On my run today a funny thought occurred to me. It struck me as I was microspiking over the snow, ducking under a striped maple bending over the trail, and dodging a bit of thin ice over a puddle, that I did not always love running. I remembered the days in which I actually dreaded going for a run. The contrast is stark when you juxtapose that reality with today, when I found it difficult to sit still at my desk this morning in anticipation of the modest jog that I was planning for the afternoon.
And I really did dread running. Surprisingly enough, in spite of my disdain for the activity I actually ran quite often. It was essential to my success as an elite soccer player, which was central to my identity for most of my young life. I often proclaimed that: “I would far rather run short distance faster, than long distance slower.” I wanted to get it over with, and I started every run with a deep sigh.
So my thoughts landed upon the question: When did I begin to enjoy running, and why? As is often the case on my runs, the answer struck me mid-stride. Before, I always ran for some ulterior motive. To train for soccer. After I stepped away from my soccer career, I ran to keep my weight down for rock climbing. Whatever the purpose, I always used running as simply a means to some other self-important end.
Somewhere along the way I stopped running. I became far too busy as a student, I had other motivations, I smoked cigarettes (a mutually exclusive behavior with running, some might argue), and for a variety of other unimportant excuses. Perhaps I lacked an end to justify the means.
About one year ago when I had some time clear up in my schedule I started running again. I incorporated the practice as part of what I called the “Austen wins his body back campaign”, the idea being that I would begin exercising again so as to not feel so dreadfully out of shape. At this point I began running, or mostly power-hiking to be honest, as regularly as possible. A couple times a week at first. I had a habit of running over Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado semi-regularly. Then I added Green Mountain. Then I would do a Chautaqua Loop, including a free-solo up the second flatiron.
In any case, I did whatever I felt like. I was just having fun. Regardless of what I was doing, the point was just to get my heartrate up as enjoyably as possible. The exercise, getting outside, or even the excuse not to stare at a screen or be buried in a book for a while was enough. In short, it was a release that I began to look forward to. This was the pivotal moment. At this time, I began running just to run. It became my release. I was no longer running for some other cause; I was running for the sake of running itself.
That was it. Running had at some point ceased to be a means to an end, and become an end in itself. Beautiful.
Snap back to the present day. I am digging my microspikes into the ice as I head up one of the final climbs to the top of White Ledge. The frozen lakes break up the mass of green before rising into the hills beyond, moving into Maine. Route 16 snakes along Iona Lake through Albany below. Keep moving.
So great, running became enjoyable to me as soon as I discovered how enjoyable it was in its own right, and stopped conceiving of it just as something I had to do to get better at something else. The natural progression of thought, then, led me to think: what else did I used to lament and learn to love when I changed the way I looked at it?
Another moment in my life came immediately to mind. I remember sitting in a backyard garden drinking red wine with a close friend in the August sun, wholeheartedly contented as I examined a number of bumblebees making their rounds of the flowers. I was explaining to her my recent epiphany. “I no longer care about my grades” I told her. This was at a time in my college career in which I was particularly disillusioned with the structure of post-secondary education in our country, and had decided that to protest the inanity of the system I would simply stop devoting any more energy to a personal preoccupation with a silly quantitative analysis of my performance. This is not to say that I wouldn’t do the assigned coursework; I am too type A and OCD for such negligence. Instead I would simply approach the work from an entirely new frame of mind. I would study what and as often as I wanted to study, and I would write whatever the hell I damn well felt like in my notes, for simply copying down whatever was written on the board is a mindless, monotonous activity that I had lost the patience for entirely. My studies would no longer be a means to a grade, but would be of an interest to me in and of themselves, regardless of what the professors wanted to hear or otherwise selected to put on the examinations over which my peers were so astutely determined to stress.
At that point in time I quickly grew far more interested in my studies than ever before and in my last two years of school, despite more difficult coursework and a heavier workload, I earned the best grades of my entire college career. Only after deciding that I didn’t care about what they were! I had divorced myself from obsession with the outcome, and become immersed in the process itself. Inside the process I found the intellectual liberty that motivated me to write an undergraduate honors thesis and to pursue graduate school one day. I had stopped considering studying as a means to the end of a high grade, and begun to consider it as an end in itself, deserving of my time and attention irrespective of the eventual outcome on paper. And it changed my life.
I’m over the summit, beginning my descent. On the south facing side of the ledge there is no snow, so I remove my microspikes and continue on, getting very excited for the trail running that the coming spring promises. I pay special attention to the slippery oak and beech leaves left over from last fall so as not to slip. I do anyways. So it goes.
Focusing on my breathing, I return to my thoughts. As I consider my newfound discovery, I am eager to ruminate on other areas of my life in which I might discover the same fascination within the ostensibly mundane simply by considering it less a means to an end, and focusing instead on the process itself and the value I might find if I just. slow. down.
I would very much like to live my life as less of a means, and more as an end in itself.
The sun is setting and the air beginning to chill as I approach my truck, ready to call it a day.