Living to Run, Running to Live
I weave my way through the unknown, with a narrow wooded path, overgrown with tall, tickling grasses as my only guide. My legs and feet are simultaneously working in a speedy blur, churning up clouds of dirt, moving at such a rate I feel like they might just break free from my body, hurtling off into the distance like a scene out of Looney Tunes’ Road Runner. My eyes seek out a small clearing up ahead, immersed in sunlight, and upon reaching it, I intuitively take a sharp left turn, entering even further into the continuous wilderness. My body and mind push on, as I whip through the ferns amid the tangled undergrowth, dodging and ducking my way through the branches that reach out like arms to grab me. I begin rushing head over heels down a steep, rocky slope, and now I am flying, leaping and gliding over the surface, propelling myself onward. What am I after? From an aerial view, I must look like an animal in mid-hunt, closing in on its prey. In reality, though, my task is not quite so simple. I am not chasing after lunch, food, or any living thing, for that matter. In fact, I am not in search of any tangible object, and I have no destination or endpoint on my mind either. Rather, I seek the benefits of the movement, the rewards of the training, the solitude of the experience, the deep connection with nature, the thrill of the adventure, and the profound pleasure of the moment. I am a runner.
I had always been known around the neighborhood for my boundless and uplifting energy, and none of the other kids stood a chance of escaping my speedy legs in our frequent after-school games of Manhunt and our nightly episodes of Ghost and the Graveyard. I loved the feeling of self-propelled speed, bolting through backyards and around fences, with my arms pumping, my hair flowing, and my eyes narrowing in on the target. I first truly began running at an early age, after deciding out of curiosity to tag along behind my father and one of his buddies as they left for an early, Sunday morning run. Assuming I might last a block or two, and then turn around tired and breathless, they sure were surprised when after a mile, I was still right beside them, happily bounding along. After a few more “guided” runs with my father and his friend, I began to surpass them in speed and endurance, and made the transition to training on my own. Then, though, I regarded running as a secondary component, a form of conditioning to keep up my overall fitness. I was the child who dabbled in every sport available, participating in practices and competitions almost every afternoon, all four seasons of the year. Looking back, I think the driving and challenge of getting everywhere on time might have been the most rigorous part! Fall started off with a combination of hockey and soccer, which both carried on through the winter with the addition of a bit of basketball, and then they further continued into the spring with the introduction of lacrosse and baseball. Because I could not bear their absence, hockey and soccer lived on through the steamy summer months with camps and pick-up games, and tennis joined right alongside them, with swim team added as a way to wash off all the excessive sweat. Although in the past I had done track and cross-country through Needham’s local running club, it took until my last year of middle school to go full throttle behind the sport of running. All my hard work and hours upon hours of training put in amongst all the other sports finally paid off when I shocked both myself and my gym teachers by clocking a 5:20 mile during our fall’s first fitness test, almost a full minute faster than the second place spot. Those four glorious laps around the earthy-colored track, which were the cause of uproar and anguish from almost every other student, made for a fantastic start to my 8th grade school year. My momentum carried on, as I led our school’s cross-country team, of which I had been a part of for the previous two years, to countless victories. I saw road races, such as Needham’s popular Great Bear Run, as not just a chance to have fun, but as an opportunity to prove myself against the other tougher competition. Luckily for me, Pollard introduced a track and field team to the school during the spring of my 8th grade year, and I was able to bring my talents there, excelling in the vast variety of events, both sprinting and distance. With such great coaches, teammates, and experiences, I became hooked on the sport.
Now, four years later, as a senior, and soon to be graduate of Needham High School, I am in the midst of yet another track season, loving it more so than ever. I have had the chance to leave my mark at the school, racing proudly as a varsity athlete in my blue and gold singlet year after year, making history this past fall as one of the seven boys who brought the cross-country team to Massachusetts All-States for the first time in 30 years, and, this spring, defeating track powerhouse Newton North, destroying their 17 year undefeated dual-meet record. But, these once in a lifetime experiences, although meaningful and fulfilling, are nothing in comparison with the lessons I have learned and the knowledge I have extracted from the incalculable miles I have run, day after day, 365 days of the year, in the wee hours of the morning as well as the late hours of the night, through the severe heat and the extreme cold, with and without teammates by my side.
