May 19, 2017

By Yitka Winn

Some people assume that long-distance runners must find things to think about to survive the monotony of our endeavor, that hours spent running are a black hole — a dull vacuum in need of filling.

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And yet, many people yearn for that experience — a quiet mind emptied of its everyday clutter. We strive for that nirvana by meditating, practicing yoga, or grumbling to our friends about never having time to just be.

Long-distance running is a way of being.

People often ask me, “What do you think about when you run for hours?”

It’s less what I think about, and more what I don’t. When I’m not running (and often during my first few warm-up miles), my mind is nearly always a pinball machine. Haphazard thoughts, anxieties, to-do list items and the flotsam of day-to-day communications bounce around with great clamor.

There is something about the low but steady amount of mental energy it takes to put one foot in front of the other. It requires just enough energy that the pinball machine can’t run at full power, but not so much that it inhibits dreaming up big ideas or brainstorming solutions to challenges. My brain works better at six miles an hour than it does sitting behind a desk.

Unleashing Creativity

In fact, in the absence of the usual torrent of thoughts, I find that long runs frequently unleash waves of creativity. And, in a way I find almost impossible to replicate in other aspects of my life, running helps my mind stay present to what’s happening around me on a very literal level.

Whether I’m running in the city or in the mountains, my mind occupies itself with the simple pleasures of observation; I can bask for miles in the joy of seeing a bald eagle circle overhead, or a fern frond dotted with dew, or a poem that someone has hung on the fence in her front yard for passersby to read.

Long runs also help me stay mindful of the physical sensations in my body, enjoying them (at least sometimes), and recalibrating as needed — slow down, speed up, stop to stretch, relax the breath, eat something.

This attention, too, is a rare gift in our modern society, where it’s possible to spend days on end interacting numbly with screens and the digital world, rather than engaging vibrantly with the raw, physical one.

Of course, not all runs deliver unbridled, Zen-like joy. As ultramarathoner Scott Jurek once wrote, “The ultra distance leaves you alone with your thoughts to an excruciating extent. Whatever song you have in your head had better be a good one.”

Tricks and Distractions

For runs that prove challenging mentally, there are tricks and distractions: music or podcasts to listen to, math problems to mull over (“How fast do I need to run to finish in this amount of time?” or “How many milkshakes can I reasonably consume later today?”), gratitudes to enumerate, or mantras to repeat. A few classics include “Dig deep,” “You’re stronger than you think you are,” or “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

My favorite mantra is one I borrowed from the University of Washington’s rowing program, as made famous by the book, Boys in the Boat. It is this: “MIB,” which stands for “Mind in boat.” Even though my boat is a pair of running shoes, the mantra reminds of me of a valuable lesson I’ve relearned on many a long run: The mind is more powerful when focused than it is when distracted.

Yitka Winn is a Seattle-based freelance writer, avid mountain runner and OutdoorsNW’s On the Run columnist. Follow her adventures at yitkawinn.com or on Instagram @yitkawinn.