I remember the dread that filled me on the way to school. Every year in middle school, these terrible physical tests in PE reared their heads and one of those fearsome monsters was the mile run. I never did well, hated every moment of it, and was embarrassed by my lack of athleticism. Frequently, it was my least favorite day of the school year.
I’m not sure what changed in college, but I started running regularly, building up my stamina. In the winters I stuck to the indoor track to avoid the cold but during the rest of the year, I loved running on the trails around campus in western NY. I’ve been running off and on ever since and short of the physical benefits, I’ve realized that there are several others that I’d never considered when I first began to lace up my shoes.
As an introspective person, I often have to find the time and space to process the events of my day. The busier life gets, the more I need this in order to keep everything in its place, to consider events, conversations, and other happenings from different perspectives. Without this processing time, I’m more likely to get frazzled, feel stressed, or less able to deal well with unexpected circumstances.
Running is one of the ways I find that space. Several times a week, for about half an hour, my mind is completely unencumbered by anything immediate. I tend to run the same routes at the same times of day and so little of my mind is occupied with the running. I get into my stride and then suddenly my mind begins considering what it had previously stored for later unpacking. I finish my runs often remarkably refreshed—mentally—and find that I’m ready to tackle more. Far from being more tired, I feel energized and ready for the next challenge.
I’m usually very conscious about the goals I set. That’s true in most aspects of my life and I’ve occasionally set unrealistic goals which I then almost break myself to meet. I’ve gotten better at this. Running, unlike many of the other areas in which I set goals, allows for a very tangible analysis of how I’m meeting those goals. Unlike writing, reading, lesson planning, or many of the other goals I set, in running I can shoot for a particular distance or pace and with my handy running watch, I know whether I’m falling short, meeting my goals, and can plan for where I’m heading next.
As a writer of fiction, the hardest part is often formulating my ideas into workable stories. I’ve got plenty of nebulous ideas and I really enjoy the writing process itself. Even editing isn’t that bad because I have something to shape. The most difficult aspect—and where most of my failed stories have met their doom—has been in the planning. The idea is good, but without the time and energy to think it through, come up with compelling characters and intriguing conflict, the stories don’t work.
Running gives me that time and space. If I’m stuck on a story, I can usually sort out the problem while I’m running. If I can’t figure out how to find the right character motivation, it will often come to me while I’m mulling it over on a run. Similar to the mental space point above, it gives me the time and opportunity to think through something without getting fidgety. My body is occupied, so my mind can roam.
I used to listen to music when I went running. Occasionally I still do and find that it’s a great opportunity for listening to new albums intentionally and considering the artistry. Much of my music listening is in the background while I’m grading or writing, so running is great for intentional listening.
A number of months ago, I stopped listening to music as I was running. I was talking to a colleague who also runs and he spoke about how his runs give him time to connect with God, process his thoughts in God’s presence, and pray for others. I decided to give this a try.
Very often, my mind goes to a number of the other places mentioned above. In my praying, I often need to tune out the cares of the world, the turnings of my brain, the plans for the future, or the processing of the past. But when I’ve done that, then I can clearly hear the Creator of the universe speaking, comforting, prodding, and listening. I can present my cares to Him, hear His prompting, and intercede for those that come to mind.
My wife thinks I’m crazy when I go out to run in the warm Penang weather and come back all sweaty. Not everyone gets the joy of running; I often hear that it’s a boring way to exercise. Maybe that’s what draws me to it. Apart from the physical benefits, it allows me to delve both inward and outward to engage in the world around me because my body is otherwise occupied.