James Kelly’s Marathon Blog

What I think about when I’m running

hare and hounds James Kelly London Marathon marathon

What I Think About When I Think About Running

I’m often asked what I think about when I run. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

Haruki Murakami

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked what I think about on long runs and whether or not I get bored, then I could probably afford to turn on the central heating.  Or maybe even by some land in Greece – the government’s probably pretty desperate for a bit of investment!

But just because the question has been asked repeatedly doesn’t mean it isn’t an interesting one.  In fact, it gets to the very heart of what is so beautiful and rewarding about distance running.  Allow me to explain.

Before I do I want to stress that my answer is personal, though others perhaps share elements or even whole parts of my conclusions.  I do know that I’m not alone in finding distance running to be life-affirming.

Haruki Murakami gives his own reflections – and is ultimately able to describe his thoughts while running – in his memoirs entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in the connection between the physical and the artistic in distance running.  (If his publishers are reading, can they please get in touch – I’d really like to turn on the central heating!)

So what is it I think about when I’m running, and do the long runs bore me?  Well, I think about nothing at all.  And it’s wonderful.  If I were a psychologist, I’d probably tell you that we are exposed to so many stimuli in the modern world that our brains rarely have time to rest.

Throughout the day we’re exposed to flashing lights, background noises and a plethora of fleeting aromas from food, cosmetics, industry, etc.  And occasionally we even actively use our brains, perhaps to write an essay, to solve an equation, to hold a conversation or to navigate the final stages of Halo 3.

Then there’s running.  All the background distractions disappear – the eyes focus on an indiscriminate point on the horizon, it’s impossible to hear anything above the rhythmical intakes and outtakes of breath, and the wind cycles fresh air through the nostrils.

It’s a rare opportunity for the brain to take a break and to allow the mechanical processes to take over, to obey that instinct, driven almost without direction by every cell in the body, to put one foot in from of the other, to drive the arms and to chase down the horizon.  It is freedom in its purest form, with no other physical or mental demands save the tiny, almost inaudible voice that urges, “Faster! Faster!”

There is a lot to be learned from the emptiness; that vacuum of conscious thought.  I can almost sense every little signal travelling at speed from brain to muscle.  I can almost hear the energy-production machinery cranking into action.

I can almost feel the red blood cells greedily binding the oxygen molecules brought in through the lungs.  The very mysteries of life – at least in a physiological sense – seem at once miraculous and common place, deeply meaningful and yet trivial.  And I sound like a pretentious git!

The runs also give me the opportunity – freed from thought and with freedom of motion – to learn about myself.  To learn to what extent body bends to will and to explore the physical limits of my athletic abilities.  To learn what forces propel me onwards and what fears hold me back. To confront pain and consequently to encounter life in its sharpest focus.

So really there’s a lot to be gained from clearing the mind.  I don’t think about anything when I run, and I have a really good time doing it.  I’m sure Murakami would agree.