This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here.
Joy is the only sustaining force in life. If you cannot find it in something you undertake, you are bound to fail.
I was coming down Avenue Road from St. Clair Avenue, about fifteen kilometres into the twenty planned for my Saturday group run. Though it was the downhill portion of the run, it was supposed to be the most gruelling and difficult, the final stretch of a long run after you’ve already climbed your hills, hit your peak for speed, and logged more miles than anyone should care to on a Saturday morning.
At this point, you’re just trying to get to the end, praying that your legs will hold up, that you’re not about to suffer the consequences of failing to hydrate or fuel properly. If it’s a group run, you’re praying that you won’t experience the dreaded bonk and have all those who were trailing you fly past while you fall to the back of the pack and waddle your way to the finish. When it comes to the long run, these last few kilometres are usually the least pleasant.
It was our custom to run at 9 am on Saturdays, but this week we moved our start time to an hour earlier. Doing so afforded crisp breezes throughout the route which ran across Lakeshore, up the Don Trail, and through Riverdale Park and its unforgiving Rocky-esque stairs that I climbed onto Sumach Street. From there it was through Wellesley Park and onto Rosedale Valley Road, which also presented a gradual climb onto Yonge Street. Then it was up the not so gradual climb on Yonge to St. Clair, the latter of which we crossed to Avenue Road, where we started this story, to come south.
With about five kilometres remaining, I was certainly more fatigued than when I had started and that ought to go without saying. Mentally, however, I was soaring, having drifted away from the other runners and settled into my very own pace group well behind the fastest of the group, but just slightly ahead of the middle of the pack.
The earlier start made even Avenue Road relatively quiet and I wandered into my own mind. I love these little stretches that present themselves on every run where, even for a few seconds, the world around you shuts down and you dig something from your mind that you swear is so new and profound that you are suddenly on par with Nietzsche or Homer. You’re not, but your discovery is still a treasure to you and it keeps you in motion.
What I found in my mind was unabashed joy. I was ecstatic at feeling my legs still moving with no intention of giving out after nearly two hours of non-stop running. I savoured the perfect rythm of every inhale and exhale that I never struggled for and kept me moving along toward the finish. I smiled slightly when I realized that my head and core remained upright. I loved that my body was this perfect machine operating like clockwork and in my mind I felt I could go forever.
I found that sensation that running gave me very early on, an affirmation of strength that couldn’t be denied. I found joy in having both a mind and body powerful enough to push me up hills and across psychotic distances in all extremes of weather. I loved that I love myself when I run and that I was outrunning all the lifestyle choices and bouts of depression that could’ve killed me.
There’s a great joy in survival and in feeling that you’ve defeated something, an opponent, a goal, or some fragment of yourself. Indeed, the idea that we learned to run long distances in order to survive has gained traction among scientists over the years. We learned to avoid predators and hunt our own prey over long distances. We ran to survive and to conquer, occasions worthy of celebration.
Though I run without a spear and through concrete, I’m still running to survive, and each run is a triumph bringing with it that sense of joy that fuels further journeys. I don’t see running as labour. I look for and feed upon that joy because that joy signals that my body is equipped for survival.
Coming down Avenue Road, that realization somehow became more vivid than it ever had before, crystallizing what I probably had always known. My mind was not on distance or pace or other runners. Thinking of how glorious it was just to be moving, I trotted along like a child utterly fascinated by a new toy.
The fact is that you have to see running as a joyful experience if you’re going to keep going. You have to stop and savour all that it’s done for you and all that you’ve conquered in doing it. It’s not a chore. It’s survival. It’s growth. It’s joy.