The (non)Importance of Music to the Runner (or, the 4 stages of running with music)

So maybe you’re thinking of taking up running. Or maybe you’ve been running for a while and you’re thinking of changing up your routine. Or maybe you’re just browsing the net for articles and blog posts about the myriad topics related to running (not that I’ve ever done that). And eventually, the question occurs to you: what should I do while I run? And unless you’re running on a treadmill in front of a TV (protip: this is not the way to run), the obvious answer is to crank some tunes.

Music, I think, has a complicated relationship with running. Some runners swear by their music, others abhor it, still others could take it or leave it. I think that it’s more complicated than simple taste, though, and in classic fashion, I’m going to tell you about my experience with running under the assumption that it may also hold true for you. That’s a healthy way to live your life, right? By making wild assumptions? No? Okay, let’s just move on.

To my mind, the runner goes through a series of stages with music in his or her running career. Those stages are, briefly, Utter Dependence, Evolution, Waffling, and Indifference. Those are chronological, but not fixed, meaning: you will likely pass through those stages or others similar to them, but while I may take five years to move past Utter Dependence, you may clear it in five weeks. Or five days. Or five minutes. I don’t know. There’s no actual science going on at this blog, if you haven’t noticed.

But first, an abstract: Why is music important to the runner? And there’s no one answer: it can motivate, it can distract, it can inspire. I think that running, as an exercise, tends toward one key component that most other sports tend away from: monotony. Say what you will about paces and routes and training plans and running partners, but at the end of the day it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again and again. The monotony of it can be daunting, soul-crushing, and will-breaking. Music is just one way to help deal with that tireless repetition, and it’s pretty good for that purpose…

But yeah, I mentioned stages, right? So:

  1. Utter Dependence. When you start running, it sucks. You get exhausted so fast it’s depressing. Your whole body hurts. Your lungs feel like shriveled apricots. Your heart hammers away on the inside of your ribcage as if it’s trying to escape. You get dizzy and sweat-blind. In short, running is abject misery, and its detrimental effect on the body must be mitigated in any way possible. Music is a perfect distractor. Don’t focus on the burning in your legs, focus on the sweet sweet vocals of … who, Taylor Swift? Kenny Loggins? Flava Flav? (Is that even how you spell Flava Flav?) Don’t dwell on the sucking sound of wind heaving in and out of your pitiful lungs, dwell on a sweet beat and a catchy melody. At this stage in the game, the only thing worse than the monotony of the running is the pain it’s causing in your body, and you need the music to hide from it. So you hide from it in the sweetest escapes you can find, and these are your favorite tunes from your favorite artists. And this makes running bearable, for a while. But eventually those favorite songs get overplayed, or they cease to motivate you and transport you and distract you, and you stumble into stage 2. If you forget your music or can’t use it for whatever reason during this stage, don’t kid yourself; you’re not running that day.
  2. Evolution. You’ve made it past those first runs and you no longer want to die immediately when you head out. Your muscles no longer feel as if they may spontaneously combust after a few minutes of running. You may even be starting to enjoy your runs, though enjoyment is not a prerequisite for this step. No, at this stage, you realize that there’s more to running than merely getting out there and pounding the pavement, and you’ve also realized that the music piping into your headphones can actually have an impact on how you run. In a simplified universe, fast songs make you go fast while slow ones make you go slower. You start to experiment with playlists to plot out your runs in advance: “I want it nice and easy to start out, so give me some Dave Matthews Band, but then there’s that wicked hill that I need some motivation to get over, so I need ‘Call Me Maybe‘ to push through, and then I’m going to mellow it out with some Hey Jude…” yeah, all those things were on my running playlist at one point, by the way. You no longer need an escape from the pain, but you want to be better, so you seek out new music by new artists, music that motivates you and pushes you. But you will still have that day when you forget your phone, or the batteries are dead, or you can’t find your headphones, and on that day, you stay the fargo at home. Until one day, you don’t, and you flop like a fish into stage 3.
  3. Waffling. You’ve come a long way, baby. Your musical tastes have refined, you know exactly the kind of music you need to get the most out of your runs, and you have a playlist or two dedicated to ONLY that music that motivates you. You may even have entire folders of music that you wouldn’t use for anything OUTSIDE of running (I’m looking at you, Glitch Mob). But then the day comes. Your phone is dead, or your ipod can’t be found, or your headphones are on the blink, and on every day like this day, that’s reason enough not to run. But not this day. You decide that you can muscle through without music for one run, so you set out in an eerie silence. Except it’s not silent. Maybe you run in the wee hours, and you’re suddenly surrounded by a calmness broken only by the sounds of crickets and tree frogs and scuttling nocturnal forest critters. Maybe you run in the city, and it’s all sounds of traffic and bustle and car horns. Maybe you’re way out in the suburbs or parks and it’s just occasional sounds of cars and dogs barking and kids playing. You tune in to every sound outside, but more than that, you tune in to the sound of your own body: the regular thump of your feet on the ground, the soft whoosh of the wind past your ears, the pumping bellows of your now industrial-strength lungs. There’s music in that, you realize, a music that’s in its own way more compelling than anything orchestrated and recorded. A music that simultaneously makes you acutely aware of your motion through the world and divorces you from all concerns of the world. It’s during this stage that you begin to grasp that the monotony of the run is not necessarily a thing to be feared and fought against, although you’re still for damn sure reaching for those headphones by default. But you might take a short run without them on purpose once a month or so. You may take the earbuds out for a mile here or there. And this leads you finally, blissfully, into stage 4.
  4. Indifference. It sinks in, finally, that the monotony of the run is a thing to be sought on some days, that the zenlike focus (or, if you will, complete lack of focus) you achieve is preferable to the absent-minded distraction of the music you love. Maybe not every day. Maybe not even once a week. But you know that you can have just as good a run, if not a better run, without music as you can with it. More and more you find reasons to leave the headphones at home, and more and more you find that the not-really-silence of the run is a far better companion than any music you could hope to plan for yourself. In short, there comes a time when you can either take or leave the music and have a good ol’ time either way.

