Tag Archives: running as meditation

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.


Happy Trail (No, not that kind of happy trail)


New running resolution: find a way to run on a trail at least once a month.  This is going to be a difficult one for me to keep, for a couple of reasons.

First, and most importantly, is the time it takes.  The nearest trail to me is about a fifteen minute drive.  Now that’s not much, but when you consider that my time is as precious as dolla dolla bills between kids and writing time and occasionally spending some time with the wife, fifteen minutes out and back in addition to the time it takes to actually complete the run makes it a not-insignificant factor.

Second, on a more practical note, is that it’s very very difficult to get a run in by myself lately.  The vast majority of my runs over the summer (and by vast majority I really do mean all but maybe two or three runs in the last six weeks) have been completed from behind the stroller, pushing his highness the sprout around like a sheik on a fancy rickshaw.  (Is that how you spell sheik?  Spellcheck is telling me it’s wrong either way.  Technology!)  Trails are not stroller-friendly, at least not the type of trails I’m talking about.

Third, and most sillily (yep), I have to drive to the trail.  This sort of goes against my zen minimalist philosophy of running, which is that you just step out the front door and go.  Add in a drive to a running location and I might as well be shelling out $20 a month to pound a treadmill into oblivion.  Okay, that’s not a perfect comparison with driving to a trail, but this is really the way my mind works.

So it will be tough to get out there even once a month.  But, ah, trails!  They delight.  Especially for a road warrior like me, there are some things you get from running on a trail that street miles just can’t even touch.

  1. I’m off the roads.  This could be its own list, but being able to complete a run without having to worry about drivers not seeing me and turning me into road pizza gives me more peace of mind than it probably should.  I had no idea how much space that tiny fear was taking up in my mind on every run.  It just evaporates on a trail.
  2. Nature smells nice.  Even just a few miles outside of town, the air changes a bit and it feels easier to breathe.  This is probably because, on the trails in my area at least, I’m surrounded by a literal oxygen factory.
  3. Shade.  Holy god, it’s hot out.  Have you noticed?  90% of the trail I covered today was engulfed in fantastical, splendiferous, glorious shade.  On my typical routes I’m lucky if I see shade for thirty seconds at a time; today, it was the sunlight on me that was the rarity.  Again, this point alone is worth virtually the price of admission in its own right.
  4. The quiet.  There’s so much ambient noise when I run around the suburbs — even in my own neighborhood — that just isn’t there out in the woods.  I don’t feel compelled to plug in headphones to block out the dull roar; rather, I feel like leaving them out entirely.  Wearing headphones in the woods almost seems a sacrilege, like I’m bringing something profane onto hallowed ground.
  5. The workout.  Even the gnarliest of roads won’t give you a hill to climb like the ones I saw today.  My calves and quads are burning just thinking about it.  The ascents and descents are sharp, sudden, and sometimes without warning, and there are rocks and roots to hop over or sidestep, which brings me to the next point:
  6. You can’t tune it out.  I think there’s value in being able to meditate, to detach and unplug and just go on autopilot during a run, and roads are great for that.  Surfaces are (generally) uniform, so you don’t have to watch your feet so much as the oncoming traffic. Generally you can leave your brain at home.  Trails are not nearly so detached.  The rocks and roots and sudden drops and uneven surfaces can send you sprawling in a heartbeat, or twist your ankle if you’re really unlucky.  Each step has to be carefully chosen and plotted, which means you’re always scanning the ground in front of you, plotting the best course.  It sounds like it should be taxing, but it’s actually rather Zen, I think.  You have to be in the moment and incredibly focused, but there’s calm in that.
  7. Spiderwebs.  Aargh running through spiderwebs is the worst and I am pretty sure I still have spiders down my back twelve hours later SERIOUSLY WHAT IS UP WITH ALL THE SPIDERWEBS

Road runs, even runs where I really run like the zombies are chasing me, do not leave me feeling wrecked like I feel today after four miles on the trails at Clinton Nature Preserve.  It was exhausting and invigorating and it reminds me that I really do have to make an effort to leave the roads behind now and then.

Now to run an ice bath for my aching, pummeled feet…


Somebody Greased the Wheels


The words came easy yesterday, easier than they have in weeks.  I wish I could say it’s because I feel confident in my ending, but I can’t.  I still don’t 100% know how the dharma thing is going to end.  I mean, basically, I have the chain of events, but as for the ins and outs, how the characters will react, what will become of them… it’s all up in the air like a bunch of chainsaws at the end of a suicidal juggler’s act.

That said, I had a flow going, and I’m not one to look a gift horse in the beak — that’s a good way to get your face bitten off.  Nor am I one to complain about having an easy writing session, especially when I’ve really struggled lately.  To what can I attribute yesterday’s flow?

I think it’s because, here in the closing moments of the story, there’s a bit of a return to form.  The main character is back on his quest, the supporters are back in place doing what they need to do, and the villains have been more or less dealt with.  Conflicts resolved, the story can proceed happily in the way that it wants to.  It’s all that conflict that gets in the way of just letting things happen.  DAMN YOU CONFLICT.  Except, the ego-writer reminds me, conflict is the sustenance of the story, so even though I’m wrapping the story up now, that doesn’t mean I can hop off the conflict-train to hurt-town.  Incidentally, I spent the evening mulling it over and I spent this morning’s run kicking around the moment where I left off last night and suddenly the last bit of conflict came to me.  Something about the heat and the fatigue and the rivers of sweat running down my face triggered the perfect last hurrah for the story’s conflict.  Conclusion?  All writers should run.  Alternate conclusion?  Running solves every problem.  Alternate alternate conclusion?  It’s fargoing hot outside and I’m a little baked, there is no alternate alternate conclusion.

As long as I stay on track (and, against all odds and expectations, I’ve stayed perfectly on track throughout this entire process), the first draft will be done in about a dozen more writing sessions.  A dozen!  It almost seems too close to put a bow on the events of a story, too immediate to properly process.  Like a sudden cinder-block wall on the highway, it looks like I’m going to plow right into it before I can get to where I’m going.  But I think that’ll be okay.  Rather too much than too little, and god knows how much the draft will change when I get into the editing phase.

I feel like my words of late about the novel betray a sense of melancholy about finishing the book.  Well, “finishing.”  My laser-beam focus since April has been to get the first draft done, and with the achievement of that (I just scared myself a little, considering it a fait accompli) and in that sense, I am finishing.  And I do feel a bit of sadness, a bit of aimlessness, a bit of my-nemesis-is-dead-what-will-I-fight-for-now emptiness creeping in.  But I don’t think that will last.  I look back over what I’ve accomplished in the last few months and I realize that the act of writing no longer intimidates me like it once did.  I have ideas for books and plays that I am just bursting to write, the only challenge when this one is all said and done will be deciding what I set my laser sights on next.

 


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