I loathe running without a sporting objective.
And, by sporting objective, I don’t mean setting a personal record in the mile or seeing how much distance I can cover before I drop. I can run all day if you add soccer, tennis, basketball, or another game. Without those goals, there are few things I would rather do.
Running on its own is soul-suckingly boring. The repetition of the physical gait and the repeated scenery is deadening. I realize I could alter settings to shake things up on the latter point, but often that feat would require more time than I find at my disposal. I would love to run in nature, on mountain trails, or along lakes, but those outings are rare for the midweek jog. Running brings wear to the body that few endeavors can: shin splints, screaming knees, and aching feet.
So, naturally, I’ve spent a lot of time in 2023 running.
Why would I pursue something I actively disdain? Though I might doubt this sentiment while I’m pounding pavement, I’m not a masochist. The health-benefit-to-price ratio is simply hard to beat. Walking is a lower-impact, free way to burn calories and I love it, but it is less time efficient for metabolic purposes. Time is, by far, our most valuable resource. Running is something I can do close to home. I don’t have to hop in a car to travel to a field. I don’t have to join a gym. I can throw on shoes and head out the door. And, of course, exercise is a wonderful reliever of stress.
Even though I just claimed I don’t like to punish myself, I do feel the act of suffering can have positive benefits. A slew of philosophies and religions have mined this notion, including Stoics, Ascetics, Existentialists, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. Even Friedrich Nietzsche’s “what does not kill me makes me stronger” maxim fits the bill. I’m certain many runners will tout the meditative virtues of the sport, but my connection between running and suffering is far more literal. When I hit Mile X and I ask myself why I’m still running, my mind turns to what the capacity to suffer might one day earn me. I envision myself on a difficult mountain excursion, thinking about turning back in a gale or a snowstorm, yet pushing forward because I have cultivated my ability to physically suffer. I think of potential disasters where the capability to endure gives me some sort of edge or hope.
Whatever the ultimate reason I have chosen for this form of exercise, I had made decent gains this year. I could go farther and faster. My health seemed to improve.
Then, about a month ago, I broke my toe playing soccer.
This injury affected my mentality greatly. For the first few days after the incident, I couldn’t walk. My toe hurt, but the time I was losing loomed far larger in my mind. No soccer. No running. I wasn’t going to miss the act of running, but I had finally forced it into a habit. My stamina, my calorie burn, all the progress. Gone.
About a week afterward, my ability to walk started to return. The toe felt better than I anticipated at that point. My mind, previously resigned to a month or more of inactivity, suddenly started to play around. Maybe if I ran really slowly I could start to get back into it. I wouldn’t push myself, I said to myself. I started to walk distances to see how the digit would react. I probably can’t do that much damage to the foot anyway, right? It’s already broken, what else could happen? Perhaps the time for full healing might extend, but the physical and mental positives of exercising would outweigh that reality. I convinced myself.
Slowly, I started to jog again. Full of ibuprofen, I compensated just enough to make it so the toe could get through short bursts. I made sure to call a session if I felt too much discomfort, but things were going fairly well.
I promise this long preamble connects to nature.
In the past, I have discussed a tract of land near my home that currently mixes the outdoors with modern construction, a fallow piece of farmland reclaimed by wildflowers and birds. Piece by piece, this parcel is garnering new buildings, as businesses eat up prime real estate. One day, it will be gone. For now, my family gets to enjoy sunsets around an open prairie, where killdeer, mallards, owls, herons, opossums, deer, and others have made temporary homes. This region is wonderful for running and walking. It’s not the mountains, but it’s as beautiful as sprawl can be.
One night in the past couple of weeks – running time is often when kids sleep – I was jogging slowly when something caught my eye. A critter reared up on its back legs in an instantly recognizable posture. I had never seen a skunk on a circuit before, but I was suddenly about to find myself sprayed. As fate would have it, my left foot was in the air as I noticed the skunk, which meant my broken toe would need to push off the ground to save me from becoming extraordinarily smelly. I hit the sidewalk and shoved with a huge force to jump left. The pain shot through my foot and leg, but I reached the grass a good distance from the black and white mammal. The skunk regarded me for a moment, decided I wasn’t a threat, and returned to munching grass.
I cursed my luck. Had I done the toe too much damage? It didn’t feel too bad, so I pressed onward. By the time I made a full circuit, the skunk had moved elsewhere into the night.
In the next two running sessions, I encountered my new buddy. Knowing the skunk was out there allowed me to give it a wide berth, saving my toe from any last-second action. Both times, the skunk rose, examining me, before returning to the forage.
Despite the threat of spraying, I quite enjoyed adding a skunk to the land’s menagerie. Most people abhor skunks, but they really don’t bother humans. Any sort of animal diversity in a wild space is a good thing, in my book. I was slowly adding skunks to the running landscape, next to the killdeer, ducks, deer, and owls.
This piece of land is not isolated from modern trappings. Major roadways now ring it, in addition to the growing stable of buildings. A few days ago, as I drove home from an errand, an odor poured into my automobile. I knew what had transpired before I saw any visual evidence. The skunk had been hit by a car and lay in the middle of the road.
This animal was not my pet. I did not encounter it enough to sense a personality or even any individual characteristics, yet I couldn’t help but feel some sort of personal loss. After all, this skunk was a living being. One moment it had been alive, and now it was gone.
The incident forced me to consider my viewpoint on all the entities that live on our planet. Humans have developed a hierarchy of things that matter, things that matter a little less, things that barely matter, and things that don’t matter at all. Cats, dogs, and other personal pets occupy pedestals at the same level or just below those of fellow humans. Most people enjoy birds or larger critters, such as deer or moose. Other beings we consider pests, but have some admirers. On the bottom rung, we have placed entities such as mosquitos and ticks, those things that exist seemingly just to spread disease and discomfort.
Many people love to see a deer in the woods or from their car as they drive by a field. But when that deer is dead on the road, we often move by without pondering the life. Skunks belong to a class most people don’t really admire. Yet, like the opossum, these animals serve vital roles in ecosystems, eating insects we like even less. A dead skunk, however, rarely rises to the level of a dead pet.
Here I was, though, realizing I would miss this skunk on my runs. I started to think about the life this animal led. It’s impossible to contemplate or rue all the beings that die on Earth. The system is so large that it would overrun our lives to consider them all. This ability to overlook death as it happens all around is likely an evolutionary adaptation. A being might not survive if that being is constantly worried about all the other beings that have recently perished. Yet is this skunk’s life worth less than my cat’s life? Is the life of the tick and the mosquito – things I consider the banes of my outdoor experience – truly as worthless as I hold in my philosophy?
I suspect the answer is no, which causes me quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. I comfort myself by saying the question is too large for one person to crack. Perhaps that statement is true. Does the abundance of life on this planet mean each being is disposable, just a cog in the food chain?
My current bout of suffering – the broken toe – slowly improves. I think about the pain I experience and the sorriness I allowed myself to feel about it. In the process of this contemplation, I witnessed a life extinguished from the tapestry of my surroundings. If I had never encountered this skunk, I would not have thought a moment about its body on the road. Likely, one day, I’ll struggle to recall ever intersecting with this critter. I don’t like these ideas. I wish the suffering of running would endow me with the wisdom to unlock these types of questions.
Instead, I pound a sore toe, step after step, chasing the notion that one day it will pay off. As I look for new skunks in the nighttime grass, I’m thankful I crossed paths with this one, even briefly. I suppose this means the suffering of my running already has paid off.