Running long distances is a classic test of will and character. Dealing with the physical and mental stress of training and competing are some of the ways distance running builds individual fortitude. But there are lessons that lie beyond the traditional virtues of the sport.
Distance running teaches us that many of the pains of life are temporary. Learning to deal with pain is one of the key lessons in developing maturity. As a distance runner, the degree of pain you experience is a matter a choice. Learning to tolerate pain by choice leads to resiliency of character. That leads to abilities in perseverance, objectivity and significantly, an appreciation for the efforts of those around you. You are not so likely to take the suffering of others for granted when you have known the feelings of suffering yourself.
Motivation and mental attitude can be important as your physical ability. Driving your body to maintain a pace past the point of fatigue teaches you mental discipline that can help your mind learn to overcome other difficult tasks under pressure, a life skill that directly transfers to other tasks in life.
“The purity of the moment is made from the absence of time.” This quote from a book titled Ambiguous Adventure by Cheik Hamidou Kane perfectly captures the feeling you get when you are running well. That purity of the moment feeling stems from being completely immersed in what you are doing, putting you in touch with living fully in the moment. But ironically distance running can also teach you the vital life skill of detachment from the world in knowledge that the “self” is not our only active state of consciousness, or the only reality in this world. That is the yin and yang of distance running.
Today’s achievement is tomorrow’s memory. Many runners experience a letdown after competing or completing a big race. And that is natural. But learning to accept that even your best efforts in this world are ephemeral teaches you to that the pleasure and gratification of an achievement, or a shelf full of trophies, does not guarantee you a seat of honor at the table of tomorrow. The world wants to know what you are going to give it today. The trophies or medals you might gain are nothing more than a reminder that you know how to work.
Learn when to work, and when to rest. Running brings many physical and mental health benefits, but it is easy to get carried away or even obsessed with doing more and more. But the returns on perpetual effort can be diminishing. Striving to run the marathon distance and training 60-100 miles per week may provide diminishing health returns in the long run. Often just 30 miles a week and running 5Ks actually produces more manageable health benefits and with far less risk of injury, burnout and unnecessary strife. Learn to balance and take time off when you’re hurt. Take a rest day when you feel tired or not up to a 10 miler. Your pleasures can too quickly become your pain. Learn to relax, take the long view and you’ll likely get where you’re going that much faster.