What is it about running?

I came across this article in a back issue of Runners World, so it might be familiar to many of you, but if not I think it’s well worth a read. It’s an extract from ‘Running with the Pack’, a book by philosopher, writer and runner Mark Rowlands. It’s impossible to put into words “those” moments during a run when everything seems to make sense, seems better, but I like this interpretation of it. It’s a long(ish) read, so once you’re done with your long run, grab a nice armchair, a coffee (or alternative energy replacement fuel!) and enjoy the read!


“What is running? When a human being runs – in the recreational sense in which tens of millions of human beings do, in fact, run – what is the meaning or significance of this? One might think that the answer depends on the human being in question. Different people run for different reasons: some because they enjoy it, some because it makes them feel good, look good, because it keeps them healthy, happy, even alive. Some run for company, others to relieve the stress of everyday life. Some like to push themselves, test their limits; others like to compare their limits with the limits of others. It seems obvious that the significance of running varies from one person to another, because this significance simply amounts to the reasons a person has for running.

Nevertheless, it is currently popular to think that running has a meaning or significance not simply for individual human beings but for humans as a whole. This significance, many think, is grounded in the role running played in our evolutionary past and so in making us – all of us – what we are today. Some think, and they may be right, that we are simians that were born to run – designed by millions of years of random mutation and natural selection to be running apes.

We run so that we could hunt, so that we could eat animals and not just plants. And, as Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham and others have argued, the resulting increase in protein in our diet played at least some role in the significant expansions our brains underwent during this time. Others have postulated an even closer connection between our ancestral running and our impressive contemporary cognitive abilities. Our ancestors’ hunting strategy was based not on speed but endurance – on the ability to keep track of a single animal, even if it was a member of a large herd, and track it mile after mile, keep up the pressure on it, to force it to keep running until it eventually died of overheating. Bernd Heinrich, a biologist at the University of Vermont, has argued that this necessity of focusing on one animal for hours or even days, was the foundation of all our cognitive powers.

I think these stories, like many of the stories we tell about ourselves, are important not so much because of what they say but what they show. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the stories are necessarily false. On the contrary, I think there are important elements of truth in them. But an element of truth mistaken for the whole truth is sometimes more damaging than a lie. These evolutionary explanations of the significance of running attempt to account for this significance in terms of the usefulness that running has for the species.

There is nothing wrong with this: that is the way evolutionary explanations do and must work. But implicit in this – and this is what the stories show – is the assignation to running of value of a certain sort. Running is valuable because of what it does. Running is valuable because of other things it has brought us.

The assignation of this sort of value is reiterated at the level of the individual when we explain the significance of running in terms of the reasons people have for running. Individual people run, it is assumed, because it is useful for them to do so, in one way or another. Philosophers often refer to this value that derives from usefulness as ‘instrumental’ value. Something has instrumental value when it has value as an instrument – as a means to an end. Money has instrumental value: its value lies in the value of the things it can buy you. Medicine has instrumental value: its value lies in the value of the health to which it can restore you. When something has merely instrumental value, it does not have value in itself – its value always lies elsewhere, in something else. It is this other thing that is the real locus of value.

Running does have instrumental value. But the error implicit in both accounts of running, individual and evolutionary is to suppose that this is the only value running has. It is not – it is not even the primary value running has.

We live, in certain respects, in a monstrous age. This instrumentalist way of thinking about running is a reflection of the narrowly utilitarian era in which we have grown up: a time where everything must have a use – must be ‘good for something’. Everything is reduced to a resource of some or other sort. We encounter and understand things only in terms of their use – broadly speaking, in terms of what they might do for us – and we fail to even understand that there might be anything else of value to them.

Perhaps it is too strong to say that we have become constitutionally unable to think of value in any other terms than as a function of use. But we do find it difficult. Certainly, that is the way the activity of running is typically justified, both to oneself and others. One runs, so one says, to stay healthy, to stay thin, to relax, to stay alive. The implicit assumption in these answers is that if running is a legitimate way of spending one’s time, then it must be ‘good for something’: that is, it must be useful in some way. That running may have a value that is independent of what it can do for us – that it might have a value that cannot be understood in instrumental terms – is an idea we find difficult to even understand. I say this from experience. I had to overcome many years of confusion, decades in fact, before I understood this.

The experience of running is the experience of a kind of value that is quite different – value that is not instrumental, not a function of usefulness. And in this value one can discern, at least in broad outline, something that is important in life. It is true that running has multifarious forms of instrumental value. However, at its purest and its best, running has an entirely different sort of value. This is sometimes known as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ value. To say that something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valuable for what it is what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow one to get or possess. Running is intrinsically valuable. And so when one runs, and does this for the right reason, one is in contact with intrinsic value in life.

This has a significance that is far broader then merely understanding the essence of running – what running really is. Our lives are marred by the inability to recognise intrinsic value when we encounter it. Our lives are lived doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for the sake of another something else, an endless for-the-sake-of-which: decades of chasing what is valuable but only rarely catching it. To be in contact with something that is important for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else, would be to end this chase, at least for a while. For a time at least, one does not chase value, one is immersed in it.

People sometimes ask – this is after all what philosophers are supposed to do, though few of us these days do it – what is the meaning of this life? The question is unfortunately constructed in at least two respects. First, the word ‘meaning’ has suggested to some people that the answer we are looking for is a mystical one, of the sort that might be supplied by a guru. Secondly, the use of the definite article suggests that the question permits only one answer – a sort of existential magic bullet that will tell us unequivocally what life is all about. But, in reality, the question is more familiar and less ambitious: a question that almost everyone will ask himself or herself at some time or other. What is important in life? Alternatively: what is valuable in life?

Running is a way of understanding what is important or valuable in life. It is a way of putting oneself in contact with intrinsic value. Running is by no means the only way of doing this. But it is one way: and as such it is a way of answering the question of the meaning of life, in the only reasonable sense this question can have – however mundane and unambitious that may be. The answer to this question is, at least for me, always tenuous and shifting. It is something I understand only in moments, and then it is gone. But these may be the most important moments of my life.

There is a type of knowledge embodied in running. When I run, I know what is important in life – although for many years I did not know that I knew this. This is not so much knowledge newly acquired as knowledge reclaimed. When I was a boy, I also knew what was important in life. I suspect we all did, although we did not know that we knew it. But this is something I forgot when I began the great game of growing up and becoming someone. Indeed, it is something I had to forget in order to play this game at all. It is one of life’s great ironies that those least in need of understanding its meaning are those who most naturally and effortlessly understand it.

Running is a place where I remember. On the long run, I can hear the whispers of a childhood I can never reclaim, and of a home to which I can never return. In these whispers, in the rumours and mutterings of the long run, there are moments when I understand again what it was I once knew.”

Mark Rowlands , ’Running with the Pack’