The Solitude of the Long Distance Runner

During this week’s long run I listened to an archived Desert Island Disc interview, with Tom Hanks. Although I’ve watched many of his movies, I hadn’t noticed the theme of loneliness which runs through pretty much all of them.

Big, The Man with One Red Shoe, The Terminal, Castaway, Philadelphia, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close, Captain Phillips, A Hologram for the King, Bridge of Spies… across a long and varied career of comedy, romance and high drama, perhaps Hank’s enduring appeal is watching someone very ordinary wrestle with something so familiar: feeling like they’re safe, they belong, they’re at home.

I’ve noticed in reading various running biographies that many runners have experienced battles with loneliness, poor self-esteem or feeling unaccepted. In running, they find something they can do, on their own terms. It’s freeing, and empowering. It’s a process which allows us to see our own growth, and challenge ourselves to become stronger, or faster, or endure more, at a pace we set; no-one else’s evaluation is necessary. And quickly, these runners find that they’re capable of so much more than anyone ever imagined—including themselves.

And the pattern then, so often, is that formerly fragile, withdrawn people start to make connections with other runners: they join clubs, they become familiar with the usual suspects at local races, they go along to a parkrun or a bootcamp and make friends there. From beginning to believe in ourselves, we start to see the potential in others, and want to encourage and build one another up to be our strongest, boldest, best selves.

This time of year, you see lots of new faces on familiar running routes. I love witnessing people grabbing the New Year’s Resolution Bull by its intimidating horns, and pushing through fear and inertia and laziness and embarrassment and discomfort and unfamiliarity—digging out some trainers and just having a go. It reminds me how grateful I am that every day brings the possibility of a new start; an opportunity to do more, to be more.

In his interview, Hanks said that “loneliness is to be avoided; solitude is to be sought”. I think running can provide a critical opportunity to seek out solitude daily, finding space to sift through the noise of our lives; allow the truth to float to the top. I often listen to podcasts during runs, but much more significantly, I use my runs to think, to pray, and to reflect.

I know it’s a hackneyed old cliché, but it’s still very true that we can be surrounded by people but feel alone. When I’m struggling, when long-fought battles seem overwhelming, I can start to feel disconnected and lonely, right in the middle of my closest family and dearest friends. Running provides a place of alone-ness where I can connect to God, and where He can help me to re-connect to other people when I get back home.

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A favourite part of one of my favourite routes, especially beautiful in the frost

Outside I breath deeply; I see some natural beauty, and I become conscious that I have a body which can do what I tell it to. These are all things to be thankful for—and when life is hard, thankfulness is a good place to start. Running’s not the only tool for good spiritual and mental health, but (in concert with some other important patterns) it’s one which works really well for me.

So if you’re finding that life is noisy and crowding you out, go for a run. You’ll be glad you did.

Running streak total today is 388 days, 1566 miles. #runeveryday

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