Running Is, Above All, a Mental Sport

Kimie BunyasaranandContributor IOctober 29, 2010

It’s the part of gym classes and sports practices people hate. It’s the part you do because the coach says you have to—a means of getting to the more enjoyable end of the actual game and competition itself.

I dreaded suicides, hills and endurance runs just as much as anyone during soccer and softball practice in high school. So why, years later, do I find myself waking up at 6 on Saturday and Sunday mornings to run 5Ks, 10Ks, and 10-milers on a regular basis?

And what about those crazy marathon runners who voluntarily put themselves through strenuous training for months on end, just to run for hours? When Phidippides ran the first marathon in 490 B.C., he keeled over and died immediately after announcing Greece’s victory over the Persians. Your body just isn’t supposed to be able to do that.

And yet there’s a huge culture around it. The Cherry Blossom Ten Miler, one of Washington D.C.’s most popular races, sold out so quickly in 2009 that a lottery system was instilled the following year. A whole auctioning system is in place for those lucky enough to have gotten numbers to sell the right to run to the highest bidders once registration is closed.

Vendors selling the latest high-tech gear tout their apparel with catchy phrases like “cotton is rotten” at running expos. 

Runners' magazines spout advice on the most suitable running shoes for every foot type imaginable, explaining differences down to the quarter-ounce between two seemingly identical models.

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It involves a smaller sub-segment of the population and doesn’t receive all the attention and popular hype as Monday Night Football. There is no spectacular glory or chance at being featured on ESPN’s Top Ten.

Sure, you get a mention here or there, perhaps in that little sidebar section at the beginning of Sports Illustrated. Or maybe every once in a while, a feature story is written about Usain Bolt or Gail Devers. But a lot more people know who Peyton Manning is than Samuel Wanjiru, the 2008 Olympic marathon winner-- I’m a runner and had to look that up.

And that’s for the small percentage that is actually competing to win the darn thing— the ones you stare at incredulously as they come down the other way around a turn you won’t get to for at least another mile or two. But for the rest of us, who really cares if you end up coming in 4,123rd place or 4,124th place out of 28,000?

As the cliché goes, running is a mental sport. It takes unbelievable discipline, self-motivation, and drive. You’re accountable to no one, and it’s less about the circumstances.

The people with the signs and cowbells along the way help; hell, there are even Rock ‘N Roll marathons with live music every few miles. But at the end of the day, it’s just you and the road. 

When you’re coming down the last quarter of the race—whether that “quarter” is 400m, 3 miles, or 6.5 miles for a marathon—you are the only person telling you to kick it up a notch, to test your limits, to push yourself harder. 

It’s you and whatever mental exercise you use to ride out the adrenaline when you’re on a high, to keep yourself going when it feels like you used up your last ounce of energy on that last step for 500 steps in a row, to push yourself harder and finish strong coming down the stretch.

Nothing good ever comes easy. Distance running perpetuates a cycle in which people put themselves through hell in order to get a unique kind of satisfaction-- a quiet, more personal glory. There’s kind of a sick but beautiful obsession associated with it. And if you are lucky enough to get yourself into that cycle, it’s the best thing that becomes impossible to break out of.


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