I never promised not to bore you
I just finished reading a book called The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life by Amby Burfoot. I had found myself with some spare time at the main branch of our local library before a reading I was attending (as an audience member, not as a reader), and I was prowling the stacks, making my way to the section on athletics in general and running in particular. (A foreign land for me until recently.) It was here that I came upon the slight volume I cite above.
The book is only 150 pages, and a lot of that is stretch and fluff. The insights are mostly tacked on at the end of strings of anecdotes (and a little name dropping), and they are so generic and uplifting that they could appear in any number of other “motivational” books. (Indeed, this book is part of a series of short volumes on motivational and spiritual subjects — another foreign land for me.)
Yet I was looking for whatever insights I could glean from it, and I did come upon this observation. The author wondered why it was that he could often think so clearly when he was running. “I think best — most broadly and most fully — when I am running,” says Burfoot. (As an editor at Runner’s World magazine, his thoughts often ran to writing, which was a fortunate coincidence for my interests.) What he had discovered was that running is an “undifferentiated activity.”
By this he (and others) means that while running, your mind is free. “You don’t need any skill to run. In golf, by contrast, you have to hit your drives straight enough to stay in the fairway, and that requires thinking about a dozen technical details of your golf swing . . . Not so with running. Every 3-year-old knows how to run. At the same time, running is the most vigorous exercise known to science. It forces your heart to pump vast quantities of blood throughout your body — including your brain. So the brain’s getting all of this oxygen at a time when it doesn’t have any work to do. You’re just running . . . No wonder the brain spins out the most fantastical thoughts while you’re running. No wonder fresh, creative ideas pop into your head when you’re least expecting them.”
Later in the book he cites the famous Joyce Carol Oates essay in the New York Times in which she practically sings about the creative benefits of running.
This has certainly often been my experience. When it’s just me and the miles, and when I can free my thoughts from the agony of pounding along, I am amazed at where my mind takes me. I have literally solved plot problems and had insights to character development during some of my pre-dawn runs. I sometimes use the “undifferentiated activity” to recite lines from my stories, working and reworking them into finer shape. I make connections between apparently disparate images and stray plot ideas to find the beginnings of stories. And so on. Running has certainly proven to be a good activity for my creative life. I wish I had come upon it sooner.
As for some of the observations in the book, well, I don’t want to be uncharitable. It seems, though, that he was either striving too hard to spin his conclusions or he was making them too easily, without the rigor of reflection.
For example, I’ve often heard golfers say that the last thing they want to think about on their downstroke are the technical details of their swing. If they tried to examine the action of their muscles while in play, they’d goof them up horribly. Instead, they tell me, they rely on what’s commonly called “muscle memory.” They practice and practice so that when they need the skill, it comes without conscious, deliberate effort. Conversely, when I am running, I am sometimes very much thinking about what I am doing. Is my gait decent or am I going to be limping from it later in the day? Am I breathing too hard or not hard enough? Am I going to stumble on those sticks up ahead? Is that pain in my heel telling me to stop this madness, or can I run through it? And so on, and it seems to me that had the author intended to write about concentration and focus on the task at hand, he could have just as easily called upon running as an example.
So I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my aside on running and my creative process. It’s on my mind a lot, and I’m already feeling the inevitable anxiety of a 10K I’m running this coming weekend — rain or shine. But there will be neither rain nor shine at this one. I will be running 6.2 miles completely underground.