Thursday, August 11, 2011

Running Lessons: Not all addictions are bad for you


- noun
  1. the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Distance runners are often heard to quip that “not all addictions are bad for you”.  Indeed, Nike has built more than one advertising campaign around the notion. (For example, see this video on YouTube.)  And I have to say I agree with that sentiment for the most part. 

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering about my running addiction and whether it’s altogether a good thing. The truth is I have been pushing myself pretty hard these past six months or so. And then there was that little matter of finishing a marathon in June when common sense probably should have persuaded me not to. 

I was discussing this with my very wise friend, Brent, a couple of weeks ago when we ran together in Ottawa. Brent’s own running addiction is a serious one so it’s a matter to which he’s given some thought. Perhaps, he suggested, one thing to consider is whether one is running “away from” or “towards” something. 

I’ve been pondering that question ever since.  How would I characterize my running?

If I’m honest, I often use running to deal with stress and am motivated, at least in part, by a desire to remain relatively “youthful” as long as possible so, to that extent at least, I suppose I am running away from something.

On the other hand, running has given me so much – time to consider life’s big questions, the motivation to be outside enjoying nature all year round, a strong body, a clearer mind, close running friends, and opportunities to raise money for great causes.  Since it’s those things that I most often thinks about as I’m lacing up my shoes to head out the door, I think I can honestly say I’m usually running towards something.

The trouble is it’s a fine line.  So long as running makes it possible for me to contribute more to other people and my community, it’s a good thing.  But when/if it becomes so all-consuming that it distracts me from the people and things that matter most or from dealing with issues I need to address, it will be another matter entirely. Like any other addiction - to drugs or alcohol, food or incessant activity - it will have taken too great a toll.

There are people in my life who tell me I already run too much - that at my age I shouldn’t continue training for marathons, and shouldn’t ever contemplate running an “ultra”. (As I noted a few months ago, an ultra marathon – that is, any race longer than a full marathon – is one of the things on my “bucket list”.)  Perhaps they’re right. There’s no doubt marathon training is physically and mentally demanding, and perhaps there are better ways to spend the many hours I now spend training. 

On the other hand, running feeds my body and soul in ways that are hard to articulate. I know I’ll never be an Olympian. I’ll never even be a local contender. But when I’m running well - when it feels nearly effortless - then I feel like I was born to run - like all those years I didn’t were some awful mistake.

Last week, I attended a boot camp session in Point Pleasant Park for the first time. It was a tough workout that included dozens of leg lifts, squats, lunges, and other exercises. Near the end of the class, the instructor ordered us to sprint up a hill as fast as we could. Though my legs were wobbly from the unfamiliar exercise, I didn’t hesitate but turned to run up the hill giving it everything I had. Fortunately, my body didn’t let me down. Picking up speed as I climbed, I felt energy surging through my arms and legs, my breath flowing rhymthmically, and my heart beating strongly in my chest. By the time the instructor yelled stop, I’d crested the hill laughing out loud with the sheer joy of how good it felt.

Maybe that’s the real reason I run – for that that moment of exhilaration and satisfaction when I realize that, after years of training, I can now do something I never thought I would, and do it with relative ease.

So, yes, I am addicted to running. But for now at least I have no plans to give it up.

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