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

11 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.

      • You could say I do the same. For the couple of month I have started to run I usually find a route to follow by using google maps. Then when I try to remember this route, sometimes I fail and sometimes I make it to my destination. 🙂

        What I love about running is that it gives you a inner-silent feeling while at the same times gives you a freedom of being everywhere you want. That’s one of the mainly reason I only run outside and doesn’t run on a treadmill. I would love to try it out, but I like to run outside because it’s more challenging. That’s the same with bicycling. It gives you freedom to go everywhere you want in a high speed that’s twice or three times faster than just walking. I love to walk, but I prefer running and bicycling over it. 🙂

  • 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.

  • I think that all this research is bad for your running!

    There is always some new piece of work that is hyped because it got certain results, then the media go on to the next thing. This one piece of research could be a one-off or a bad result. You never get any information on if it was replicated or not.

    The news media thrive on new stuff. Healthy types, or rather those that are unhealthy, are always looking for a magic bullet that makes you healthy and does not involve doing anything for it. The hard fact is that you need to work your body. Which way you do it does not matter that much, It’s the fact that you do it that counts.

    Go out and run and enjoy it and forget about the research. You’ll probably outlive the researchers anyway: unless they are runners as well!

    • That’s true. But if you have interest in this sport, then it’s always nice to get some tip about running. how much you should eat, what you should eat, how long before the workout, how much water you need before, under and after, etc. 🙂 That’s the main reason I read this book. To get some nice tip from Owen. 🙂

  • Yeah, I also think I skipped stage 2. I started to run because I got inspiration from my big brother. I have never done it for weight loss (though I it would be nice to get some calories burned :P), but rather for the enjoyment of the sport. When you run you challenge yourself with new places and new distances. That¨’s always fun. In addition you have to find your way without a GPS that is also challenging and very fun. 🙂

  • Rochelle:

    I would say anyone concerned about their heart being negatively affected by long distance runs should wear a heartrate monitor and ensure when they do long distances they are running within the 60 to 70% target heart rate recommended. For many of us runners it can be tempting to push harder or faster. The long slow distance run must be slow as the name describes to ensure the health of the heart benefits rather than being strained.

  • […] Running is a huge and important part of their lives: as my brother, Owen, said in his own book: “Running is not what I do: it is an essential part of who I am.” So my question is […]

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