“We must work constantly through our sporting lives, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. No holidays or days of rest. It is the labor of an artisan, when artists and work are one in the same.” These are the words of Kilian Jornet Burgada, a world renowned mountain runner known for his record ascents and descents of peaks such as the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and Mount McKinley, and they certainly hold true in my own life. In fact, I spend my whole life thinking about running; before I start out, I think about how I will run; when I run, I think about how it’s going; afterward, I think about how I ran. Some would consider my unwavering focus on running as an over-the-top obsession. Others regard it as a sign of true dedication, and sure, it can be considered both, but for me, it is about a whole lot more. In training my body to be faster, stronger, and unstoppable, I am simultaneously teaching my mind to be smarter, tougher, and more powerful. I am not just working out my muscles, I am working out my brain, and I am not just preparing for the stressful challenge next Saturday’s race presents, but rather, I am preparing for all of the challenges life will throw at me.
Running has taught and proven to me that nothing stands in the way of hard work and an iron-will. Whether it’s a 2-mile, a 5k, or a here to there lengthed trail race, a mantra I repeatedly whisper to myself while fighting past my competitors to the finish is, “The body achieves what the mind believes,” and I truly stand behind it. As silly and absurd as the saying might sound, anything is possible if you set your mind to it; all it takes, as a first step, is to just simply open your mind to the opportunity. If there is some goal I wish to accomplish, or some feat I wish to conquer, I will make sure it happens, dedicating my all to its completion. That is not to say accomplishing the task is ever easy. In fact, it is never easy. Obstacles, roadblocks, and moments of failure exist, but it is these struggles that make the effort worth it. Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, who currently holds the U.S. record in the half marathon, knows from experience when he states, “Suffering is an extraordinary teacher.” Throughout his career, he has had to deal with severe injuries and setbacks, yet he has managed to prevail, putting the dark days behind him, telling himself it is not over, that soon enough, he will reign again as America’s distance running star. In my own running, I have faced times where I feel I have plateaued, having not PRed in weeks, or grueling workouts where I have struggled to hit the times, but it is these very encounters with adversity that keep me coming back for more.
I do not care how many mountains I must climb, hurdles I must leap over; if I can get better, then why not? Why not put in that last bit of effort to go the extra mile, to complete the next rep, to climb the following stair? Poised on the starting line of a race, tensed and ready to spring at the sharp bang of a gun or the shrill tweet of a whistle, I’ve learned willpower trumps all. In order to give it my all, I must have confidence in the knowledge I can succeed. I find myself agreeing with Jornet when he motivationally explains, “Thresholds don’t exist in terms of our bodies. Our speed and strength depend on our body, but the real thresholds, those that make us give up or continue the struggle, those that enable us to fulfill our dreams, depend not on our bodies but on our minds.” The beauty of running stems from choice – the choice to continue, the question of the next route to conquer. Freedom, that is the gift of running. On a run, infinite paths reveal themselves. Walls, obstacles, pain – they are just detours. Running, and all its many facets, is about proving to myself I can do it; it is not the competitors, the crowd, or my teammates, but myself urging me onward.
