Why We Run — the Endless Question

Why do we run?

I’ve asked myself this question often in recent months, as I’ve struggled with health problems.

Then I watched live streaming video of the 2012 Nike Cross Nationals, known simply as NXN.

The Nationals are Nike’s championships for high-school cross-country teams. (Watch highlights here.)

That event, I believe, said more about why we run than any number of words.

Two writers in recent years have tried to explain why our sport has such a hold on us: Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich (2002), and Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (2011).

Why We Run and Born to Run failed to live up to their titles. They didn’t actually reveal why we run. Instead, they explained why our physiology makes us good at running.

The video of NXN lifted my spirits because it showed young people, blessed with national-class energy and talent, having an amazingly good time.

It was muddy. It was a hoot. It was inspiring.

Mary Cain placed second in the girls’ race. It was Mary’s first cross-country event; she normally races the track 1500m and 3200m.

Mary is coached by Alberto Salazar, coach of Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, and other elites. You can watch a post-race interview with Mary here.

After watching her interview, I thought, “No wonder Salazar agreed to coach her. She’s wonderful.”

Elite high school runner Mary Cain
Thanks, Mary, for reminding us why we run. (Click to enlarge.)

Mary is intelligent, quick-witted, and very funny. And she’s civilized – she tuned in to the interviewer, got on his wavelength, and treated him with respect.

I was moved also by a post-race interview with Bill Aris, coach of the Fayette-Manlius High School girls who’ve won NXN seven consecutive times.

When the interviewer asked Bill to comment on the team he coaches, he said, “They are tough, strong kids with kind hearts.”

What an outstanding way to praise young runners, encouraging them to excel as human beings.

It was obvious that Bill is a person who restrains his ego so he can enjoy watching others shine.

I want to run like Bill and Mary. I want to be more than a body, a collection of physical facts. I want to be civilized, self-controlled, and run with a tough mind and an expansive heart. Those are things that deepen my fulfillment.

The kids at NXN had a wonderful time, largely because of the weather. The course was crazy – after heavy rains it was a hog wallow more suitable to pigs grunting than humans running, with ankle-deep mud in many sections. After the race, the young runners did chest- slides in the mud, or sat in puddles splashing each other and laughing.

Why do we run?

Should we ask the nearest PhD? Or should we look inside?

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