Will every runner go through all of these stages? Fargo if I know, but I sure as hell have. It varies depending on my mood and what’s going on in my world, but I try to go tuneless at least a couple of times a month. The quiet helps me focus, helps me think through issues with my writing, helps me see my way through problems in my classroom. Then again, there are times when I don’t want to think about any of that stuff at all, and for those times, there’s no other way but music.

The monotony of the run is inescapable. But eventually you realize that you don’t have to escape it; you can embrace it and be a better runner, and maybe a better person, for it.

Super Dad

So it’s two days before Christmas, and I’m out doing some things.

Okay, I know in my last post I wrote about how I’ve basically been a hermit during Christmastime due to the frankly reprehensible traffic situation around my house. But thanks to the sprouts, I still wake up like I’m going to work (meaning 6:00 AM is a good, flopping-around-on-the-bed, waking-up-sideways sleep-in session), so I’m able to leave the house at about 7 AM to go hit the stores.

I have several stops to make: Target (last minute gifts), Academy Sports (last minute gifts), the mall (watch repair), and Kroger (last minute groceries). My wife is working, so the sprouts are up and off with me. We pile in the van and off we go.

Now that sprout #2 is seven months old (Jesus, where does the time go) this routine is becoming about as automatic as showering. Out the door carrying sprout #2 while sprout #1 runs (arms flailing like a scarecrow) to the van. He pulls on the handle while I push the button to open it so it slides open automatically and he turns back to me, beaming, “I DID IT, DADDY!” and I laugh inwardly like a maniac. He climbs into his car seat while I buckle sprout #2 in her car seat, then I run around and buckle him in, then one more time around the car to buckle myself in, and off we go.

When my wife and I take the kids out together, we can tag-team, so there’s no need for fancy tricks or apparati. When you’re flying solo, however, wrangling two rugrats requires some creativity. Usually I opt for the Bjorn, a cleverly-designed sling thingy that lets you carry the baby strapped to your front like some floating kangaroo in black. This leaves my hands free to grab onto sprout #1, though the hours of wearing the Bjorn will probably leave my lower back resembling an accordion by the time I’m 40.

…Anyway, this is how I make my way through the stores of the morning: baby in the Bjorn, sprout #1 either toddling along holding my hand or, if the stop is a long one, riding in the cart or the stroller. From store to store we walk like this, in between stops going back to the van to saddle up and saddle down by means of that whole routine I described above.

It’s important to the point of this post (coming soon, I promise) that my wife runs the exact same play from the exact same playbook when she’s flying solo with the kids, which she does way more often than I do by virtue of staying home with the kids most days I’m at work. It’s also important that neither of us thinks much of the intricacy or repetitiveness of this routine because it is, ultimately, so routine.

