Whether you’re a ParkRun fanatic, a Couch-to-5k starter, a pavement pounder or a trail-runner, we all run for a reason. Much as it may be rumoured that I run off jelly-babies, for me as a trail-runner here’s my story why I think joy is the best fuel for running, and what gives me that fuel.
Fuel yourself with joy
Running at its best ought to be inherently joyful. ‘Why would you get up from the sofa and put yourself through the pain of exercise?‘ many ask. For the joy that comes from it and through it, would be my reply.
Many will testify that guilt is a bad motivator (Paul O’Connell’s rugby biography being one) and fear too (as rock-climber Alex Honnold discusses with psychologists here). But there’s an endorphin rush you experience deep inside you after you’ve finished that gives you a ‘bounce’ for the rest of the day (even if you’re tired). There’s a delight in the achievement of what you have just done. The thrill of feeling free as you arrive at the peak of a mountain ridge, or stick in the earphones to run and forget the day’s worries. But what about when we feel more drudgery than joy? When we see the next unbearable slope ahead, or after the brief moment of elation on the podium has passed?
Our trouble often is that we think that habit or duty is the antithesis of joy. So as soon as we don’t feel like something, or think it’s too hard work, we give up. Those first few weeks of starting running. Those weeks you seem to be plateauing and not going anywhere. Those days you look at the weather outside and just couldn’t be bothered.
But joy is more than a feeling we get when we muster up a good performance or work hard for all to see on Strava. Such joy would be very short-lived and not a good fuel for running, let alone the rest of life.
Could there be a more deep-seated joy within us that gives us energy even in injury, mental doubts and hard times?
Listen to your body
It’s what has turned many to find greater purposes to generate joy within themselves. Are you running to get away from the problems and worries of work or to escape for a few hours from a relationship going through a rough patch? Are you running to prove to yourself that you can reach the goals that you aim for? Are you running to keep your body or mind in shape?
Many internal reasons motivate many of us, as we search for the joy to run inside of ourselves. And as we do so, the phrase “listen to your body” becomes a repeated mantra in many circles. Physically and mentally this can be liberating advice. Instead of being chained to training regimes, this gives the freedom to realise when we need to slow down, or when we can push ourselves more. Instead of choosing to try to push our body beyond actual pain in training, we can stop and think why we’re feeling pain and how to combat it.
But like many things in life, “listen to your body” alone won’t get you anywhere. We often deceive ourselves to what we are capable of (either not pushing hard enough or pushing too hard), we don’t understand our body to the extent we think we do, we don’t have the time to be an expert in everything in order to flourish as a runner, or quite simply, we don’t have motivation within ourselves at many times in life. True joy can still escape us.
And for when looking inside and listening to our body doesn’t do the job, many of us have turned to running communities to help us. ParkRun (local 5k runs once a week in a local park, run by the community, for the community) has exploded across many areas to the extent that there are more people wanting to do it than some parks can host!
Others join running clubs that cater for all standards. Many of these have been able to keep meeting, even with tighter Covid restrictions. What better than to have a weekly rhythm to motivate you and give you people to provide some kind of accountability and support? What about people with huge experience in running alongside you to help when niggles start, or someone who knows what you’re going through mentally, to spur you on?
I find that running unites me with people who I never would have thought about hanging out with before. Something about persevering in hard miles together, side by side, is the perfect way to see each other as fellow humans and to help each other out, even if you have radically different backgrounds or thoughts about life and politics.
Someone could be your enemy at work 9 til 5, but when met out in the mountains, they become a fellow runner. We’ve even seen it in the Refugee Team at the Olympics. Running can unite.
And it can unite us even to the extent many runners realise how it even mimics religious communities. #sundaychurch is a hashtag not altogether uncommon around those who head out for their long run on Sunday mornings, or #parkrunfamily for those who embrace the ParkRun community week by week. It’s a beautiful joy, that the lone runner (although accessing more freedom and flexibility) will struggle to ever replicate in any meaningful way.
The trail is unknown
But ultimately the unity brought by running communities and the wisdom of listening to our bodies is still not where joy can be truly found to fuel us for our running. I myself have learnt the hard way but many others have had similar hard lessons.
I was up running in the Dublin hills not so long ago, and found myself taking a “wrong” turn and losing track of the lead group. I slowed down to see if anyone was following close behind, and sure enough one runner soon caught up with me. As we ran for the next hour together, sometimes in silence (going up the hard slopes!) and sometimes chattering away about everything in life, it soon became evident that our stories overlapped to some small amount, even if he was a 50 year old Dad, and I was only just 30.
There was a day he feared, when the track would run out, and the community would die. A day when listening to his body would do no good. He told it in two ways.
The first was of a friend of his, one of the fittest people he knew. Jumping in the waves on a beach in Wexford with his daughter, he felt his leg snap when he landed on the soft sands of the beach. Somehow, he’d developed brittle bones, and his femur had just snapped. Brittle bones which would plague him for the rest of his life and make even the simplest of things hard. The running community would gather round him to help for his time in hospital and for many weeks, but after the news grew old, he was left alone, no longer fitting into the club that were once his family.
Dramatic as that sounds, this story was echoed in the man’s own life. During Covid, as fit as a fiddle, but suddenly developing a bad case of gout, becoming bedridden and unable to perform many functions in normal family life for weeks on end. The loneliness and lack of purpose was palpable for him.
This story, was also previously mine (with a different condition) which had me in Intensive Care in hospital for several days, having only just come from enjoying a few days running in the Mourne Mountains before that.
Ultimately listening to our bodies in any of these instances wouldn’t have helped – we either couldn’t have told what lay ahead or didn’t recognise the signs. Ultimately the running community could only do so much, before we were left outside the weekly gatherings. Ultimately, joy again would be snatched from us, if we had placed it within ourselves or within our communities.
Could there yet be a runner’s paradise from where could flow a joy that would transcend even these fairly unalterable problems? Or are we as runners just on a lottery, investing our joy like eggs in many baskets, in the hope they won’t all be snatched from us?
It’s something scary to most people, that they don’t want to think about. But for me, I want to find a fountain for my joy that will not run dry during hard times, even when the tears come. A joy that is more durable than most surface-level emotions. A joy that will fuel me when no mountain ridges are mine to run along, when no friends are there to support me, and when nothing inside of me (whether self-knowledge or self-motivation) could keep me going.
And that logically for me, could only be found in the transcendent – outside of this world. A joy given to us by something or someone outside of ourselves.
For me, I’ve met One who claims to have made us to enjoy running, and also has made our playground of the mountains to explore. One who removes guilt and fear, and helps us respond in joy to all He has done for us. One who would give us more self-knowledge than we could ever muster ourselves alone. One who gives us a united community (Church) more inclusive than any running club. And one who knows every turn of the track, and can be there with us and for us even in the moments that ought not to happen – the tragedies of this world. Knowing and experiencing Him, is a fountain of joy that fuels all other things in life, running included.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But before you dismiss it, do explore the short historical eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life for yourself as an adult. You might be surprised to encounter joy on those pages, and to find His name is Jesus.
You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (Psalm 16:11)
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. Jesus (John 15:11)