Monday, October 17, 2016

What can we learn from running?

Like most (all?) ultrarunners, I find the sport tremendously rewarding.

There's so much that ultrarunning bestows upon its practitioners. There's fitness and weight management. There's the rush of setting a PR. There's the excitement of seeing a new part of the world.

But ultrarunning also offers other rewards that we may not always appreciate. They're simple, subtle, quiet.

I'll always remember one of the first meetings with my supervisor when I began my PhD program. She told me that doing a PhD takes a lot of time, and that I need to protect my time and be careful of how I spend my time and...—she spent an awful long time dancing around the suggestion that I should run less and work more. There's no time to run for two hours a day when research needs researching!

Perhaps needless to say (after all, when do ultrarunners listen to doctors, medical or otherwise, who tell them to stop running?), I didn't stop running. I didn't temper my mileage. And now that I've finished two years of my PhD program, running all the way through, I'm confident enough to say that the proof is in the pudding. And I'd say that I've been successful in my program not despite my running, but because of it.

I recently wrote a paper, now out in the Journal of Information Science, about how ultrarunners build understanding. I was trying to learn about the process of building understanding, and I was looking for how ultrarunners came to understand ultrarunning. But in this work I discovered that ultrarunners, in understanding ultrarunning better, also came to understand themselves better. Indeed, philosophers such as Martin Heidegger have long suggested that all understanding is essentially self-understanding. Long story short, I discerned three factors that go into the building of understanding in ultrarunning.

  1. Time. Understanding requires time, and ultrarunners aren't afraid to take the time it takes.
  2. Struggle. Understanding doesn't come easily, and ultrarunners aren't afraid to struggle and endure.
  3. Perspective. Understanding requires the seeking and reconciliation of multiple perspectives of a thing, and ultrarunners do that, too: In preparing for a race, for example, we'll look for race reports, course descriptions, maps, videos, photos, Strava data and more—all different perspectives of the same thing. 
Looking back, I see how these three factors have contributed to my own understanding of ultrarunning. And this has helped me appreciate a new reward I've reaped from my running experience: practice in understanding. For as so many people have said before, the lessons you learn on the trail can be applied elsewhere. In ultrarunning, taking time, undergoing struggle, and reconciling multiple perspectives have tangible, concrete results—and so we take those skills with us as we walk through life. As an ultrarunner, I don't cower at the blank page. I don't worry about writing my dissertation. I don't get overwhelmed that easily. It's not because I'm some sort of godly specimen—it's because I've practiced. And without ultrarunning, I wouldn't have gotten that practice.

Apparently it's prime time for realizations like this: NYT recently reported on a study that suggests endurance running stimulates a pathway that improves learning and memory, and Time published a manifesto on why exercising is the keystone of a successful career.