The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable

There is a thread on the message board right now about whether running bums are sad or admirable. I find the thread sort of fascinating because you can't really separate out the sadness from the nobility of it. Most arguments against building your life around running in your 20s make an instrumental argument about that part of life. If you decide to become a running bum, the argument goes, you are sacrificing your future potentialities. You will wake up some day in your mid- to late- 30s with sore achilles tendons and nothing to fall back on except 15 years spent working stocking shoes in a running store. Many posters find this sad, and it might actually be.

But it's exactly this thought that is the nobility of the running bum lifestyle: the thought that life is not fundamentally instrumental in nature, that the present ought not be sacrificed to an unknown future. The running bum forsakes imagined possibilities of midlife success for all sorts of real immediacies: the feeling of strength in the well-trained body; the simple and ascetic discipline of the running life; the brotherly clan of training partners; the sensations that others will never have a chance to know: the body working at a level that others could literally never imagine: clipping off 5 minute mile after 5 minute mile, effortlessly, flying.

We wake again and again to ourselves in the middle of life somehow, bound to a contract of habit that we don't remember signing. This is the case for everyone. The running bum's contract is different than most. He seems barely to have a grip on life, a grip that is certain to fade as his body fades, as the miles rack up, as the tendons degenerate, as the muscles lose their elasticity, and the crows feet spread out from eyes too used to staring out at horizons to find their focus beneath the florescence of office lights. His plans only involve circles, outs and backs, open roads, open sky and lost dogs in the dead of night.

The running bum intuits what the rest of us also know: life is short and it will fade for us all. In the end all instrumentalities of life, all the best-made plans, lead us all into the ground. His choice is noble, as it honors the present. He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience.

This point comes for all of us, not just for running bums: the moment when we cease to trade the present for hopes only dimly imagined and decide to throw ourselves into the life that has chosen us. The moment feels something like this: we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped by the choices we've made and by the path that fate bore us down. Life forces us to choose to be who we have become -- the recklessness and singularity of this choice is our only chance at freedom.

The running bum makes this choice to become who he is early in life, long before most people even realize that life (or, to speak honestly, death) will force this choice. It is strange to see someone choose a life so young, when they are still in formation, when most of us believe that we still have many lives to live beyond the one that will inexorably happen to us.

The lives of others are always sad and always admirable. Singularity is like that. We are sad for the losses that others must endure. We wish that they had made better choices. We mourn for the futures they could not live and hope to make better choices than they did. But at the same time we also admire the lives of others because they chose differently. They took paths we did not dare to take, made choices when we lacked courage. They became who they are, and the otherness of that choice beckons us out of the narrowness of our own perspectives.

The lives of others always reflect the singularity of our own life: the fact that this life is mine alone, and I have chosen it. I chose it sometimes sadly and blindly, sometimes nobly and deliberately, and sometimes without knowing which was which until much, much later, and sometimes without knowing at all.


  1. Beautiful, Jeff. To feel sad that someone has chosen to create a life revolving around running is nothing but a projection of one's own false ideas that one exists on a higher ground and has chosen a lofty life. The word "bum" implies that someone has dropped out of hard-working society and is essentially doing something that has no meaning, worth or use to anyone else. These runners are using their freedom and creating a life. If a people can't see that for what it is, then they live with their own illusions, with those little circles of thoughts and beliefs they hold so dear that continue to make them believe in a false reality. One that has nothing to do with the personal experience of that runner. One that has everything to do with them missing the vast creativity endlessly emerging in the present moment, and never knowing that the picture in their mind has stolen from them a chance to fathom the subjectiveness of that woman or man with the runner's body selling you shoes and gels at the local running store.

  2. "This is the case for everyone."

    Uh, no, it's not. It may be the case for YOU.

    It's also pretty easy to me to "separate out the sadness from the nobility" because there's just no "nobility" in being what is essentially an immature loser one's whole life. You just can't talk me into thinking that the "running bum" "chooses" his "lifestyle" when really he just drifts along, never growing up, never, never, hoping that one day someone or something will just gift him with success somehow, until one day he is just out of options and then he still doesn't face up to it.

    "He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience." This is the very definition of immaturity. If one is 17, ok. If one is 35? Not noble. Childish.

    Can one run a lot and hold a productive job that ensures a stable future? Hell yes! Choosing to scrape along at shoe-store jobs (at best) because one can't bear to open one's mouth and issue sound if it isn't about running isn't noble.It's narcissistic. If you want to convince yourself that's a "false reality" then enjoy your bumhood but really, look around at the people trying to scrape up a sad hundred bucks so they can buy a race bib and hitch a ride to the start and beg for a place to crash after. They're not beating any system, that's for sure.

