On the Runner's Dissatisfaction

Looking back upon the time that I was running hard, the thing that strikes me most was how little satisfaction I took in my fitness.

The drive to train can be cast in a positive light as a sort of drive to athletic perfection, a noble quest to be better today than we were yesterday. Each run a testament to the high-school coach's simple minded but effective euphemisms about work, practice, effort, will. Yes, we take pride in our discipline, and the lean and honed body of the runner reflects it and displays it.

But -- but, every runner who has really given himself over to the sport knows that the intensity and effort of training is also fed by darker and wilder motives and impulses. Driving through a set of quarters in the dripping August humidity, rolling steadily on tired legs through yet-another 10 miler -- this is not the stuff of cheery euphemism. If I remember correctly, it was hardly ever the thought of improvement that got me out the door. Dissatisfaction, though -- that did the trick.

Indeed, it is possible to generalize on this point. Runners are a dissatisfied lot. We want more, almost always. Yes, PRs or the occasional great race brings feelings of joy and accomplishment. We use these moments as justification for all our suffering, and perhaps spouses and friends over for dinner parties see the occasional running trophy or marathon medal as evidence that we do it for the moments of triumph. There is a reason, though, that running trophies are made out of cheap plastic: they reflect the value of satisfaction in relation to the rest.

Nice as they are, these moments of satisfaction are fleeting in relation to the time spent brooding and pondering, mulling workouts and strategies, wracking our brains for what went wrong in the last training cycle and what might, this time, go a bit better. We run a great workout and then want the next one to be even better. We run a great race and within the hour have ramped up expectations for the next outing. Yesterday's dream hollows out into the bare fact of what we've done, which is not enough.

For me there have always been two well-springs of motivation. The first is simple bodily immediacy: the joy of being outside, the glut of sensation, the intimacies of cold and heat and rain and breeze, the tireless and animal feelings of the well-trained body -- all of these immediacies that every runner knows. These feed and fund us as runners, outside of any thought of purpose or goal.

The second spring of motivation is the more consistent, and it this feeling of dissatisfaction I've been discussing. The thought that I could always be better was not the reason I ran; it was a reflection of an even deeper, almost metaphysical dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is no choice or attitude, no thought or mantra: it was the reason for, not the consequence of, my choices and attitudes towards running.

Please don't be confused: it's not that I was unhappy. Dissatisfaction is quite different from unhappiness. Unhappiness is not an active state: its pain is passivity. That said, to be dissatisfied is not a pleasant feeling, and I am not even sure it leads to pleasant feelings or can be justified that way. The dissatisfaction I remember lies outside this sort of economy of exchange.

This sort of motivating dissatisfaction is more like the drive or hum of a heavy diesel engine. It works and hums and labors in us without end, like the beating of waves against the sand and the bee hives that have buzzed a single note since the beginning of time, connecting the runner to the endless churning dissatisfaction of the world itself.


  1. I don't think you could've written a better definition / explanation of "dukha" if you tried. Exceptional writing, as always.

    1. Thanks -- just looked up "dukkha" (my knowledge of Buddhism is almost nothing), and I see definite resonances -- at least from the wikipedia page. I actually was reading D.T. Suzuki's primer on Buddhism the other day, so maybe he influenced me without me knowing.

  2. Great read! you rock Jeff!

  3. This is what I see: The coach told us to have a rest week, but the naughty kids that we were still met for the morning runs... Now if I miss a morning run I know it doesn't hard my training, but I really feel it as I drive to work and see other guys out on their morning runs!

  4. Nice post, Jeff. Approaching my "next big effort" here come Monday, your thoughts are a little sobering though not inaccurate. Still I run (and you run) and will chase that nice but fleeting moment coming across the line perhaps a little faster than ever before.

  5. thanks, jeffer. it's nice to feel that i am not alone with this dissatisfaction thing... for me, it's pervasive, it's how i feel about my job, my relationships, my hobbies, my fitness. it's never good enough, but (and i know you know this because you've explained it more clearly) it's (usually...!) a driver of progress, not a producer of depression. when i don't seem to be making any progress anywhere - or worse than plateauing, when i seem to be slipping in more than one or two areas - that's when it all becomes like drowning. simply not being satisfied is swimming, making progress. nobody wants to drown, but some folks are perfectly content to tread water and some need to move.


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