As much as I love to repeatedly train and suffer, one of the major aspects of running that compels me to lace shoes and head out the door every morning, is the strong connection it offers me to the natural world. Nature has always held a certain allure for me, sparking my curiosity with its contrasting views of simplicity and profound complexity. More and more often, in this industrialized world of concrete and pavement, where whole cities sprout up before you in the blink of an eye, I am immersed in a wave of sadness over the injustice we have brought upon this earth. When surrounded by the throngs of people, the towering facades, and the rows and rows of identical houses now covering so much of the planet, I feel lost and alone. Fortunately, in these moments of isolation, running is there to save me, to guide me to my safe-havens, to lead me to the shaded trails and open meadows. Running through parks, forests, and mountains allows my senses to roam free, clearing my mind of the minor and major stresses of everyday life. In my solitude, I am left with time to think, process, and engage in introspection, in order to experience greater self-awareness and make sense of reality. I find I can see everything more clearly, Unfortunately, though, the majority of society misunderstands the wilderness’s significance and importance, passing down their apathy to future generations. As Jornet so aptly describes, “Nature has been trapped in islands surrounded by a sea of fakery and artifice, where people can contemplate its wonders and take photos with its inhabitants, be they animals, plants, trees, rocks, rivers, or mountains, as if they were strange exhibits in a museum, never understanding that in times past, those rocks, valleys, and rivers were not just heritage that had to be protected, but were our homes, our supermarkets, our schools.” This paradox, in addition to humanity’s attitude of superiority, disturbs me, for are we not just like any other animal, sharing the same habitats and ecosystems as one another? Oddly enough, it is in this wilderness where I am greeted with comfort, but where so many others are confronted with fear. What used to be our very own playground (and for some of us, still is), is now seen as foreign and distant. Again, Jornet beautifully sums up my inner thoughts when he states, “I think it is fear of death that frightens us when we lose contact with what is man-made. Our family and friends accustom us to the safety of the rational world, where every element focuses on the protection of our own, and when we are cut off from that shelter, we feel vulnerable, as if the path our life is pursuing could be interrupted at any moment by unknown perils. It is irrational, but the love we feel for humanity takes over, makes us feel we belong there, cradled in its arms. That feeling accompanies us everywhere, keeps us safe, yet at the same time muting the instinct that allows us to explore beyond its frontier.” Realizing this safety net of society stunts our growth and progression as individuals is essential to taking the next step in our lives, in understanding the joy of life can be found in the mystery of it all. It is when we lose our way, or enter the unknown, that we discover new opportunities and aspects about ourselves. Gazing out over the endless horizon, perched on the exposed summit of the latest peak I have conquered, I am embraced by a feeling of comfort and familiarity, knowing I am surrounded by the overwhelming might of nature.
Every runner knows it is not enough to go out everyday with only himself or herself to compete against. While it certainly holds true time spent training is a reward in itself, there comes an urge to put oneself to the test, in the atmosphere of others, whether they be running partners, teammates, or foes. As Jornet explains, “Running is an art… like painting a picture or composing a piece of music. And to create a work of art, you have to be clear about four basic concepts: technique, effort, talent, and inspiration. And all this must be combined in dynamic equilibrium.” Races allow a runner to experiment with these key concepts, mixing and matching them in different amounts and combinations in order to create a piece of perfection to share with the world. That is what makes competing so exciting, what makes it magical and turns it into an art - being able to follow the right impulse, knowing the one powering you into the lead is the right one, and keeping hold of it. Securing the lead though does not signify the end. My cross-country and track coach cannot repeat it enough; it does not matter whether you are in first or you are last, what matters is that when you cross the finish line, you have given it your all. He will shout at the top of his lungs as I round the final bend, “leave it all out on the track!”, and in response, I will dig deep down within myself to find the next gear to shift into. Legendary long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, known for his extreme determination and grit on the track, once stated, “To give anything less than the best is to sacrifice the gift.” The “best,” although different for every individual, shares one similarity: it is measured by 100% effort.
As much as they might seem to be, competition and races are not about beating one another; rather they are about helping push past each other's preconceived limits and expectations, seeing the joy on each other’s faces as each accomplishes his or her personal goals. However individual a sport may be, however many hours I run without seeing anyone, and however many miles I need to cover, sport and life are always about teamwork, in which each person contributes their own grain of sand in the name of success. And that brings up the question… what exactly constitutes success? Must it involve winning a race, being awarded a medal, or earning a spot on the podium? I have been fortunate enough to experience first-hand each of these scenarios, and the exhilaration and sensations of triumph are indescribable. To be honest though, there have been times in which I have not received any honors for my accomplishments, and yet I have felt all the more victorious.
