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Mike Vargo: The Not-So-Zen of Running

Before debunking the myth, I wanted to check, so I asked some friends. One person — call him Joe — is an elite amateur runner, faster than I ever managed to be in my prime. Perhaps he had experienced what always eluded me. 

I said “Joe, when you run, do you get a runner’s high?” Joe sputter-laughed and gave an incredulous look: “Are you serious?” 

The runner’s high is one of many myths that mislead beginners. For a transcendental trip, find a Zen master. And even a Zen master might tell you enlightenment is “nothing special.” You will not be bathed in a celestial glow. Just in the realness of your own reality. Which pretty much also describes the psycho-emotional effects of running. Joe and I agreed that when we run, our thoughts and feelings range all over the place, the same as they usually do. Being a writer, I’ve spent an entire run composing sentences in my head. 

Joe and I further agreed that when running hard, we often get angry — the opposite of bliss. My anger will fasten onto whatever there is to be angry about, and there’s always something. But as Joe said, this can have a good side: “You run, you get angry, and you’re done with it.” 

So, yes, running can serve as a cleanser. For the soul as well as the body. Which doesn’t count as a “high,” but at least lets you earn the prerequisites. Now to clear up other common misconceptions.

Myth: Running takes discipline

People admire my dedication to running. “What discipline you must have!” they say, and they’re wrong. I run because I enjoy it. It’s like a scenic walk, except I can explore more in a given time. I get to be footloose and athletic without worrying that somebody will block my shot or tackle me. It’s fun. And while I am running I never, ever have to do anything I don’t want to do. What takes discipline, for me, is sitting down to work instead of running. 

If at first you must force yourself to run, that’s okay. Everybody has things they love after finding them unpleasant or difficult at first. As a kid I thought coffee tasted awful. Sex was a mess until it started happening more gracefully. Sometimes we have to push through initial barriers. 

But if time goes on and it’s still awful, stop. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, knowing you’ll get the same unhappy result. Find a form of exercise you enjoy. Maybe swimming laps (which to me feels like the sentence of Sisyphus, while to others it’s like water to the fish). Maybe pickleball, who knows? If you enjoy your exercise you’ll do it a lot. And if you don’t you won’t.

Myth: It’s too cold 

In northern climates, the onset of winter deters many from running. Why? Cold is not the enemy. I have run at zero Fahrenheit, an eye-opener but doable, and anything from the teens upward feels fine. What cold is, is a naturally occurring environmental phenomenon with both physical and socioeconomic implications. If you cannot afford a heated home, that’s a critical issue. Meanwhile, in the upper brackets, people welcome the cold and pay to go skiing in it. Cold runs are suitable for most of us as long as we dress appropriately. And don’t overdress. Rule of runner’s thumb: If you are warm and cozy upon stepping outdoors, you’ll soon feel like the proverbial boiled frog, as the garments meant to shield your body become a sweaty, soul-sucking shroud. 

Cold is subjective. I knew a man who ran in frigid weather wearing short shorts and a singlet, his British word for tank top. The man told me the secret is wearing gloves. They do help. But cold is not the enemy. 

The enemy is ice. My first broken leg on ice came from a foolish attempt to defy physics, the second from a flawed assumption. A couple of sunny winter days had melted our city’s snow and ice. Seeing none early in a run, I assumed I didn’t need to be mindful of surfaces, a dangerous idea in any weather. The ice patch on a shaded sidewalk induced a shocking transfer of momentum that flipped my infrastructure out of kilter. It pays to stay on the right side of Newton’s laws.

Myth: We have our reasons

God’s creatures include animals that run. They run for two reasons: either to catch something or to get away from something. We humans think we are different. For example, some of us say we run to lose weight. I’ve mentioned my reasons. But on closer analysis, every reason fits within one of the two primary reasons.

Myth: Age is only a number

Running will show you the reality behind the number. Marathons weren’t a big deal when I was young; I started doing them in middle age. For a while I imagined that I could continue shaving minutes off my time, with no limits in sight. (No limits: the American dream.) Sadly I had to give up that dream when the trend shifted into reverse. The older I grew, the slower my fast became. 

Take a lesson from Keynes. In the long run we are all slow. Nonetheless, running at any age is superb, provided you don’t mind middle-school kids flying past you. 

Sort-of Myth: You need a running partner

This choice is yours. If safety is a concern, for instance, you may want company. I’d always recommend a big company. Search “running clubs [my city]” or “… near me.” Most clubs run weekly and are easy to join: show up and you’re in. Benefits range from having people who pull you along, to making new friends. I ran for years with the Hash House Harriers, a global group with myriad local chapters, and though the group bills itself as “the drinking club with a running problem,” teetotalers like me have found it to be their cup of tea. Moreover, mixing club runs with solo runs can bring out the best of each.  

Myth: You need an app

Numbers again. We are a quantifying society, and to quantify your running in terms of heartbeats per minute, calories burned and so forth, there are running apps you can use, typically linked to a heart rate monitor. They aren’t my style. I embrace mobile technology but leave it behind when I run. No apps, no tunes or podcasts, no phone conversations. The beauty of running is that it requires so little. It’s freedom. Freedom to roam!

Once, on a business trip in Lisbon, I went out to run very early, before the first meeting of the day. Lisbon is enchanting. It is also hilly. Up and over the crest of a ridge I went, then down and up another. Cruising around the quiet slopes of an old blue-collar neighborhood, I felt as if cast under a surreal spell. The place had the aura of my boyhood home town in Pennsylvania. Yet the European row houses and narrow lanes said this is foreign, and the occasional echoes of roosters crowing — the rooster is Portugal’s national symbol; some people keep live birds — were voices from the great beyond. 

Then a practical matter intruded. My wristwatch said time to turn back. From a ridge behind a ridge, I could not see the center-city district where my hotel was. Worse, trying to retrace my steps led me deeper into the baffles of a labyrinth. The world looks different heading the other way. Few people were about and it was a bad time to learn that despite U.S. cultural hegemony, not all Portuguese speak English. 

Faster and faster I ran, searching for directional clues. The pounding thrill of the chase rose in my breast. Now I was truly an animal hoping to catch something. Finally, on a plateau, I came to a little public plaza with a bus stop and shops. I stood in the middle and shouted “English? English?!!” A young man with a backpack, carrying a skateboard, pointed out a blessedly direct route to the hotel. He saved my business ass that day. 

Of course a map app would have avoided the problem. But it would’ve robbed me of an adventure I’ll never forget. 

Mike Vargo is a freelance writer, editor, and performer based in Pittsburgh.  

Copyright 2022 Mike Vargo.


2 comments on “Mike Vargo: The Not-So-Zen of Running

  1. Barbara Huntington
    November 26, 2022

    And I just like to toddle along and investigate every flower, bug, lizard.


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This entry was posted on November 26, 2022 by in Health and Nutrition, Personal Essays and tagged , , .

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