People are running around Jeff and Nancy Kirstein’s farm near Lennox. The Kirsteins host The Blood Run each year on their organic vegetable farm (vegetables! South Dakota farmers growing actual food for actual people! what a novel concept!). People come from miles around to run a 1.5-mile loop around the farm for 3, 6, 12, 24, or 26 hours.
KELO-TV covers the run and solicits the worst possible quote to encourage anyone but monks to participate in this challenging event:
“Ultra-running teaches you to suffer: you have to be okay with suffering and suffering teaches us to persevere and that helps us figure out who we are and what we can do,” said Natalie Stamp, who was running for 36 hours [Renee Ortiz, “Ultra-Marathoners Visit Lennox-Area Farm,” KELO-TV, 2022.09.04].
I have run distance for nearly 40 years (including some fine country runs chasing Jeff’s younger brother Sam on the Madison High School cross-country team in the golden autumn of 1986). I pushed my distance toward 14 miles in my youth, but nowadays I rarely crack 10 miles. I certainly don’t push for ultra: I’ll pound the pavement/gravel/grass/dirt for an hour and a half at most (although put me on the bike, and I can go for six hours, with a stop for ice cream!).
Maybe this is what I’m doing wrong, but never have I run to suffer. Quite the opposite: I run to feel better. I run to get away from work, from the computer, from sitting on my butt. I run to escape sedentary stagnation and stress. I run to restore my strength and sanity. I run to go outside, to get some sun (and sometimes moon), and see the world. I run so I can tease my wife about my resting heart rate of 38 beats per minute—I’m saving up beats for a long and vigorous old age. I run to make “fight weight” (on my good days, still the same size as when I was chasing Sam).
Running is work, but it is not suffering; it is an escape from suffering. Life provides enough suffering; we don’t need to seek out more. If suffering were the goal of running, we’d put rocks in our shoes. We’d run in our blue jeans. We’d run at industrial Superfund sites or the Empire Mall parking lot and not the Kirsteins’ green corner of paradise.
If I suffer while I’m running, I figure I’m doing something wrong. Suffering is my body telling me, stop, stretch, hydrate, walk the rest of the way, rest that bad leg, eat more protein and less Italian dressing before the next run. Suffering says, enough of this crap—let’s do something else. If you’re doing it right, running is not pain, only gain.
I get a pretty clear picture of who I am and who I want to be on my joyful runs (and rides, and hikes, and other joyful adventures). I learn what I can do in joyful labor, sweating and straining at tasks that make me want to sweat and strain more.
Running for me is like debate—in the immortal words of Huron High School debate coach Mitch Gaffer, “We’re having fun or we’re going home.” Life unbidden will provide enough lessons and suffering and perseverance without my embracing monkish self-abnegation.
Have fun running the Kirsteins’ farm today. Have fun running Lake Herman State Park, Richmond Lake, Leaders Park, Larson Hill, Lookout Mountain, Black Elk Peak, or whatever other stretch of concrete, gravel, or dirt you have handy. But don’t run to suffer. Run to feel the joy of muscle and movement. Run so you can feel that joy again and again. Run to have fun.
Exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream, Linden explains. Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.
The mental benefits don’t stop when you finish your run — regular cardiovascular exercise can spark growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain. Exercise may also produce new brain cells in certain locations through a process called neurogenesis, which may lead to an overall improvement in brain performance and prevent cognitive decline.
“Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect,” says Linden. “It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”
What’s more, the hippocampus — the part of the brain associated with memory and learning — has been found to increase in volume in the brains of regular exercisers. Other mental benefits include:
- Improved working memory and focus
- Better task-switching ability
- Elevated mood
By making running or jogging (or any aerobic exercise) a regular part of your routine, you stand to earn more than just physical gains over time. “Voluntary exercise is the single best thing one can do to slow the cognitive decline that accompanies normal aging,” says Linden [David J. Linden, “The Truth Behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, retrieved 2022.09.04].
More Related Reading (more related than you may first think): Edward Abbey on frogs singing in the desert:
Why do they sing? What do they have to sing about? Somewhat apart from one another, separated by roughly equal distances, facing outward from the water, they clank and croak all through the night with tireless perseverance. To human ears their music has a bleak, dismal, tragic quality, dirgelike rather than jubilant. It may nevertheless be the case that these small beings are singing not only to claim their stake in the pond, not only to attract a mate, but also out of spontaneous love and joy, a contrapuntal choral celebration of the coolness and wetness after weeks of desert fire, for love of their own existence, however brief it may be, and for joy in the common life.
Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. Therefore the frogs, the toads, keep on singing even though we know, if they don’t, that the sound of their uproar must surely be luring all the snakes and ringtail cats and kit foxes and coyotes and great horned owls toward the scene of their happiness [Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968, Ballantine Books paperback, pp. 157–8].