I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient to all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. --Rilke
Running, like life, is an uncertain endeavor. It has the basic character of a question. The first reaction that we have to a question is, of course, to look for an answer. There are many instances in which this is a productive way to tackle a question. Google is useful for many things, as is wikipedia. They provide answers.
However, there are certain aspects of experience that, perhaps strangely, appear as questions without answers. These aspects are usually denoted with words that are simultaneously powerful and vague: love, death, sex, birth, friendship, vocation. These elements of experience have in common an essential relation to uncertainty. They take the form of a question as a part of their very animating essence. We don't know how they will come out, and this is what actually makes them so valuable, so joyful. And so horrifying and tragic, sometimes all at once.
Though it is perhaps silly to put running on the same plane as some of these other more profound elements of life, it is related to these other aspects in this intimate relation to uncertainty. Because it shares this aspect of experience, running can become a practice of freedom. As in the other vague areas of life, the meaning of running is a consequence of the choices we make in our relations to it.
See, running presents itself to us as an underdetermined phenomenon. Outside of the choices that are made with respect to it, running means nothing at all. This is why the non-runner will never understand the meaning of running: the non-runner has made no choice with respect to the activity. Or perhaps more accurately stated, the non-runner has made a single choice: not to run. And that has determined the meaning of running for him to be nothing at all.
Because of the fundamental indeterminacy of running, we are free to create its meaning. This does not mean that we are free in some absolute sense to make running what we please. Only that through our engagement with the essential openness of running, through the experimental and provisional answers that we give to the questions it poses, we create, slowly through the years and the miles a meaning for running that is intimately bound up with the meanings and practices of the rest of our lives.
Over time, through the series of irrevocable and often thoughtless choices made with respect to this act, we make sense out of running. The act becomes a metaphor that the runner can use to understand the rest of life. The effort, the consistency, the joy, the pain, the failures, the successes, the friendships, the sense of place, the monotony, the mountains, the sidewalks, the surges, the work, the heartache, the beauty, the simplicity, the confusion, the suffering--all of these experiences that the runner creates out of his act--become templates for understanding himself and the world around him. We runners develop a set of meanings which help us to experience the rest of life in a richer way. Running, for the runner, is a practice of meaning. That's why it is a practice of freedom. It gives us the freedom to make some sense out of the sometimes crushing confusion of life.
That's why we don't say that we do races. Or simply that we run. We say we are runners. The running makes us who we are, for better or for worse.
Over the last few years, more and more people have been taking up running, and the internet has given us an intimate look into the process of becoming a runner. At first, the tendency is to react to the fundamental uncertainty of running by treating it as a problem to be solved. The new runner wants a plan, a principle, an answer. These answers are out there, totally google-able. Many, perhaps most, take them, follow them, run their marathon, check it off the list. They don't become runners, although they run. Their answers prevent the act from becoming one of freedom and of meaning. And that's just fine, so long as they find something.
But some lonely souls give enough of themselves over to running that its problems and possibilities get all wrapped up with the rest of the problems and possibilities of these essentially uncertain lives we live. There, in that confusion, running comes alive. These are the ones who have no choice but to become runners. They begin just heading down the road for whatever reason--to lose weight, to get out of the house, to move their bodies, to see the city, to catch a blast of winter wind in the face--and then they wake up one distant day, miles and miles down the road, having lived their way into an answer that has nothing to do with plans, pace, or with training advice.
The answer has to do with identity. These are runners. Their answer is that old problematic question, the essential uncertainty of life, and the only response they can find that is adequate to it, that can keep it living is the lonely beauty, the taste of copper, the wild rhythms, the movement, the strength, the friends, the fire and holy sweat.