Running Free

This is the second post by longtime friend and guest blogger, Zach V. I'm always excited to have different voices and perspectives speak out on philosophy and running. Thanks, Zach!
As soon as the division of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. -- Karl Marx

If you’re a runner, you’re probably a Marxist. That’s because--strange as it might sound today--Marx was fundamentally concerned with human freedom. And what is more liberating than running?

When runners are asked why they run, they often say that they want to ‘get away from it all’, to feel ‘self-reliant’, or to simply be ‘free’, as a recent advertising campaign phrases it.

This, however, is a weak notion of freedom, as Marx (and Hegel before him) realized, because it is merely negative. When you’re defined in terms of what you’re not, you’re not really making a meaningful statement about what you are. The Bill of Rights, for example, lays out numerous negative freedoms. You cannot be barred from speaking your mind in America. But this kind of freedom doesn't prevent the quality of what is said today from being very bad.

marx-bio.jpg (9551 bytes)
An attorney, scholar, activist, president of a drinking club, facial hair champion, and ultramarathon runner.

A more positive notion of freedom and a more accurate description of why we run would have to do more than say what we're not. It would have to take into account the creativity inherent in human nature and the reality of what people actually do with their freedom.

It’s for these reasons that Marx thought action was what defined people. It enslaved them or made them free. You are what you do. And, in Marx’s time like today, many people do not harness their full creative powers. Marx saw that those with money just let other people do things for them. Those who had to work in factories became machines themselves, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The society Marx envisioned wasn’t one ruled by the Inner Party. It was governed by Renaissance men and women who were free to make the lives they wanted to live and become the people they wanted to become. Marx wanted the ideal of the Renaissance to be shared by everyone, not just a privileged few.

Today, many people run when they have absolutely no reason to. Your grandad would have thought you were crazy for running. A lot of people still think we’re crazy. Sure, there is the runner’s high. And it’s a great stress-reliever. But I think something else is going on here.

Maybe we don’t have to run, but we still need to run because we’re complex and creative beings who want to accomplish things--the true definition of freedom. What is more liberating than being able to say, “I ran a 5k” or “I ran a marathon”?


There are, of course, other ways of fashioning ourselves than by running. But since many of us now have desk jobs in air-conditioned office parks, running makes a lot of sense. After exhausting days at the office, we still have the energy to run because it stimulates a whole different set of activities and thoughts.

Running is one part of my quest to improve myself, fulfill my capacities, and continue to be more free. When I think of who I want to be, it’s not a Runner, or a Programmer, or a Partner. It’s all of these things, and more. It’s the man Marx wanted to be--or at least the one he wanted everyone to be able to be.


  1. I think the issue comes in when we use labels inherited from our actions. I am not a runner, I am not a Programmer; I am me, a person who spends time running and programming. Why do I spend time doing those things? Because I enjoy them, they give me pleasure, and I am able to decide to do what I want.

    I think Marx is drawing upon the idea that people tend to identify themselves as their professions. However, I do not think that means a person is trapped in that role; we can change, even if that change is difficult, assuming that we truly WANT to change. Most people say they want to change, may even believe it some point, but deep down, they are freaked out by change. It is natural, we do not deal well being outside of what we know.

    Which is really why running can be important for people. It forces you to adopt constant change; your body, mind, and spirit will be constantly shifting to adapt to the new rigors you place upon them. Running serves as a way to introduce more change into your life in a fashion that can be private, giving you the opportunity to focus on your own successes and failures without the harsh light of outside observers trying to categorize and label you.

  2. Thanks for reading, Scout7.

    I think this is a great point and something I didn't mention in my post. Action is freeing because it changes us. But it can also enslave us if we get stuck in the same rut over and over again--whether in our relationships, work, or hobbies. For this reason, I often think that to get better at something (like running), we should sometimes stop doing that thing. I'm not talking about cross-training but doing something really different. Judo, maybe. Painting. Reading poetry. These might help with balance, grace, appreciation, or who knows what else.

  3. Hey Zach, thanks for posting this!

  4. @Zach

    "...I often think that to get better at something (like running), we should sometimes stop doing that thing. I'm not talking about cross-training but doing something really different. Judo, maybe. Painting. Reading poetry. These might help with balance, grace, appreciation, or who knows what else. "

    Or discussing philosophy!

    But I definitely agree. It can be easy to fall into the "same ol', same ol'" trap.


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