What I learned about running and maybe about life

Several months ago I decided to start running.

Several sources inspired me: Murakami’s well-known dedication to running and completing marathons (including an ultra-marathon in Hokkaido featured in his running memoir); the book SPARK which describes the many physical and emotional benefits; finally, a long-held desire to do a triathlon, of which running is probably my weakest link (really, they’re all weak links).

But the strongest explanation is a simple one. One day I decided to get off my butt and start running, and to finally turn it into a habit.

At first, it was every other day for 30 minutes. Several months have passed; I now run 4-5 times a week, for up to an hour each time. It’s been a fun and tough and sweaty journey. The best part? Running is a great metaphor for life. So I get to wax faux-philosophical on some lessons learned. Here they are:

Learning to love pain

What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run – simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change. – Haruki Murakami

To quote a friend, people who love running learn to love pain. I’m pain-sensitive. Yes I’m basically a wuss. That’s been a barrier, I’m sure, to building the running habit, since if I’ve learned anything it’s that running is entirely an exercise in enduring pain.

Something helped me break the barrier: I stopped comparing myself to other runners. Before, those who passed me would piss me off. Running with friends was a constant mental exercise in determining who was suffering more. These insecurities stopped me before I started. I’m not completely rid of them, but I’ve been better, much better, about just getting going and doing my own thing.

Human beings are the most adaptable species on the planet. Our bodies are ground-zero. That’s why one person can eat 12K Big Macs in 30 years, and another can take 40K ecstasy pills in nine. Over time, I’ve noticed that my body (or some combination of mind-body) learned to quiet the pain. I still feel it, from the first step to the last, but it’s weaker, quieter, like an inner beast who’s hoarse from all the roaring.

Choosing the harder choice

If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. – Paul Graham

It’s the sort of wisdom that comes from experience, and I’m not a complete convert, yet, but running has helped. 95% of the time, I don’t want to run, but 100% of the time, I’m glad I did.

Running is the harder choice compared to just about anything else I could do. Because if there is something harder (say, making a painful phone call, or writing a long blog post), I can always take an hour to run – and feel better – before I do that harder thing. And most things (say, streaming Netflix, or microwaving a Pizza Pocket) are easier.

The hard-ness or easy-ness of doing something is tied to the pain. Just like your body learns to quiet pain over time, you learn to defeat laziness as well. Like in a role-playing game, you earn experience points and level-up and pretty soon the previously strong enemies of sloth and apathy are easily beaten.

Life is good. Because habits

Habits, habits, habits. They are everything. I can’t talk about habits without sounding…old. But there it is.

Like most life lessons, you can overdo it. A little spice is good for a dish; a little habit is great for a meaningful life.

It’s a balancing act between repetition and revision. At least once a week, I’ll run wind sprints instead of the usual jog. Sometimes I’ll drive to the beach and run along the pier. Or I’ll go to the campus stadium and run the stairs. That act never ends; we only achieve true equilibrium when we’re dead (one of the few things I remember from AP Biology).

Sacrifice leads to satisfaction

The only thing that will make you happy is to set a goal, then kill yourself to achieve it. I have a theory that the elation you feel is directly proportional to the sacrifices you make. – Dr. Nicholas of Broadcom

Most of my life’s most satisfying moments have been the cumulation of years of sacrifice (for example, getting into a good college, finding a respected job, launching a company). And most of my life’s most regrettable or disappointing moments have been periods of extended indulgence (to me, the opposite of sacrifice). Everyone needs the occasional Vegas weekend, but aside from a few photos and funny stories, that happy feeling disappears on the flight home.

For simpler, more mechanical things like running, it’s even more reliable, both in your mind (“I finished something”) and body (“These endorphins are delicious”).

These are my rambles, for now. I prefer bending the rules to serve my needs. It’s a source of regret and reckoning. But with running, I’ve had to bend myself instead. Or in Murakami’s words:

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform – or perhaps distort – yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality. – Haruki Murakami

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.