First, a word of caution: Running in cut-off jean shorts is a terrifically bad idea and will lead to chafing in unmentionable places. I know because I tried. You could say this lesson was a necessary part of my learning to love running, but I really wish I could’ve skipped that part of the journey.
Thankfully I didn’t give up running after that wardrobe malfunction and miss out on its many psychological and spiritual benefits. You see, I used to hate running. I was always the slowest kid in P.E. class and considered the whole endeavor pointless for someone like me. It seemed like one of those activities that only had value if you’re competitive at an elite level. So I stopped. For 20 years I didn’t run, except for the time I streaked at my college and needed to run from campus security. But that’s a story for another time.
I decided to give running another try a few years ago after reading Chris McDougall’s 2009 classic Born To Run. Closing the book, I thought, “Yes! I too am born to run!” and decided that shoes were evil and that in order to work properly, my feet needed to be free. Barefoot, I ran laps around my yuppie neighborhood. It felt subversive, even revolutionary. Stroller moms gave me a wide berth and looks of suspicion, as if I might be mentally unstable. I definitely wasn’t fast, but I started to like it. Between the sweat, blisters, and chafing from my aforementioned jean shorts, I noticed a feeling that reminded me of meditation or yoga. Transcendence. Flow. Every now and then things fell into place: my posture, the rhythm of my breath, the swing of my arms. I found the Zone. I lost all sense of time and my legs felt like wheels spinning effortlessly beneath me, my feet barely touching the ground with each stride.
I wondered, “Do other people feel like this?” Flipping through running magazines, all I saw was a Type A competitive attitude. Five weeks to a faster 5K! Lose 10 pounds! 109 best power foods! It reminded me of P.E. class, where numbers equalled success. I wanted something deeper, something to connect to, something inspiring and soulful. So I dug into the history of running, collecting source material long out of print. I made some startling discoveries.
Though humans have been running since we could stand upright, the idea of recreational running is surprisingly new. A mere 40 years ago, several factors sparked a running revolution that helped shape the modern fitness movement. At the Munich Olympics in 1972, Frank Shorter became the first American to win the marathon in 60 years. But there was something else going on, too. The U.S. had gone through a countercultural revolution, and it wasn’t just about long hair and tie-dye.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, many people were seeking new ways of living, new models of health and consumption, and new states of consciousness. People were trying to design their lives and the world for the better, and at the core of this exploration was an educational center in Big Sur, California, called the Esalen Institute. Esalen was founded on the belief that we can unlock hidden potential in our lives through meditation, experiential education, and lots of nudity. They hosted revolutionary thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, Abraham Maslow, and, of course, Timothy Leary. They pioneered the integrated approach of mind and body and named it the human potential movement. Exploring all aspects of the mind-body experience naturally led them to athletics, so they created the Esalen Sports Center. Here they studied the meditative aspects of athletics, what we now call the flow state or being in the zone. And what better sport to study than running, the most basic, primal activity?
The 1970s were not so long ago, but today running is so mainstream it’s important to note how weird the sport was considered back then. Adults seen running in public for recreation were viewed with ridicule and suspicion. Who would do that voluntarily, for its own sake? Runners regularly became targets for harassment from passing cars and were stopped by police officers who suspected they’d committed a crime nearby.
These proto-joggers were early adopters who helped to prime the country for a mainstream running explosion. When Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold in Munich, a once-marginal activity became the Running Boom. Throughout the ’70s, 25 million people would start running. Among them Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Joe Strummer, hell, even Andy Warhol. People discussed the runner’s high like the latest underground drug available only to the initiated: Have you felt it? This is when running was rad. Running was pure, unfettered by commercialism and spurring us to dive deep into the realms of the human condition.
I believe that in the next 20 years running lost its soul. What happened? In pushing the sport from marginal to mainstream, running companies stopped talking about transcendence and started pushing achievement and competition. There were two milestones that cemented this shift: the digital tech revolution and the commercial explosion of gym culture.
In 1972, Pulsar released the first digital watch. This space age miracle cost $11,000 and only told the time. But in a few years Casio sold one for $40 and they added a stopwatch feature, which forever changed running. Instead of following your bliss, you could watch your lap times on the run. Then in the early ’90s, the military made GPS available to the public and eventually receivers became small enough to fit on your wrist or in your phone. Instantly you become a blip on a Google Map like Pac-Man on a screen. Today there’s so much excitement about the Quantified Self and the Apple Watch, I wonder if we’re measuring the wrong thing. We accepted technology as a welcome distraction to the painful challenge of running: Spotify playlists, Nike+ Instagrams and Facebook updates. What is wrong with us? We took a beautiful, primal, transformative activity and layered on so much shit you can barely recognize it now!
Gyms have only further distanced running from its primal roots. In creating specialized environments for exercise, we’ve essentially industrialized fitness. Take treadmills. Without the sights, sounds and smells of the outside world, running becomes a torturous, self-imposed death march. To make it tolerable, we watch Sportscenter, The View, or simply wait for the LED odometer to click past our target distance. This kind of running is merely about goal-oriented self-improvement, not transcendent self-actualization. What a tragedy.
Running used to be subversive, weird and wonderful. It used to celebrate the existential search created by pushing the body to its limit. Now it’s safe, stripped of all spirituality, reduced to numbers and optimized for competition. What I’m looking for can’t be measured by time or calories. After all, how can you quantify transcendence? I admit that my running has become more conventional over time. I traded the cut-offs for nylon short-shorts – no chafing! – and even started to wear proper running shoes. But I’m trying to keep the original hippie dream alive.
I imagine there are others out there like me – running for the high, wondering what it all means – and that someday we’ll all connect and take over the running scene. Someday I’ll start a psychedelic running cult like The Source Family doing the training sequences from Rocky. We’d call ourselves The Seekers.
To connect with these potential devotees, I’ve devised a signalling system to chalk around my running route in the city. I was inspired by hobo symbols from the 1930s, a visual code that helped transients communicate local information to each other: safe places to sleep, where to get free food. The Seekers code, however, directs one inward. Some symbols are visualizations, some are reminders, and some are completely abstract and meant to be interpreted differently every time. Think of them as little prayers between inner space and outer space.
I hope that this philosophy will gain underground momentum in the running world. Perhaps someday there will be a revolution for athletics that will guide us back to our roots, encouraging people to connect with their bodies though movement rather than distract themselves with technology and competition. We’ll meet in back alleys behind running stores to stage group runs like performance art happenings, wearing spirit animal costumes for our 5K. Our numbers will swell and we’ll buy some land and start a commune, live in geodesic domes in the forest, do naked yoga together, and practice transcendent running meditation as our sacred daily ritual, seeking altered states of consciousness with every step! Perhaps some of this scenario appeals to you. You’re chasing the runner’s high, you’re looking for the Zone. If so, be on the look out for The Seekers signs on your run. They’ll take you where you’re looking to go.
This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine. Images of Fred Rohe, author of The Zen of Running, and Mike Spino, Co-Founder of the Esalen Sports Center and author of Beyond Jogging: The Innerspaces of Running. Collage by Jonathan Cammisa
Wanna take a deep dive into books about running? Check out Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. For a different, more personal take on running, novelist Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is great.