Why We Need Running Now More Than Ever

testman (2)It doesn’t take the words of an evolutionary biologist to put us in mind of running’s central role in human evolution. I like how ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes says it in the telling of a race misadventure, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the person next to you.” Survival of the, um, fitter than the next guy, I guess.

Except that’s far from the whole story; and not even its best part. Setting aside the devil take the hindmost attitude, running is, by and large, pro-social. Running raises all boats. If the metaphor sounds mixed, we’d do well to remember that many large races are run in waves. This isn’t just to keep order but also to promote an uplifting synergism among participants whose natural rhythms are easily synched. When picturing the action of a wave crossing a body of water, it’s meaningless to think in terms of individual drops of water. When we take the 10,000-foot view, the individual runner loses delineation; she and her fellow runners together form, say, the 7:30 per mile pace wave, rushing like human water along Main Streets, footpaths and single-track mountain trails.

Catch the right wave, and a runner may PR by a minute or more in a 10K race. “There is,” Shakespeare reveled, ”a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Don’t we runners know it!

But let’s return to the 10,000-foot view, where drop and wave, racer and race wave are perceived as one, without differentiation. A racer doesn’t literally have the 10,000-foot view, of course; his eyes are fixed on the runner ahead of him. But what about the 10,000-foot sense? A racer in the zone, a racer transcending, has it for sure. Who knew the runner’s high was a 10,000-foot high?

We run best with others, that’s a fact. Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge used professional pacers to bust through the 2-hour barrier. The winner of your last race had pacers too: every racer who showed up, you included.

Think you couldn’t possibly have paced the winner of your last race, a person who finished so far ahead of you that you never saw her? Did the stadium wave that originated in the nosebleed stands help rally the team of professional athletes to victory? Of course it did! You pushed the racer in front of you, who pushed the racer in front of him, and on and on, through tens or hundreds, up to the first finisher. And here’s something just as good: it worked the other way round, pulling runners up from the rear. A Pushmi-Pullyu with hundreds or thousands of feet pointing toward the finish. Many feet make light work, as the saying goes—or almost goes.

Every racer knows that the worst place to be on race day is “no man’s land,” without hope of catching or being caught. It’s like the doldrums to a sailor: windless, current-less, endless. When one is in the right race wave, one is always in good company.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds great, it gets even better. Running doesn’t just raise all boats, you see; it pulls them together. Yours with mine; yachts with junks; Lusitanias with U-20s: all rafted together and riding the Gulf Stream as one community. None are lost at sea.

In her book, Move, British science journalist Caroline Williams describes the phenomenon like this: “When we move in time with others … the line between self and other becomes blurred.” She goes on to suggest that moving with others, “could also provide a way of bringing people together who, on the surface of it, have very little in common, or have totally opposite world views.” Former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, though politically disparate, shared a genuine interest in recreational running. Every veteran runner has shared a mile or ten in the welcome company of another with whom, in the miasmatic air of internet anonymity, he or she might have shared a far less positive interaction. We are reminded of Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tsu’s 2,500-year-old words of advice: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Invite them all to your running group, I say! (Which brings me to an important point. Everything that applies to racing, applies to group running. And running in groups is safer, too.)

Dean Karnazes observed at the start of his latest Western States 100: “We were no longer accountants, teachers, and businessmen: orderly life was about to be abandoned. In a few short moments we would be stepping into the wild and becoming our untamed selves.” Run with an emperor, and his new clothes are a pair of shorts and a T shirt, just like your own. As for his shorts, he will have put on one leg at a time. The next best thing to walking a mile in another’s shoes, might be running in time with them.

American historian William McNeill, writing about his experience with repetitive marching drills in the U.S. Army in 1941, recalled their having provided him with, “a sense of pervasive well-being…a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” He would go on to name this phenomenon, “muscular bonding,” and explain how, to quote social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “it was a mechanism that evolved long before the beginning of recorded history for shutting down the self and creating a temporary superorganism.” You mean like a Pushmi-Pullyu?

In cynical times it’s tempting to withdraw into the loner’s sanctuary we all know running can be, or to use running to make sure ours isn’t the hide the “bear” sinks its teeth into. (Think of Zombieland‘s rule #1: Cardio.) But now more than ever, we must resist such impulses and instead join running groups and register for races, remembering poet William Butler Yeats’s words as we do: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

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