While daily exercise is universally encouraged, there’s still plenty of trepidation about running. I’ve had 90-pound friends who threw shot put on the track team because they didn’t want to run, and others who look visibly ill when I even mention going for a run. The fact is that people will bend over backwards to avoid running. Many times, if they’re physically capable of doing so, the alternate route they choose is more tumultuous — and certainly less efficient —than just lacing up and hitting the streets. However, despite widespread skepticism, running is a rare outlet for undisturbed thought.
I’d say running is a love/hate activity, but I know better than that. When I started running with my dad at age nine, I could barely make it a block through the Kentucky suburbs before my chubby legs burned in agony. My first 5K took 45 minutes, and my dad and I were the last two people to finish, with a police car inching along behind us the whole way. Running was nothing but a chore, and I dreaded going out every time.
But now, things couldn’t be more different. I’m hopelessly addicted to running. I ran cross-country and track for seven years, and now continue to run every morning at Oberlin. I’ll admit to caring about my body, but what I really get out of running is the one aspect I believe to be common among anyone who tries it: The guaranteed sense of isolation that accompanies it. This feeling is considerably diminished if you’re running in a group, but all committed runners will eventually have to go out on their own.
There is nothing to accompany a solo runner except the scenery and their own thoughts. Doctors and fitness magazines will claim that running is a guaranteed morality and confidence booster, but it’s much too individualized for that to always be true. A run is a time in which you’re forced to understand how you see the world, and your feelings about whatever is on your mind are brought to the forefront in a way seldom allowed in the midst of hectic daily schedules.
Depending on your current emotional state and how introspective you are, this opportunity can be the greatest or the worst thing in the world. If I have a confusing situation I’m trying to resolve, running can sometimes provide the isolation I need to find a solution, but that’s not especially common. More often than not, running serves as a sort of catharsis. If I’m sad or angry, being left alone with my thoughts only augments those feelings. While confronting such anxieties isn’t pretty, doing so while I’m running provides an immediate avenue to purge those emotions. I’m able to release those negative emotions in the form of physical activity before they can get stuck in my head.
If I sound like I’m enjoining you to start running, I’ve done something wrong. Running isn’t for everyone, even those who are physically capable. What I am encouraging, however, is the absolute isolation and opportunity for unencumbered thought that running provides. Even when running hasn’t provided me with answers, it has given me a chance to know how I feel about the most trying emotional situations I’ve dealt with, while distracting myself with homework or TV has made me feel inexplicably worse.
It’s no mystery to me or anyone else that mental health services on campus have been criticized as lackluster and unsupportive. While I can’t discourage seeking help when needed, I will say that running has afforded me the space to think and release my anxiety that I believe counseling sometimes tries to provide. True mental illness requires professional help, but the cathartic thinking space permitted by running can remedy fleeting depressive thoughts and brief instances of anxiety. This sort of space is becoming too much of an anomaly at a time when stress and distractions have all but eradicated chances for solitary contemplation. The saying goes that people will avoid their problems by running away from them. Let me be the one to say that, in running away, they may actually be confronting them head-on.