by Gary Dudney
My understanding of how to run with more joy and less anguish starts with vinegar. There’s a traditional subject in Chinese painting of three old men who are vinegar tasters. The idea is that the three tasters represent the three ancient religions of China: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
When the Buddhist and the Confucian tasters try the vinegar, they hate it. It’s sour and bitter and disgusting. No surprise there, it’s vinegar! But when the Taoist tastes the vinegar, he’s all smiles. He’s happy. He’s enjoying himself. So what’s going on? The Taoist recognizes that the vinegar is simply being vinegar. It’s being true to itself, true to its own essence. For a Taoist, every natural thing that remains true to its nature is intrinsically good. The vinegar can taste sour, bitter, bland or sweet. It doesn’t matter to the Taoist. He is just happy experiencing the true nature of the vinegar.
Now think of the experience of running. Running is easy at first and pleasant. It feels great to step outdoors and jog down a path or a road. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, though, and it gets harder and becomes unpleasant. Eventually it gets downright painful and you start to hate it. A Taoist runner, on the other hand, will enjoy the easy parts just like you, but when it gets harder and painful, the Taoist will think, “Ah, ha. What I’m experiencing now is the true nature of running, the essence of running.” And then not judging the experience or caring whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant, he will be happy.
That is one frame of mind for you to apply to your running. Try to be a Taoist runner. Accept all aspects of the experience when you’re out on a run as a natural part of running, even the pain and the fatigue. Those things don’t signal that you have a problem. They signal that you are doing your best, running up to your capacity, reaching toward your goals. Think how lucky you are to be healthy enough to be able to push yourself. Think about how by running hard you’re cultivating your resilience, getting healthier, learning discipline, and becoming a better version of yourself. Like the Taoist, be happy when you experience these feelings. They are part of the essence of running just like the easy part.
Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film Rocky offers another way to understand how running generates joy. The heart of the film comes when Rocky Balboa races to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and joyfully celebrates his newly won strength and self-confidence. How the fight turns out against Apollo Creed at the end of the film is ironically just a postscript to Rocky’s story.
At the beginning of the film we see Rocky when he is down and out. He believes he is a bum and a loser and most of his acquaintances see him that way as well. We see him hit rock bottom when his boxing trainer gives away his locker to a more promising fighter at the seedy gym where Rocky trains. The trainer chides Rocky for the lowly work he is pursuing, acting as an enforcer for a shady loan shark.
“It’s a livin’,” Rocky says in his own defense.
“It’s a waste of life,” the trainer shoots back.
What happens between this moment and his triumphant celebration at the art museum is that Rocky sets himself a challenging goal and achieves it. The goal, it should be noted, is not necessarily to win the fight. Rocky’s goal is to remake himself into a worthy opponent to Apollo Creed, to reshape his self-image from being a loser to being a contender, to no longer be seen or feel like a bum. He is after both a physical and a psychological transformation.
Running and his boxing training afford him the vehicle for both types of transformation. Of course running is setting one goal after another for a day, a week, a month, all serving to reach a bigger, transcendent goal like a PR or a marathon finish. We see this happening to Rocky in the long montage that covers his training from his early struggle to reach the top of the steps at the museum while clutching his side in agony to when he bounds up the steps wholly fulfilled physically and psychologically. With each goal conquered, Rocky repairs his self-image and builds greater self-esteem until he has fully realized his potential and created the best possible version of himself. And in that climactic moment at the top of the museum stairs, we see him express the utter joy of having worked for and earned his transformation into the person he dreamed of being.
Try to be aware of this process in your own running. Pay attention to the satisfaction and joy you feel during and after every run. Remember that the harder you struggle to accomplish each goal, the greater the measure of satisfaction you derive from it. And then at the end, like Rocky, climb those steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and glory in the joy of having made yourself a better person.
Yet another way to find joy in your running is to understand the perspective that comes from, of all things, the motto of my home state of Kansas: Ad astra per aspera. In English, that’s “To the stars through difficulty.” Reaching the stars, that is, winning through to a profound sense of accomplishment and joy does not come from taking on easy challenges. It comes from suffering through difficulty, taking on hard challenges that push you to your limits, where failure is a real possibility.
Running up to your limits is hard and painful and requires some suffering. But it is the working through this struggle, this difficulty, that you find your path to the stars. If running were always easy, it would not be so rewarding. Think of the joy and sense of pride you felt at the finish line of your first marathon. If you hadn’t spent months preparing with long hard weekend runs and you hadn’t just come through the agonizing fire of those last six miles of the race, do you imagine you would have felt that same joy at the finish? So rather than fear the pain and suffering that running can entail, think of them as the price you pay for the greater rewards of joy and self-esteem that are to come. The pain can suck, it is true, but try and embrace the suck. Make the suck something positive.
These are just three perspectives for finding the joy in running. Be a Taoist when you run; set goals and conquer them like Rocky; accept that difficulty is a necessary part of the process that leads you to the stars. You’ll find these concepts and many more insights on the mental side of running in my two books, The Mindful Runner: Finding Your Inner Focus, just released, and The The Tao of Running: Your Journey to Mindful and Passionate Running. Get inspired by the many stories in these books. They’re fun to read and the audible versions of the book make for great listening on your long runs.
About the Author: Gary Dudney
GARY DUDNEY has been publishing articles on running, trail running, and ultrarunning for the past 20 years. His work has appeared in all the major running magazines, such as Runner’s World, Running Times, Trailrunner, and Marathon & Beyond. For Ultrarunning magazine, considered the “voice of the sport” of ultra long distance running, he’s served as a regular columnist since 2008, and he has additionally supplied the magazine with dozens of uniquely quirky race reports. Ideas for The Tao of Running were shaped by the 60 one hundred mile races he’s participated in and the almost two hundred other long distance races he’s completed. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Kansas in English Literature and his fiction credentials include stories in Boy’s Life magazine and in numerous literary magazines and one published novel, Cries-at-Moon of the Kitchi-Kit. His second book on the mental side of running, The Mindful Runner: Finding Your Inner Focus, was just released on November 1 of 2018.