(This piece ends the 50th anniversary year of my first article in Runner’s World magazine.)
December 2001. The September day when everything changed began the same as all days do for me. I woke up early but kept the radio and television quiet for the first hour. I didn’t know that the world as we’d known it was crumbling in that same hour.
The morning’s silence, and its peace, ended just before I went out to run. I listened, stunned, to the bulletins on the seven o’clock news. Each report sounded worse than the one before.
Since that day I’ve heard from many runners. They were about equally split between those who ran anyway but felt guilty about it and those who couldn’t bring themselves to run because it seemed suddenly unimportant, even disrespectful.
My day’s run was slow to start. But I never thought about not starting it and never felt this act trivialized the tragedy.
Running still mattered, and now more than ever. To head out anyway on a day like this wasn’t heartless or selfish; just the opposite.
I wasn’t going out to play, but to worry and to mourn. This run opened my heart to thoughts about the pain of others.
No one could run away from a problem this immense. At most a hard, mind-numbing run could act as a brief escape from horrible, non-stop news that threatened to overwhelm us.
Running serves better by letting us run with a problem instead of getting away from it. A run can turn down the volume and slows the pace of events – away from the radio, TV, computer, car, job – and can let us stare the problem in the face.
Such runs can be wrenching, as tears and fears rise up with nothing to deflect them. This is a necessary part of healing, since letting ourselves feel our worst helps us start to get better.
We could do the same by going for a walk or bike ride, or just sitting in a quiet room. But running is where we’re likely to turn in the bad times because this is a friend we know so well.
Some tragedies are national ones that we all must endure together. More often they are the personal blows that strike each of us, and we must work through them on our own.
My father died suddenly and much too soon (at a younger age than mine now). That loss hit me so hard that I couldn’t write a word about it, or anything else, for a long time.
Yet in those darkest of days I never missed a run. He was a former runner himself and a great lifelong fan of the sport, but I didn’t use the comforting line, “He would have wanted me to keep running.”
That would have been a minor truth. The real reason I kept running was because I needed it, and then more than ever.
Running when you’re hurting inside is important. How you approach the run also matters. Such as:
Run alone unless you have a companion who knows you well enough to let you drop your happy face and brave front. Run only with someone who’ll let you talk or stay still as needed.
Run quietly, far away from the noise of traffic (and the dangers of competing with cars while lost in thought). Leave your headset behind, along with its distracting and upsetting voices.
Run simply. Plan nothing hard or complex (no interval sessions, no races, no time trials), but slip into an auto-pilot pace that lets you think far beyond what you’re running at the moment.
Running can’t solve the world’s problems, nor can it make your own disappear. That isn’t the purpose of a crisis-run.
What the running on those days does is let you step away from ground zero, look inside yourself, and sort through your thoughts and emotions before coming back to wrestle with the new realities. That’s why running still matters – more than ever.
2018 Update. Weekly reruns of columns from my years with Runner’s World end with this one. All 200 of them that ran under the title “Joe’s Journal” now combine in the book This Runner’s World. Writings from Marathon & Beyond magazine will begin to appear here next week.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]