How do you like your steak? Nice eyes or great smile? Which flavor ice cream? Snowy mountain or white-sand beach? Who’s your hero?
…What motivates you to run?
I’ve run enough now—on teams, in groups and as an individual—to understand what gets me out the door and lacing ‘em up can be, and usually is, nothing near the same as the hundreds of others brushing my shoulders in the starting corral. In a sense, it’s what makes running, and runners, unique.
Ask a baseball player at the beginning of the season what his goal is and he’ll say, to win a World Series. Ask an actor and they’ll probably give a gimlet-eyed look and a mention Oscar. An author wouldn’t toil in isolation for mega-hours were it not for the notion that he or she may someday take home a shiny Pulitzer.
But runners are different. For the 99.9 percent, there is no hope of Olympic glory. There is no trophy to hoist on center court and kiss in front of the flashes. There is no checkered flag or wreath of roses.
Instead, it’s a thankless, seemingly endless accumulation of miles, of discarded shoes, of worn-through-the-toe socks, of laundry you’re embarrassed to not segregate from your jeans and t-shirts. It’s not being able to make it for after-work drinks and planning your vacation around whether it’s easy to get a quick 5k in before breakfast.
It’s family asking you “Where have you been for the last two hours?” as they sip coffee and wait to open presents on Christmas morning. It’s scenery and solitude. It’s feeling good and breathing better. It’s feeling like crap and wanting to turn around at the half-mile mark. It’s the moment you reach the crest of a hill, pause mid-stride and glimpse the ribbon of ocean and the unreachable curve in the horizon. It’s knowing when you go to bed at night, tomorrow you’re going to have to do it all over.
To me, if there is a common motivational bond between runners’ motivation, it can be summed up by what I refer to as The City Slickers mantra.
You know when Billy Crystal and Jack Palance (I prefer their real names because I’ve always felt like it’s Jack talking to Billy in that film) are riding the range and Jack says: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”
Billy: “No what”
Jack holds up his index finger: “This.”
Billy: “Your finger?”
Jack: “Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean…(well, you know the rest).”
Here’s a refresher:
Running gave me friends when I had none when I moved to a new town. It kept me focused through school. When I started working and quit running for awhile, nothing else—relationships, finances, the job itself—seemed to go right, until I started up again.
When I get stuck writing or parenting or at life, I take a run and the answers seem to appear sometime past mile three, about the same time I stop thinking about it and just focus on one foot in front of the other.
Growing up, my favorite runner was also one of my best friends. His name was Paul Sloan. He ballooned to 300 pounds to play offensive line in college and the morning after his last snap, he set out to become a runner.
The pounds came off and his face regained its angles. He transformed himself within six months and became, some would say, addicted. His fervor was infectious. Though he began to peak as an age-grouper in his mid-20s as I was on hiatus, I never turned down the opportunity to join him on one of his “easy” eight milers through the fog blanket of our San Francisco Sunset District neighborhood.
Paul’s career took him to New York, where he made Central Park his new running home. It was my dream to run the NYC Marathon with him someday. Fate had other plans as Paul’s office was on the 89th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He perished on a Tuesday morning, just hours after his daybreak run.
My motivation to get out there, like the run itself, has its peaks and valleys. Some days I can keep going until the road turns to sand turns to water. Other mornings, it’s simply getting out of bed and lifting my son from his crib before I want to sit down and take a breather. Runners rely on motivation, be it achieving a personal best, shedding five pounds of holiday party weight, getting in touch with the outdoors or simply having something for themselves—”a little piece of me back”, as my sister calls it.
…But for me, whether my goals are immediate or long-term, running and my motivation to do so has always come down to this: Just one thing.
I run for the guy who can’t.
When I stick to that, everything else don’t mean, well…you know the rest.