Two weeks before Thanksgiving I completed my second half-marathon. Then, the following morning I ran a 5K. I covered over 16 miles that weekend, most of which were run before I would normally be awake.
I am not a masochist. I do not obtain any twisted pleasure from inflicting pain on my body. Like most reasonable adults, I once hated running. The sustained burn throughout my lungs was sheer torture. The monotonicity of performing the same repetitive movement bored me to no end. The thought that people would regularly pay money to run among throngs of others seemed illogical, even moronic.
For most of my life, the longest I’d ever run was a mile. I stayed fit by lifting weights and occasionally doing yoga. Running never entered my purview.
Then, at the end of my junior year of high school, I was approached by my AP English teacher, who doubled as the boys’ cross-country coach. He noted the structure of my legs and my lean physique. “You were born to run,” he concluded.
For a desultory seventeen-year-old, being told you are fated for something is a life-altering event. I was suddenly obliged to take running more seriously. I had no choice but to join the cross-country team.
The following summer shaped me unlike any other in my childhood. At the start of June, I could barely slog through three miles. The distance was both physically and psychologically daunting. In hopes of inspiring me, our captain quoted Robert Frost after practice on a particularly rainy afternoon: “The only way out is through.”
And so on I pressed. My lungs and legs gradually strengthened, allowing me to run farther and faster. Every conceivable aspect of my physical health improved: My blood pressure and resting heart rate decreased significantly; I slept better at night; even my face seemed to emit a radiant glow.
Perhaps the most significant impact came in the mental composure formed from running alone and in groups, alongside traffic and surrounded by forests. I routinely have the opportunity to get lost in my thoughts and follow certain threads to their conclusion. I can appreciate the solemnity of nature and reflect on the celerity of my life’s events.
Such equanimity engendered profound emotional resiliency and peace of mind. Facing down the challenges posed by a formidable hill or an especially long distance enables me to conquer problems of any size. They pale in comparison to the physical and mental warfare I have already waged.
With running I am made hale and whole. Any flaws that exist in other areas of my life are whisked away. All that matters is me and the road ahead.
But I am not special. My English teacher had it all wrong. There is nothing about my bone structure, slow-twitch muscle ratio, or body shape that preordained me to running. That ability is inherent to our being human. It is the most natural bipedal movement our bodies can perform besides walking. We each were born to run.
Recent research suggests that running was a part of daily life for our ancestors. The expansion of the neocortex, which controls higher-order processes, necessitated a higher caloric intake and novel ways to obtain food. The rudimentary tools used by hominids for some 400,000 years before our species emerged would no longer cut it. We had to run our prey to death.
And run we did. Our ability to sweat allowed us to stay cool over long distances and stretches of time. Coupled with expansive aerobic capacities, our ancestors made for the perfect hunting machines, able to run for hours on end to exhaust our prey items, for whom sprinting was the main mode of escape.
Though focus is often placed on the legs, running engages nearly every muscle in our bodies, from the balls of our feet, which propel us forward, to the tendons in our neck that stabilize our vision. Though no one will ever win a body-building competition solely by running, one’s physique rapidly becomes leaner and more toned. Running is perhaps the most complete total body workout one can receive.
Moreover, it’s one of the most cost effective forms of exercise. There’s no need to shell out hundreds for a gym membership, machines, or a personal set of free weights. A pair of flexible athletic shoes is the only prerequisite. Your body will takes care of the rest.
Given the myriad benefits of running and the ease with which it can performed, why does such hatred for it persist?
When I wrote “The Paradox of the Compassionate Meat-Eater” earlier this semester, I hoped to spur others into action by outlining the moral, environmental, and health repercussions of a diet based on animal products. I received praise from readers who had long been vegetarian or vegan, but heard nothing from omnivores.
Despite the points I’ve made in this piece, I can’t expect droves of people to suddenly don running shoes and join me for a jog.
This is human nature. Change is hard. Any time a mirror is held up in front of us or we’re presented with information that contradicts our view of the world, we recoil. We seek the path of least resistance, that which is already so heavily trodden. To diverge and switch course appears almost impossible.
That is precisely why running holds such value in our society, though it is so often berated. It is the most straightforward means by which we can achieve what we deem to be impossible. We may think we can’t run three miles. Then we do it. We couldn’t possibly make it up that hill. Then we’re at the top.
Running will always involve some level of pain. Legs get sore, feet ache, and lungs hurt. That pain, albeit irritable, is the surest impetus for growth and progress. The human body responds and adapts to fortify muscle, expand vascular connections, and assuage an anxious mind.
To view running only as a tolerable form of exercise is to be remiss. Its impact goes far beyond that of lifting weights or toiling away on an elliptical. The mental and physical challenge becomes a way of life, not limited only to a 45-minute session at the gym. In running we are broken and drained, then rebuilt and reborn. No other form of fitness fulfills that instinctive yearning to move and develop.
We should live to run.
Ayres is a member of the Class of 2017.