By Jenna Schifferle
For years, the merits of long-distance running have been debated by researchers. On one end of the spectrum, some argue that distance running is hard on the joints and can lead to injuries. These people often claim that it’s not natural to run that far and that it can have a negative impact on the body. On the other hand, some argue that distance running keeps your heart healthy and your legs strong. Apart from applauding the physical benefits, they also extol the mental benefits and praise how running makes your mind tougher. Cultures around the world even go so far as to elevate running to that of the divine.
The Tarahumara, for example, are a tribe of people who live in the mountains of Copper Canyon near Chihuahua, Mexico. For members of the Tarahumara, running is a focal point and an impulse as innate as breathing. Families spend days running the valleys, often in sweltering conditions. These journeys are a time to bond and play as they move together toward a common goal. Running unites them and elicits a sense of purpose for their community.
Likewise, in Japan, there is a subset of monks who use running as a path to enlightenment. Dubbed the “Marathon Monks,” this group of holy men resides in the Enryaku Temple at the top of Mount Hiei. As part of their monastic preparations, they practice running meditation and run 50 kilometers around the mountain. The next day, they repeat this practice. And the next day? They do it again. This journey is taken every day for 100, 700, or 1,000 days. It brings the monk to the brink of exhaustion as a way to force their mind into the present and help them connect to their surroundings.
While the 1,000-day journey may seem extreme, there is some truth to the practice. Running calms racing thoughts and provides a clarity that borders on being spiritual. Even when you’re tired and want to stop, your mind is there with you. This is major in a world where we’re always somewhere else, thinking about a never-ending to-do list. Running brings you into the moment and connects you to a community of other runners.
And yes, it is true that when your legs turn to lead at mile 12, running certainly doesn’t feel natural. In that moment, the thought of stopping is the only thing that actually does. Yet, that’s exactly the moment when the real magic of running happens. So, while I may not be able to settle the debate on whether or not distance running is “natural” (heaven knows I’ve experienced my share of injuries), I do know that I get stronger with every mile. I’ve trained up to 16 miles, but every day that I get out there is still a blessing.
“Writer on the Run” is a monthly column written by Jenna Schifferle of Cheektowaga. She chronicles her experience training for the Chicago Marathon in October.