SO. I’ve made my stops and I’m in the Kroger (last stop) with baby strapped to my chest and sprout #1 kicking his legs merrily in the shopping cart (somehow I always forget his uncanny ability to aim for my junk with his tiny toddler toes), and this mother/daughter pair asks me quite out of nowhere how I made out at the Academy Sports.

This throws me for a second because it’s a little bit stalkerish, and as I’m faltering, the mom says, “no, we just recognized you because of your kids. You’re like a Super Dad! They look like they’re having so much fun!” And I smile and self-deprecate as is my wont and go on my way, with the mother and daughter awwing at my kids.

This says nothing of all the people that smile and point and wave at my kids when I’m in more crowded places (like the mall). I get impressed nods and comments like, “you go, Dad!” (Yeah, somebody actually said that to me.) In short, basically nothing but positive feedback from total strangers I encountered.

Here’s the point of these encounters: I went home and told my wife about them and she got this annoyed look on her face. Like the look she has when I forget to take the trash out, or when I correct her on her grammar when she’s speaking. (I know the consequences of these things, but I can’t help myself sometimes.) Apparently, when she’s out in public wrangling the sprouts around, she gets virtually no feedback at all, aside from perhaps a sympathetic look from other women or a “looks like you have your hands full!” She gets no “Super Mom” comments, no “you go, Mom”s, no winks, no nods, no thumbs-ups.

And this is gender bias, right?

I’m wading into murky waters for Pavorisms. I’m not an activist, I rarely get political, and let’s face it, I’m about as much an agent for social change as I am an agent of MIB. Which is to say, I like to pretend to fight aliens now and then, and you probably wouldn’t remember an encounter with me, but only because I’m incredibly lame and not because I wield a neuralyzer. (As far as you know.)

But, that aside, I’m a feminist. At least, I’m an armchair feminist. I think that speech that Emma Watson gave at the UN a few months back was cracking good. And I realize that women have a harder go of it in our country (and, yeah, in most places in the world) just by dint of being women, and that’s pretty fargoed. I see the videos of women walking the streets of big cities and getting catcalled and it makes me feel a bit ashamed of my fellow men. I cringe at the anti-feminist movements and the “not all men” nonsense. Look, I’m not here to get into what makes you a feminist or not: for me, if you recognize that women have a harder road ahead of them in this world than men do, and you think that’s messed up, you’re a feminist.

So, back to my point. This is gender bias, right? My wife and I, both wrangling two kids, both probably looking a little haggard (because WE ARE), but I get grins and kudos and backslaps of encouragement while my wife just gets sympathetic looks or, much more often, simply ignored.

Think about it this way: I hardly ever see butterflies, so when I see one, it’s kind of a big deal, right? “Ooh, butterfly, pretty colors, big wings, far out.” What I see a crap-ton of, on the other hand, are squirrels. Like, so many, it would be weird if I even mentioned seeing one, because the odd day would be one in which I didn’t see a squirrel. But say you’re from some other country that’s lousy with butterflies but has never heard of squirrels, and here I am taking for granted these furry little miracles of nature and losing my sharknado over these boring insects with the colors and the wings.

Because that’s what we expect, isn’t it? We expect to see moms out with the kids. We’re programmed to see that, and to see it as normal, whether a dad is there with her or not. So it becomes normal, even though it’s anything but. Taking the two kids out in public by your lonesome is hard work. We’re not programmed to see it as much with guys, so a guy out with two kids dragging him around — even if the mom is there with him — garners more attention, garners more appreciation, garners more praise.

And that’s messed up. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate getting appreciated for my efforts with the kids, not least of which because 99% of the time, parenting is the freaking definition of a thankless endeavor. But for all I do with the kids — especially when it comes to carrying them around in public — I’m not a patch on my wife. She does it more often than I do, she does it more efficiently than I do, and she does it with about half as much frustration as I do (GOD those kneebiters can wear me thin in a hurry when I’m flying solo). And she doesn’t get nearly as much positive feedback for it as I do, IF ANY.

My point is this. If you’re the kind of person who would see a guy like me, with a baby strapped to his chest and a toddler riding in the grocery cart kicking him in the nuts, and consider that guy a “Super Dad” or say something encouraging to him or even just smile and shake your head sympathetically at him, by all means, do that stuff, because we appreciate the attention. But if you’re that kind of person, there’s no reason not to do the same thing for a woman with her kids in the same circumstances… in fact, and maybe this is just my own personal bias shining through, but I’m sticking to it; she probably needs it more. It’s not her fault you don’t notice her like you notice me.

Give the moms some love.