we’re all running stories

I may rightfully be accused of silly conceptual urges, tinkering away at my map of the running universe,  and of pigeon-holing what running is all about (for me). Owning up to my hobby horses and questioning them is the best I can do, can’t wish them away. The particular question I want to address here is why. Not why I can’t wish them away (not gonna bore you with free will conundrums here) but why I have, or is it need to have? such hobby horses with respect to something as simple as running in the first place.

I wouldn’t ask the question if I thought it was just a personal issue. I’m convinced, for whatever that’s worth, that it’s pretty much universal. Not that my particular obsessions are universal, but the need for a story that gives meaning to one’s running is. No one runs like Forrest Gump.

Whatever one thinks of the overall message of the film, intended, or hineininterpretiert, the scope for controversy seems to be considerable (which makes it a nice example of our species’ unlimited capacity for meaning-making from, well, not all that much), I’m pretty sure that the Forrest character’s claim that he ran for no particular reason and had no answers (why should he, the ultimate answer had been known for some time by then: 42) is recognized by many runners as somehow, deep down, an important truth. Not so explicitly part of the practitioners’ lore as George Mallory’s because-it-is-therebut present in an implicit recognition that there is more to running than the expressed reason(s) one has for doing it. In the awareness that no explicit reason does full justice for one’s attraction to it.

For me that is reason enough to stop trying to convince myself or anyone else of a definite answer to the question of why I run. But that is no way stops my ongoing, continuous fascination with the wealth of answer possibilities out there. For the unstoppable urge to accompany my running, as it setting one foot in front of the other, by endless chatter about it.

To take one line of chatter close to my heart: the Born to Run story has spread like bush fire because it speaks to exactly that sentiment of running being core to our being. It may be a total bogus story, who knows, but I bet it is so popular because it addresses that intuition head on. I never waste an opportunity for giving Chris McDougall the floor, because I love his story telling ability, so you’ll have to bear with another version of his narrative:

The point (obviously?) is, that this evolutionary story, if true, would explain why we enjoy running just for the heck of it, but does way more than that. It gives us reason to run for health, become a better person (whatever that may be), and solve an impressive list of social ills. The story explains an underlying shared experience as well as a plethora of different ‘rational’ reasons to run (including the quite fundamental one of competition, however much that is down-played in the pop version of McDougall). It’s got a hook for everyone, while simultaneously doing justice to a widely shared intuition that we run because that’s just something we’re meant to do.  So, yes, Born to Run like Forrest but with an overwhelming urge to add reasons.

We’re pathological storytellers by nature so from that perspective the answer to the why the talking never seems to stop question is simple: we’re born to do so. But different people go for different stories. and we react most strongly to what we recognize in our selves. That I am compelled to share the below two examples of running stories indicates how much they resonate with me. I may sing the praise of trails and making landscapes my own most loudly in my writing about running, but there isn’t much in other explanations/exhortations/ celebrations about why we, i.c. I, run, or should run, that sounds foreign to me. Competition, health, discovering what you’re made of, nothing of that is totally absent from my narrative goody bag. But some reasons hit closer to home than others and it is those that, when their praise is sung by others, I react to most vividly.

To avoid any misunderstanding: my point here is not to criticize storytellers. But, rightly or wrongly, I do have an urge to bootstrap my way out of narrative capture. Admittedly a doomed venture, because storytelling cannot be stopped; but that doesn’t disqualify Forrest’s wisdom of running without a narrative overlay (and yes, I do love finding that kinda wisdom in Hollywood as much as in caves, on mountain tops, or at river banks).  It’s not about getting rid of narrative, it’s about not totally getting caught up in it.

Enough said. On to the other trigger: the dirtbag runners. This is the intro to the article from the trailrunner ezine that alerted me to this new but nothing new phenomenon:

This past summer, I hit the road with one of my best friends, Cat. We lived out of my car and drove from national park to national park—taking every opportunity to run and explore new trails, as well as crew at several ultramarathons across the country. We bought maps and circled our goal destinations, plotting out our adventures while drinking stale coffee at small-town diners. We got lost more times than we could count.

Somewhere along the way, abandoning societal norms just kind of happened. What was the point of washing our clothes every day (or showering) when we were constantly getting dirty? Why brush our hair when Buffs and trucker hats solved the problem so easily? There was no one to impress, no jobs to interview for, no parents to question our behaviors and no reason to feel sorry about any of it.

Our nomadic lifestyle took us to ice caves in Washington, to slot canyons in Utah, to the tops of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. I crewed for six of my friends during a 50-mile race through Leadville, Colorado. In Ashland, Oregon, we shared beers with a few famous runners. By the end of our trip, we had skinned knees, blisters, dirty clothes, a messy car, dangerously low bank accounts and deeply enriched souls.

Doesn’t it sound wild? Until I checked out the websites of the writer and the community site they’ve started, and was taken aback by the emphasis on partying (but that I am a grumpy old recluse shouldn’t be held against these youngsters) and sponsorship (call it affiliates whatever you like, doesn’t fool me) which really is the opposite of wild, and transforms every move they make into a branding exercise.

Indeed, another story about being free of everything, including stories, that’s propped up by so much narrative it makes me dizzy. Before you get me wrong, I love storytelling. It’s the weight of singular universal truth carried by narrative that bothers me. An activity like running doesn’t have a true meaning, it has many, it holds many truths, simulatenously as well as sometimes more this and other times more that. What counts most, for here and now emerges in the doing. Maybe you’re one of those that know exactly why they go out for a run right now, maybe you just feel like running for no particular reason at all, like Forrest Gump. Doesn’t matter, either way, you’ll turn the run into a story, said it already: impossible to bootstrap oneself out of narrative. This run’s narrative shows you one truth, the next may or may not show you another, do a lot and for sure you’ll end up becoming a Sheherazade. Have I lost you?

Probably time for an uncomplicated teenage tune to cheer you up (or make you wince, whatever):

Maybe time to go out for a run.

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