    1. I would be interested in your definition of "growing up" or "productive." There are many examples of people who on the surface seem to be very grown up and productive but who are actually doing more harm than good to the world (it would take too long to list all the "productive" occupations that employ "grown ups" who pollute the environment, encourage unnecessary consumption, exploit humans, etc, but I'm sure everyone knows a few). The running bum conversely, although in a state of protracted adolescence and engaged in a seemingly solipsistic pursuit that doesn't contribute to society, at least is not harming the world in any way. God bless the bums!

  3. Jeff,

    I have read this piece several times thinking of how to respond because it definitely stirs some thoughts in me. I certainly agree with what I think is your concluding point that we should avoid the judgment of others and take each encounter with other folks as an opportunity to see new perspectives or simply reflect more deeply on our own experiences. I also agree that rumination/retrospection sometimes gives us more of an illusion of control over our decisions than perhaps we actually have. What I find interesting is that after reading the initial LR message board the choice proposed seemed like less a false dichotomy and more like two simplistic choices between two false realities/straw men(I would say this type of hyperbole is the hallmark of any comments sections of the internet age...except on your blog). Reducing a life of "successful" running to an objective Olympic qualifier time and the alternative "successful" life to objective materialist gain denigrates both life and running(Ain't nothing simple). I think it boils down to individual expectations, tragedy/sadness results when expectations exceed the identity someone has chosen for themselves. Life to me seems to be a constant readjusting of expectations with the realities of the present(for runners or anyone else). Those who spend time to much time judging others are usually avoiding that painful and difficult task of self-analysis by attempting to universalize their own decisions/situations. Strangely I have more respect for those sub-elites who run 100+ weeks far beyond the point of professional glory because there satisfaction is not dependent on external accolades or new PRs but is something that comes internally from the very act of running itself. Been enjoying the recent entries keep it up.


  4. If you replace "running bum" with any other passionate pursuit, then this could reach a lot of folks. Thanks for the post.

  5. Reminded me of Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime, especially these two lines come into my mind from time to time, fearing them to be true, I guess:

    "You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
    You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife "

    I hope I am not living in a dream from where I sometime wake up to notice that I should have done something else.

  6. The core belief that causes one to relate to an image in one's brain (false reality) as opposed to reality (which is what is happening right now), is "if I believe it, it must be always be true." My belief about you encapsulates your reality and experience fully and truthfully.

  7. Late to the party, but anyhow I really like your blog. I find myself on the side of responsibility toward conventional choices. Now if you don't require much and don't ruin others lives in the process then maybe, in a secular world view, the bum perspective would be ok or acceptable.

    I come from a Classic Christian world view.

    I once had a family member that told me, I was 7 at the time; that he gave up his pick up truck because he didn't want to work - construction. To me his truck reallly was impressive and that news was not good, to a 7 year old. I was left underwhelmed, terribly. He went on to ruin some lives, had kids that he abandoned and what not but everyone gave him a pass, probably because he made them laugh. Wow, people bought cheaply.

    Anyhow, he eventually did drugs badly, that was the end of him actually. However, prior to his death he approached me and asked me if I could find some people for him on the internet. Whom, his abandoned kids. I thought to myself, "why would they want to hear from you". I was always cordial. I never did search for his sons and daughter. I don't think he reached them. Anyhow, he passed away alone, they found him after about 3 or 4 days. The cause of him becoming food for worms? Heroin.

    I don't know if he ever came to faith but I hope so. So for me, if you just live and go it solo then by all means. Now if you are a Christian then obviously that prescription is completely wrong - be a fisher of men.

    Before I quote her, I'll say Ayn Rand was too smart to be an atheist, alas.

    "You can avoid reality, but you can't avoid the consequences of avoiding reality."

    If your reality is "Self" then whoa, that's an interesting way to live. (Wade "protracted adolescence and engaged in a seemingly solipsistic pursuit that doesn't contribute to society, at least is not harming the world in any way") In the immediate and toward the end of life; unless you have a trust fund to have nursery care to your last breathe. Maybe the nurses in the old folks warehouse can be the pallbearers, :) just kidding.

    But yes, I do think that it is probably awesome to be able to take your body to the limits and fly while blowing through many miles at 4:50.


  8. You didn't help someone find his abandoned kids and your worry upon his passing by OD on heroin is you hope he came to faith? Maybe you could have helped a whole lot more by not caring what religion he was signed onto and help him as a human being.

  9. Or, you can do like me, and have an awesome career that you are excited about being a part of every day when you wake up, AND run a hell of a lot. The best part is, because of my awesome career, I can afford to pay for races, travel to those races, treat myself to nice meals after those races, have nice gear and shoes, look forward to going back to work the next day, and never be called a bum by anyone while simultaneously enjoying every day of my life!


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