Sunday, February 6, 2011

Running as Play?

This morning as I ran round my neighborhood on something of my normal route, it occurred to me that my legs felt tired. This was not a surprise - I had run 13 miles over steep terrain the day prior, and 8 miles per morning for the two days before that. Such miles are paltry for some, but not for me, and my legs were looking for a little break.

Still, I had decided to add the Sunday morning run in to get a few more miles, so when my mind registered the fatigue, it was noted, then dismissed as any other passing thought.

I live in a residential neighborhood with lots of narrow, winding streets and some steep climbs and descents - nothing tricky, but still interesting enough that you can map out various routes and add in (or leave out) extra climbs as desired without having to wander too far from home. This morning I was planning on running a hilly 4-mile loop twice.

After completing one loop and turning right to head up for the 2nd, my mind was struck by a thought, and I smiled. My legs were tired, but as I chugged up the hill I thought "I wonder if I can negative split the 2nd loop..." I smiled again to myself, pushed up and over the first hill, then began to speed down the back of it and from there, into the straightaway of another residential street.

I felt great (or course, downhills will do that for you), but more than that, I felt lighthearted. For as many runs as I've been on in my lifetime, I am frequently struck by how running brings out the kid in me. More often than not on morning runs I will find myself charging down a dark street an the middle of the road, feeling like a kid on my first bike looking around at the landscape whizzing by as the voice in my mind yells "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" I love the sense of fun, the feeling of play, of begin young at heart, and free, and alive. In those moments I feel lucky and in love with my life.

It was that feeling this morning that took my mind back to an article from earlier in the week regarding the value of this very thing - an example of what the author called "adult play". Sounds risq, but what "adult play" refers to are activities where adults allow themselves to play, or to do something for the experience and joy of it rather than for "work" or a qualitative result.

"Stop right there," I hear you say. "You can't tell me running has nothing to do with a qualitative result. If that were the case, why all this talk of times, training, and getting faster?"

Ok - you've got a point there. But running can be both, can't it? There's joy to be found in traveling over trails and roads and up and down hills, and in the feeling of sweating and sprinting as the world flies by and thoughts move freely through the mind... but that said, many of us also find it fun to get a good result.

It's fun to get faster, more fit; to accomplish what we could not have just months before. In that sense, it's work, and certainly results-focused, but it is still intertwined with fun in a way that integral to it's longevity. If it did not have fun at it's heart, and at times, bursting from the seams... the training would not be worth it. At least, not for long.

The fun is the thing.

But enough about that, and back to the article. This article (by Joe Robinson) is called The Key To Happiness: A Taboo for Adults? and explores the notion that adults focus too much on activities that are deemed productive and rational, while activities of leisure or "personal expressiveness" that do not work towards an external result are seen as "taboo".

While the article does tend to make this trend (if you can call it a trend or even believe it exists at all) sound more black and white than it may actually be, it makes some statements that I found hard to argue.

For example, it is Robinson's belief that play activities are most important in helping us have more meaningful and rewarding lives. Here is one section in particular that jumped out:
Studies show that play reflects more of who you are than your work. When you're engaged in activities of "personal expressiveness," ones that are self-chosen and that reflect intrinsic goals, you're operating from the "true self," says Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey.
In another part Robinson describes people he met while researching his book, which centers around folks who participate in these personally enriching activities.
Everyone I met had dramatically upgraded self-esteem and a sense of self anchored by something that's supposed to be worthless.
Another recent piece of media that touches on this idea is a Christopher McDougall speech at TEDxPennQuarter. In this clip Chris opens with a story from the NYC Marathon then goes on the cover themes from his book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen." 

Towards the end Chris talks the audience about the importance of getting back to the basics of running as it was in older times.

"We've got to... stop focusing on urban marathons, where you know, if you do 4:00:00 you suck, but if you got 3:59:99, you're awesome, because you qualified for another race, and we've got to get back to that sense of playfulness and joyfulness, and I would say, nakedness, that has made the Tarahumara one of the most healthy an serene cultures of our time" Chris says.

The material was familiar, yet I nodded as I watched, for it still resonated. Running serves many purposes - as a fitness tool, a de-stressor, a means of getting from A to B, as a challenge, and as a job (for some arguably lucky folks). But as play?


It's with a feeling of play that we will sometimes pick a point or a hill on the not-too-distant horizon and say "I wonder if I can run to that point." It's with a feeling of play that we will glance out the window, throw on the shoes, and take off down the road with no real idea of where we're going except that we are moving forward on our feet. It's with a feeling of play that we will sometimes look at our fellow runner or pacer and say "Race you to the top of the hill!" And it was with that same feeling of play that I had smiled mischievously and dared myself to negative split the loop, knowing there was no training goal scheduled in that workout other than to cover the miles. It was for the fun of it, that's all... the challenge... and the fun.

We are accused of acting like kids when we do or say things such things... or at least, I have. In retrospect, seems like that's not such a bad thing.

I enjoy acting like a kid, and don't get to do it that much, but maybe need to work on doing it more. For now, I'm glad to be able to do so in those precious minutes of running through the dark streets, leaping over curbs and charging up and down hills in what can feel like an inane effort to beat a goal that was set just a few minutes prior.

I did negative split the loop. Then, like a kid, I gave little "Whoo-hoo!" cheer, then giggled to myself in the street.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful. Lately I've been reflecting on why I started running (about two months ago). In part I thought that running a marathon would just be another great experience and accomplishment to have personally. In part I didn't know why and partially, I just wanted something to do.

    After starting running I began looking at running as training, but I definitely see running as more than just training (which is done FOR something). It is also something to do for itself and that is, I suppose the play, the fun.

    While I do want to run marathons, trails, and ultras I find value in the act itself, as play. Thanks for your piece.