On the Feeling of Wisdom

Okay, check this article out from the Guardian.

The article talks about a short film that is a series of snippets of conversations with runners as they ran through a park in England. The film is only 11 minutes long and worth a watch.

So opines the Guardian article about the film: "These questions (Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?) are hard to ask and are not often answered sincerely. Through their steps, their breaths and their focus, runners can answer them." I find this to be true, or at least it feels like it's true. But if it's so true, where do those answers go when the run finishes? I know a lot of runners, and they frankly seem just as screwed up as the rest of humanity.

Ed Whitlock, wise and fast.
What is this runner's consciousness that brings the feeling of answers? Studies have found that running produces endocannabinoids, of which the phytocannabinoids found in marijuana are a close cousin. So, yes, there is a runner's high. As with all altered states, the truths discovered therein seem somewhat difficult to take with us back to sobriety, and that's because altered states of consciousness can often give us the feeling that what we are saying is true without really bringing us any closer to the truth.  Anyone who has been around anyone in an altered state while sober knows this. 

[I googled "deep conversation while high," and this was the first website that came up. I think it proves my point. Folks with a more philosophical bent may also be interested in this William James essay, which relates the experience of truth that Hegel gives us to getting high on Nitrous Oxide: "The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.": "Something 'fades,' 'escapes;' and the feeling of insight is changed into an intense one of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion, astonishment: I know no more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself. It seems, indeed, a causa sui, or 'spirit become its own object.'"]

When I think about my own running, I want to tease apart the feeling of having answers to questions from the actual having of those answers, and at least leave that difference as an open question with respect to what's going on. The difference between the feeling of knowing and actually knowing would be the difference between running as getting high on endorphines and running as a spiritual practice. The one would be an escape, the other a form of insight.

A primary theme of this blog is that running is an avenue to truth, that traipsing down that long lonely road has something to do with pursuing wisdom. Recently a reader wrote me to say, "you seem to be able to put into words what we can only express in those fleeting moments of ceaseless pain and the ever-escaping "runner's high." That's high praise. But I always feel like I am talking around the insights that I get as a runner, gesticulating towards them, never quite grasping them, never quite remembering what it was that I almost understood. If I am so wise, why do I keep screwing shit up?

Every philosopher in history has noted the relationship between courage and truth. Socrates' great virtue was his parrhesia; his frank speech the direct sign of his wisdom. In running, we reach an less inhibited, more frank, way of being. The pounding and the rhythms, the brisk breeze and the endocannabinoids, sorta shake the truth out of us. This courage running gives us is not the sloppy courage of wine or the brash and belligerent whisky bravado. Our veritas comes in different flavors. The runner's courage is a relaxed and goofy sort of courage, founded less in our own confidence and more in trust of others. It makes us feel sane and connected, strangely vulnerable and also safe.

So maybe it's this: if there's truth or insight in running, it's less in the having of an answer and more in the bold confidence running gives us that someone out there -- a fellow running companion, the spouse back home, the boss, the colleague -- might hear us when we speak whatever answers we have. They might laugh at our jokes or feel our pain. We don't really find the answers out there on the road, but we feel a bit more confident that the half-reaches and guesses out of which we construct these experimental and half-baked lives might be worth sharing with someone else. We remember, in short, that we aren't alone -- or better, that we are alone, but alone along with everyone else.

Is that realization itself an answer or a key to life? No, not really. The pounding-drug-medicine wears off, and back in reality those half-worked out truths once spoken don't always find ears to hear. We return to life's hard questions. We find ourselves alone, alone. So it goes.

Or at least it goes like this until the next escape, when we find ourselves once more out there, running with the runner-geeks, alive and open and exposed, speaking frankly and sometimes even being heard.


  1. Beautiful and frank. I also am a fan of your work, having been reading for about six months now, and I don't think I've commented yet. This piece reminded me of a quote once shared by a friend after I wrote a blog post expressing similar thoughts about climbing mountains.

    You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

    - Rene Daumal

  2. How often does a runner truly experience a runner's high?

    I remember an old school runner's world article written by amby burfoot (back in the day before rw's re-branding) about the existence of the runner's high. If I remember the gist of the article right, Amby did not question the existence of the runner's high, but questioned the ease of which it is experienced. In his many years of running, he only had (at the time) one run highlighted where it felt effortless, transcendental, in the zone.

    Every time I go out running I enjoy it. If I am not enjoying it when I begin, then at some point in the middle there is a transition point. I always feel invigorated directly after I finish - regardless if it is a tempo, speed session or easy run - but I don't think I would want to testify in front of my peers and a judge that I regularly experience a runner's high. My state of being is rarely ever raised, but that is not to say my emotion or attitude is not improved.

    Though, I would have to say that running is an excellent vehicle towards a greater truth. Some of my stronger friendships/relationships were formed on the run. There is something pure and raw about sharing a run (esp a hard one) with someone that enables the two of us to understand each other in a stronger sense than other relationships (even if the actual verbal communication during the run was minimal).

    Not sure of the relevancy of all that, but this post inspired my thinking a little.


  3. "It would be bluffing to claim that I can give answers. As I always repeat, what we philosophers can do is just correct the questions."
    -Slavoj Zizek (I thin you would like this guys philosophies)

    Running is the colander for my ideas it seems to separate the frivolous from the necessary rather effectively


  4. Huge fan of your work, Jeff. This was a fantastic essay that articulated what so many of us can only somewhat gesticulate toward and never satisfactorily reach. People who don't run inevitably don't 'get' what running is all about, or why people would bother to do it in the first place when there are so many far easier or sexier ways of 'getting in shape,' whatever that means. You fantastically articulated one of the many reasons that keeps me out there day after day, year after year. This sport gives me a weird, indescribable type of quiet confidence that few things in life afford me. Not many things can I say both humble me and empower me simultaneously. Again... well done.

  5. "We remember, in short, that we aren't alone -- or better, that we are alone, but alone along with everyone else." (quoted from blog above)

    That's it! You gave me the chills with that blog post, especially the part I just quoted; I glimpsed the duality. Thank you. It was much needed and deeply appreciated. I bless you and wish you continued and deepening insight.

  6. Running brings you a little bit closer to the speed of light, which I believe distorts perception ever so slightly, and when you return home, your family is a bit older and you haven't aged as much as they. This was one brilliant insight I had during a run that I managed to take away from it, though it seems highly derivative. It surely seemed original when I was high on my endocannabinoids (which I call Violet Moonshine). When I told my wife she wasn't impressed and made me kneel before her poster of Einstein and recite the theory of special relativity while she teased my hair into a frenzy. (Nice work, Jeff. Currently, your blog is must-read)--Jimmy :)

  7. Just discovered your blog and I find it truly inspirational and informative. I've never thought of running in some of the ways that you have mentioned. I read your first post and it made me think about what I think about during my races and what I could do to keep up my pace while not thinking about what I'm doing, especially during XC meets such as State. I thought that a 5K was long enough to race, but a marathon?! I truly admire you. I also thought a 3200 was long just going round and round a track seeing the same thing over and over for 8 laps. I hope you read this.

    P.S. you know me and were my coach last year and helped me get through the toughest workout training for the championship season.


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