Screenshot of my run summary. My phone died before I could complete my run but I promise I ran the last 2 miles too.
Today I ran a half marathon. It was a clear, sunny day around 60 F. It was one of the hardest runs I have ever done. But it was also, by far, the most satisying run I’ve ever done.
The last 3 miles were the hardest to get through. By mile 11, my phone died and I lost track of my distance and pace. I began feeling lightheaded and my calves felt numb. I pushed through anyway.
I take longs runs because they remind me that I’m a person existing in meat space. I spend so much time at a screen, typing away at prose or code, that it sometimes feels like I’m a brain in a jar. But when you feel the pavement underneath your heels, the reverbation in your knees, and the air filling your lungs as you gasp for a breath – it’s a clear reminder that you exist right here, right now.
As I neared the end of my run and walked the last mile to get home, I started to smile uncontrollably. Between ragged breathes I couldn’t help but laugh and look up at the sky.
When I got home, I immediately downed a protein shake. And then I cracked open a beer and downed that too.
I get the impression that we live in a “post-modern” culture, as in, a culture that sees no inherent meaning to existance. It the vein of philsophers like Hume, Nietzsche, and their contemporaries, it’s conventional to think that “we must make our own meaning in life.” But I see a lot of misguidance on how one should make this meaning.
When we see people voluntarily do things that are unusual and painful (like running marathons or going on long fasts), I think the natural reaction is to wonder if those people are a bit insane. But after becoming one of those types of people I want to offer my explanation for these behaviors which, at face value, seem very strange.
In the U.S., it seems like our culture has become centered around convenience and consumerism. Life is a drama of choices, and many of us have socialized ourselves into thinking that choosing between Prada and Balenciaga as the peak drama anyone could live through. But I don’t think good lives are about seeking status, happiness, or ease. Good lives are about feeling agency in the choices we make, and agency is about making choices and living with the consequences those choices beget.
What consequences are there to buying luxury brands or eating luxury foods? To chasing social media clout or setting social media trends? For most people, there are no meaningful consequences. Very, very few people experience a large change in their quality of life because of these decisions.
When I choose to do something like attempt a marathon or a fast, I am expressing my agency. By intentionally putting myself into a state of discomfort, I can viscerally feel the consequences of my actions. There are few things in life like the aching pain in your knees during a long run or the hunger you feel after days without eating.
To me, this is how we make meaning in the 21st century and beyond. Some parts of the world are close to “post-scarcity” in the sense that it doesn’t take that much work to provide the bare minimum for survival. Life needs to be a little less than perfect, otherwise how else will we spend our hours?
Anyway, to cut the ramble short: do hard things. The hardest things you do tend to be the most meaningful. Even if they’ve already been done before, so what? The satisfaction isn’t about being the best or the first, it’s about being someone who finished and followed through. Or in the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”