cooler weather, when my mind can focus on something other than "I'm so gross", even these garbage miles became extremely enjoyable.

    But just because some runs are boring it doesn't mean running's intrinsically boring -- it just means I'm boring...or at least that I need to vary it up. Running someplace new is a joy, and I don't see how a race, even a 3-5 hour 26.2 mile one, could ever be called boring.

    I did one of the obstacle runs, and it was enjoyable, but not of the same level of challenge as a Tough Mudder or Spartan Beast. But I'm skipping a hilarious-sounding zombie-themed adventure race (like referenced in comment 1) in October in favor of 18-mile marathon-training long run. I'd hate to sprain an ankle a month before a marathon because I climbed over a fence to escape fake zombies!

  6. Fantastic point, Chronic. I agree so much. I have a friend who killed his chance to BQ when he got injured in an adventure run. He had been working so hard toward that BQ (and was changing age groups) and this was his window of opportunity to qualify.

  7. i honestly do think running is boring if your not in the right environment. For me i have to be running on the beach to have fun, otherwise my brain is frying itself.

  8. If your running from fake zombies, sure, running is epic, but other than that, Blahhhh


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