The evolution of runners

Owen and Grethe in the Himalayas

Running in the Himalayas

Running is not what I do: it is an essential part of who I am.  If you ask most people to describe themselves, as likely as not they will tell you what they do for a living.  Most of the runners I know don’t define themselves by their job. They will tell you something about their life outside work. This chapter is about the many different reasons why we are runners.

The evolution of runners

One of the great sports writers of the twentieth century, Dr George Sheehan, suggested that every runner evolves through three stages: [i]

  • first, joggers take up exercise to lose weight and get more fit; they obsess about their weight; and often evangelise to their friends and colleagues about the physical benefits of running;
  • then one day the jogger enters a race, and attention shifts.  Racers concentrate on improving their performance, beating their personal bests, and competing.  The mental effort of racing improves the mind, just as jogging improves the body.
  • and finally, the racer may become a runner, who enjoys the physical benefits of running, and continues to value fitness.  Runners take part in races, and try to be the best they can, but they no longer expect every race to be a personal best. They run to find peace of mind.

Jogging, they say, is competing against yourself. Racing is competing against others.  Running is discovering that competing is only competing. It is essential and not essential.  It is important and unimportant.  Running is finally seeing everything in perspective.  Running is discovering the wholeness, the unity that everyone seeks.  Running is the fusion of body, mind, and soul in that beautiful relaxation that joggers and racers find so difficult to achieve.

George Sheehan, Running to Win, 1992

Of course, in real life there is something of all of George Sheehan’s three stages in every runner.  But there is a perceptible progression of most runners through these different phases.

The last stage – the runner – is the most difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it first-hand. Running can bring a kind inner strength and self-confidence.  The effect of this can be witnessed in any gathering of runners – for example, at a running club, or at a local road race.  There you will meet a group of people who have an unusual mixture of qualities: a sense of self-worth, without being arrogant or self-centred; equally comfortable in a large group of people or their own company; willing to face up to challenges; and an understanding that, whatever we do in our lives, real satisfaction comes when we know that we have been the best that we can be.

For women, in particular, running can be strongly empowering. Some women can feel under enormous pressure from society to conform to unachievable (and unhealthy) standards of physical appearance and weight, which can sometimes lead to eating disorders and depression.  Running can liberate women from the tyranny of dieting and eating anxieties, and create an self-esteem that helps them to take control of their lives.


[i] George Sheehan, Running to Win, Rodale Press, 1992

5 Responses to The evolution of runners

  • Dave J:

    I skipped stage 1, and have yet to experience stage 3… will I ever attain that Zen-like state?!

  • bart:

    Ok, so I have been a runner for 40 years. Everything ever been written on the subject always talks about how good it is for your overall health and especially your heart. Lately, I have been reading about new evidence that refutes this completely and says that running long distances can actually be bad for the heart and cause damage. It says you should be doing short, interval type running for the fast twitch muscles. This is from the Mercola health website. So, what do you think about all this?

    • Mark:

      You say long distances could be bad for the heart, surely the biggest danger to the heart is a sedentary lifestyle where exercise doesn’t occur very often. There are so many studies that give conflicting ideas on what is and what is not good for you. I run long distances not just for the fitness but for the sense of freedom that I get as I run around the lanes and roads, sorting things out in my head, making plans, or sometimes just grinding through the run. There are so many more benefits than just fitness.

  • Paul:

    I skipped 2, after loosing weight (Step 1) I now just enjoy a run , for fitness, weight maintenance and the sheer relaxation of a run and my own mind deep in thought that I would not achieve in the office, at home etc. No distractions except the sound of my personal music, the water I run near.

  • gpzhou:

    I ‘m just in the stage 2, I wonder how long distances can actually be bad for the heart and cause damage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search website