One of these such occasions happened last summer, as I set out for a run from my hotel in Stowe, Vermont. Far off in the distance, rising above the impressive pine, spruce, and maple trees, was a peak, and without knowing its name or altitude, I felt the sudden urge to climb it and explore its vast heights. Right from the start, I knew it was a totally crazy idea, but crazy, or not, the idea was firmly planted in my mind… and so I went for it. 35+ miles and several hours laters, with sore legs and a dead GPS watch, I was standing again on my hotel room doorstep, this time cracking a huge smile, knowing I had far exceeded any original hopes I had for the run. Later, after pulling out a map of the surrounding area, I discovered the very mountain I had climbed happened to be the highest peak in Vermont, Mount Mansfield with a total elevation of 4,393 feet. I was shocked! In overcoming my body, my limitations, and my fears during that run, consciously choosing to let my mind power me, I had transformed my far off dreams into a reality. Quoting Jornet, I have realized victory is found in “being able to push our bodies and minds to their limits and, in doing so, discovering that they have led us to find ourselves anew,” creating new goals in this very process. More importantly, as Prefontaine suggests, “Success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.” In the days following my ultra-escapade, I kept quiet, afraid my mountainous feat would be the cause of disbelief or unnecessary concern. I was unsure as to what my friends and family might think, how they might respond, whether or not they would congratulate me, or instead, try to belittle my accomplishment. For all these numerous reasons flowing through my mind, I decided keep the experience a secret. Since then, after countless more adventures and long-distance journeys, I have learned victories are what I decide them to be, and it does not matter what others have to say of them, for the real winner is the one who truly enjoys what he or she is doing. However many victories I achieve, in the end they will only be of worth to myself, and having the inner strength and ability to trace my own path through life without the need for others approval has become an essential part of who I am.
For me, like so many others, running is the answer to any confusion, to any problem, to any question of existence. As runner Nicole Morton puts it, “The run means freedom, It means pride. It means perseverance. It means victory. The run means everything.” But what about those who have not yet discovered the joys of running or who have had bad experiences with it in the past, and who now regard the activity as some sort of cruel punishment? Although I cannot imagine a world without running, and would certainly be the first to tell these poor folks just how much they are missing, individuals like these still seem to manage, and somehow get along just fine in its absence. As a result of expressing myself and sharing my love of running with others, people’s insights and feedback have opened my mind, and I have come to understand it is not just running this profound joy is limited to. Answering as to why he runs, Jornet explains, “I think I run simply because I like doing it; I enjoy every minute and don’t wonder why. I know that when I am running, my body and mind are in harmony and allow me to feel that I am free, can fly, and can express myself through all my talents. The mountain is a blank canvas, and I’m the paintbrush that refuses to obey a paint-by-number pattern. Running provides my imagination with the means to express itself and delve into my inner self.” Hearing this, I have realized that within Jornet’s remark, the word “running” can really just be interchanged with any other passion, whether it be cooking, drawing, or photography. As long we all find a personal passion that grants us this sense of freedom and means of expression, there is nothing more we can ask for in life. Esteemed writer and runner George Sheehan once remarked, “I run because I am an animal and a child, an artists and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.” Thankfully, running found me, and without even knowing it, crafted my identity, teaching me not just about life in general, but about myself, opening countless windows of opportunity I have been eager to accept. As my legs begin to pick up speed, falling into their perfected, flawless pattern, I eagerly await where the run will take me next...
Chris Van Cott
7/4/2018 11:34:56 am
Wonderful essay Patrick! I recall you sharing it with me when you were a senior in high school. The passion you exhibit for your sport shines through and makes me want to head out the door for a run. Hope all is well with you!
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Hey, friend! It's Patrick! Thanks for finding your way here! If we haven't yet met, it's nice to meet you! Writing is an opportunity for me to reflect on and celebrate my love for running and share that love with others! Enjoy!