Simon Keller

In this regular column our contributors offer deep thoughts about running – or at least, thoughts that seem deep when you’re half-way through a long run and focused mainly on clearing a nostril.

Is Running Selfish?

Why do we run? Running books, magazines, and blogs are full of answers, and reading them can be as exhausting as running itself. We run for hope, for joy, for companionship, for self-knowledge, for wisdom, for freedom, for empowerment, for healing, to express our primal essence, to embody the Good, for simplicity and purpose. Behind it all, though, is often a sense of insecurity. It can feel as though the writers need to praise running in such extravagant terms because they are worried that the truth is not very flattering. Maybe running is just silly.

My own nagging fear is that running is no better than golf. Golf: hours of pointless activity, built around a useless skill and meaningless numbers, pursued by people who take themselves far too seriously, use overpriced equipment, and wear ridiculous outfits. I wouldn’t do anything like that, would I?

My worst fears about running are explored in a thoughtful article by Pam R Sailors. Sailors is both a runner and a philosopher of sport, and she wonders whether running is simply selfish. More specifically, she gives reasons to think that runners, by and large, are obsessive, narcissistic masochists. She makes her case by looking at running culture and the running industry, and at the impulses to which businesses appeal so as to make runners part with their money. Runners want to wield absolute control over their bodies and circumstances. They seek gratification in ever-greater self-punishment. And more than anything, runners have a deep need to believe that they are special; they need constant reassurance that being a runner makes them superior to everyone else. Forget about running for enlightenment; perhaps we should be thankful that running keeps dangerous people busy. If we weren’t so tired from all that running, we would be starting cults and torturing small animals.

Unlike other runners, I am not obsessive, narcissistic, or masochistic, and I will prove it by drawing some fine distinctions. Running might be self-focused, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be selfish. Sometimes, you can do something that is all about you, without doing it out of selfishness. 

For a start, running can be about self-care. Running can be a way of looking after yourself: it can be about maintaining your health, your mood, and your ability to do well in the other parts of your life. You might run for the same reason that some people meditate. 

Running can also be about self-improvement. It can keep you fit, and maybe it can also keep you humble, and calm, and out of trouble. Non-runners often say that they admire runners, and say that they “should” take up running too. Maybe running is one of those things that can make you a better person, without necessarily doing any good for anyone else. Maybe it is similar to forms of self-improvement like learning a musical instrument and or learning to speak another language. 

And running can be about self-expression. You can express yourself by getting a tattoo or writing poetry, or by writing articles for On the Run. Maybe you can also express yourself through your running. 

Those thoughts make me feel a little bit better. If you meditate, learn a foreign language, or write poetry, that doesn’t make you an obsessive, narcissistic masochist. Nevertheless, there is nothing in any of this that captures my real motivations for running. I could never drag myself out for an early morning run with the thought, “Time to care for myself, express myself, and make myself a better person!” That would take away all the fun.

And maybe that is the point. There might be all sorts of good justifications for running, but if you’re always thinking about those justifications, then running loses all its appeal. Psychologists sometimes talk about the paradox of hedonism: the more you try to make yourself happy, the less happy you will be. Maybe it is enough to be vaguely aware that running is worthwhile – probably, hopefully, for one reason or another – but then get motivated to run by thoughts of keeping to your training schedule, running a few seconds faster, or beating the person next to you. 

When we think too much about why we run, we don’t just write long blog posts about wisdom and healing and the Good and all that. We also lose access to whatever value running may in fact have. I’m not sure whether that makes it OK, and I am still looking for the reasons why it is better than golf, but at least it is something to go on with.