Part 1: Stupid is as stupid does.
It’s now been a week since I ran in the Nuuksio Classic Trail Marathon and my right ankle, which I sprained badly after 9km, is still quite swollen and painful. I haven’t been able to run at all and even walking is still quite uncomfortable. But hey, whose decision was it to keep running for a further 33km rather than drop out and get immediate first aid? Stupid is as stupid does, right?
Now, don’t worry, the aim of this article is not about bravery or about overcoming adversity. It could have been, but since everyone’s got a tale to tell about how they ‘tough it out’, and many just can’t wait to tell the word about them, I’ll spare you from my one. While I certainly did run, or maybe more accurately limp, for the majority of the course to the finish line, in the end, all I had was just a sprained ankle and not some life and death survival story. So not another word about that. What I did want to write about was the thinks that I’ve been thinking about and feeling this past week, spending my time pretty much immobile with my leg up in the air. Paradoxically, not being able to run is actually helping me to become a better runner than spending more time pounding the pavement or navigating my way over the trails. Each time I stare at my swollen and painful ankle, which is probably better described as a ‘cankle’, I just can’t help but think about the reasons why I run. While I’m still slowing working that out, I certainly know the reasons why I don’t run or, at least, why I don’t want to run. I think it serves me well to be regularly reminded of those reasons to make sure I do not begin to subtly veer of the life path I wish to follow. So here are some of the reasons I DON’T run. I don’t run because I’m trying to compensate for some other addiction. If I am addicted to something, it is to the search for true happiness. While it may seem weird to say, I don’t run as a way of improving my self-worth as a human being, although I have to admit that this is sometimes a very hard thing not to do. I still working on this one. Last, but not least, I don’t run to be faster than any other runner. I have (finally!) lost the need to beat another runner to the finish line in a race and, as an additional related point, I also have no issues with ‘getting chicked’. In fact, running behind ‘chicks’ has a lot of good points, but let’s leave it at that. My main aim in races is to get to the finish line as best as I can rather than just as fast as I can. I understand that we’re all on a personal journey and I think that it’s much more important, whether in a race, in training or in life in general, to assist others on their own journeys when they are struggling and need a friendly helping hand.
Is running then about more than just serving our own needs and desires? Previously, when I wasn’t able to run, I felt like I was going crazy. I guess you could say that I was going through severe withdrawal symptoms, in other words, I was addicted, perhaps physically or mentally, or even both. I suspect my ego couldn’t handle the thought of losing ground on other runners by not being out training. Certainly, running gives me a mental high and I miss it when I’m not able to run. I know of many people who become quite irritable or even depressed when they can’t run for an extended period of time, which for some can be as brief as 24 hours! And there in lies the issue. If being out on the road or trail is a runner’s only way of achieving that high or ‘fix’ then he or she is setting themselves up for major disappointment right from the get go as life will very likely be regularly filled with periods of time when you just can’t run - e.g. injury or illness, crazy work schedule, family commitments etc - and the last interruption to one’s ability to run will mean never, ever being able to run again. Now, while that could be death, in which case there’s no point thinking or worrying about it, for many it will occur at a much earlier point in life e.g. due to severe arthritis of the knees, a bad back or simply some kind of accident or other more mundane event. What do you do then when the key source of your mental high, pleasure or self-esteem is no longer an option? While not a running example, I heard of a case where a top world-class badminton player had committed suicide when he could no longer play after slipping in the bath and severely injuring his back. Nice one. Is that the reason we do things, whether it be at an elite level or not?; and when we can’t, is such a dramatic decision the only way to solve the problem? Even if such a severe and final course of action is not taken, the void that is left can often be filled on other often very destructive ways like alcohol and other substance abuse, as well as workaholism and toxic relationships. For sure such situations are not restricted just sports. What about musicians who can no longer play their instruments or artists who have maybe lost their sight or the control of their hands? I suspect the mental anguish resulting from such losses is similar for all of us regardless of what we love to do, but can no longer do. Same same, but different.
What then is the problem? I suspect that there are two main ones. The first is very simple, which is when we ‘put all our eggs in one basket’, but we don’t own the basket. Basically, relying on just one main source for anything will inevitably lead to heartbreak if you don’t have control over the source, as your access to it will at some point be, at worst, total blocked, or, at best, restricted severely. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you have multiple sources for your happiness, self-worth or whatever ‘fix’ you are seeking, so that you aren’t left dangling helplessly by a thin thread over a deep black hole when life rips the mat out from under you. This then leads into the second problem, which is that people becoming unhealthily connected to their sources, that is, they become addicted. I think there is a big difference between truly loving to do something as opposed to being addicted to doing something. In the first case, I could describe the relationship as one you might have with a really good friend. You always look forward to your next meeting, but you don’t spend your time in between meetings obsessively dwelling about your friend. It just feels good, and feels right, whether you are with them or apart. The only thing an extended period of time being separated does is to perhaps accentuate the initial feelings or sensations when you meet again, but after a few minutes it feels like you’d never been apart. Now, in the case of addiction, separation feels like having an ever growing hangover or withdrawal symptoms. When you’re looking forward to that next ‘fix’, it is more aimed at the removal of your pain or discomfort, mental or physical, which can often become quite unbearable, as opposed to the calm mental state of simply looking forward to something with a joyous heart, even if you have to sometimes wait for a long time. However, it seems we humans are programmed to focus more on protecting ourselves from loss as opposed to making the effort to gain something new. A primitive survival instinct perhaps? Certainly a trait that is very bad news for addicts, as they spend their time focusing more on getting back what they think they’re missing or even fear that they may never get again. Having to wait longer progressively heightens this state of mind.
It is easily understandable how a person, who only has one main source for whatever makes them feel good, will behave when access to it is restricted, or even completely removed; a situation which is made even worse if they are addicted to it and they have nothing else that comes close to replacing that the feeling attained from the ‘fix’ they usually get. For some the source is running, but it could be anything at all. Do you maybe have such a situation in your own life? In Part 2, I will further explore the topic of addiction from a runner’s perspective, as well as suggest some other more healthy ways that I believe we can still feel great, in fact even greater than we could ever feel from the temporary fixes that any addictive relationship could possibly provide.