Five years. 555 runs. Five Lessons.

From zero experience, to three 10k runs a week, then back down to a regular 5k distance, running has changed my life. And taught me some valuable lessons.

It’s coming up for five years since I left the UK and began “digital nomading”. This time has been occupied with two stories, building my writing practice, and learning more about Buddhism. I write about both of those topics now and again. This is an essay about a third story I don’t mention so often.

In early 2012 I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (The answer, incidentally, is writing) and was inspired to buy some Nikes and try running. I don’t remember loving it, and those early runs were often only a few hundred metres.

“I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done.”

Just before I left the UK I bought my first pair of “barefoot” Merrell trail runners. In my first test run (on a treadmill) I was awed by how much more interesting running became when I could feel the ground under my toes. The Merrell’s were also lightweight for the single, carry-on backpack that I am, five years layer, still travelling with. They quickly became a centre-piece of my new minimal existence.

Early in my travels I fell in love with the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I stayed there for fifteen months on my first visit, and it was in CM that running really became part of my life. Freelancing full time meant I could set my own schedule, and mid-afternoons, as the Thai heat abated towards sunset, became running time.

Chiang Mai has a leafy, labyrinthine university campus where I love to run. Further out of town is the Huay Kaew reservoir where it’s possible to do a 10km circuit. There’s also the Moat Run, a 6km circuit around the city’s square moat road, negotiating crazy traffic and angry tuk tuk drivers all the way.

I did my first 10km run in Chiang Mai, and was so shocked to complete the distance that I spent the next hour lying in the shade wondering if my legs would ever work again. At one point I was running 5 to 7km daily with one or two 10km every week. It was too much, my weight plummeted so far that my 30″ waist jeans were falling off. I made a conscious decision to gear down the runs and replace them with weights, and at the time of writing have regained the lost muscle mass and added a bit more.

Today I hit my 555th run. An auspicious number in my 5th year of running. These are some lessons I’ve taken from the experience of running. Like Mr Murakami, when I talk about running, I’m also talking about something else. For me, running has been transformative, both body and soul. So these lessons are, in part, my reflections on how transformations happen.

Buy good tools.
I have often carried a poverty mentality through life. Given the option, I’ll tend to go for the budget solution to a problem. I think, with the things in life that matter, this is a mistake. I would never have run 555 runs in my squishy Nike trainers. My Merrel running shoes made all those runs much more enjoyable, and safer, I’ve had one minor injury in five years. Of course, there are all kinds of excessive and unneccesary things sold to runners, but when it comes to essential tools for any activity, I will always buy good ones now.

Quantify progress.
Nike didn’t win me with their trainers, but I have to thank them for the wonderful Nike running app, the reason I can look back and see my progress over five years. Being able to see how far and how fast I’ve run is really integral to my motivation. I like the satisfaction of hitting the 5k mark, and logging my minimum 3 runs a week. Every Sunday I take part in the Nike Global 5k race, with millions of people worldwide. Quality is important for running, as for any experience, you should enjoy the process first. But being able to quantify that process, whether it’s metres run or words written, is also a big help.

Habit is everything.
I wind down my work day about 4pm and usually run at 5. I’m lucky, of course, that I can do this as a freelancer. I’ve always found that time of day difficult, and commonly “slump” into negative thinking in the afternoon. Or did, until running replaced that old bad habit with a new good one. Habit, I believe, is everything when it comes to change. If it’s your habit to write for 3 hours a day, you’ll write great things. Anything you want to achieve, to change, or to stop in life, will be made easier or even possible at all, by thinking through the habits that feed it. It would take a lot, a real lot, to make me let go of my running habit. I’ll be 80 and on sticks, but I’ll still find a way to hobble for some distance.

Where is my mind?
I listen while I run. Music of course, but I also love good audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve learned more about Buddhism from audio recordings of dharma teachings than I have sitting in temples! And I’ve learned more about meditating from running than from sitting on a cushion. I listen because I want to keep my mind from worrying about feeling tired. I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done. My mind throws tantrums, declares defeat, cries exhaustion at the first drop of sweat. When I’m running I keep part of my mind present in the run, while distracting a different part with interesting stories and ideas. My mind is always happy to have run, so once I was able to train it to get out of the way and let my body take care of the actual running, it became much more positive about the whole endeavour.

Do what you can.
I’m not a fast runner. I average 6:30 per km. My fastest 5km is 24:30 but I’m usually well over minutes. If I held myself to the standards of competition runners I would always be failing. But by the standards needed to improve my own physical and mental health, I win every day. As a professional writer, I hold myself to standards of productivity I that would be completely counterproductive for anybody who didn’t make their living in the field. One of the quickest ways to kill any positive activity is to set lofty goals we will always fail at. I’ve done this so often in life, it feels like an achivement in itself just to value steady progress.

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