All my life I’ve hated to run. It’s as excruciatingly boring as it is painful. Running for its own sake—not as training for another sport or to simply get in shape—belongs in the realm of psychopathy and masochism. Or so I thought, until I ran my first marathon and loved every moment of it.
Why would I decide to run 26 miles and 385 yards if I hated to run, especially when I haven’t run so much as a 5k? I’m really not sure. Maybe it was a personal challenge. Maybe when I pulled off on the highway as I drove from LA to Boston to register for the race on my phone, it was out of spite for having to sit for so long. Maybe the purgatorial cornfields in the Midwest drove me to insanity.
Regardless, I found myself 63 days later back in my college town for the Vermont City Marathon. The race welcomed 3,652 marathoner and several thousand more relay runners as we ventured out in the Memorial Day heat. In fact, it was so hot and humid—people were dropping as frequently as empty water cups—the marathon organizers decided to call the race nearly four hours after the gun.
By the time the officials cancelled it, I was approaching mile 24. When the workers tried to block the path and get us to walk toward the shuttle back to the finish area, I looked to the guy next to me for some guidance. He just laughed dismissively and kept running, as did I.
In retrospect the race being cancelled was actually a massive resilience boost for me. At that point in the race I had been seriously struggling and sometimes nothing is more motivating than an authority to rebel against. I hustled on and finished strong through the finish line. I will never forget the feeling that overcame me as I rounded the last corner and glided through a sea of spectators lining either side of the finish line. It’s a feeling that can only be described as: invincible.
I will always think back to that moment and be transported to a euphoric place, much in the way certain songs immediately transport you back years to the moment you heard it live in concert. Music has the curious ability to deliver us unto pleasure, even in the grips of pain. Perhaps that’s why so many runners depend on the right playlist to get them through a grueling run. And yet, for the exact same reason, the best decision I made on race day was to ditch my headphones.
About a week earlier, as I was gearing up for my training plan’s penultimate long run, I couldn’t find my headphones anywhere. I nearly began to panic. I couldn’t fathom running ten miles without blasting Chance the Rapper’s new album or zoning out to Kamasi Washington. I equated running in silence to torture. However, I eventually reckoned that running over 26 miles the next week would be torturous with music or not, so I may as well get used to being miserable. I set out for a 10-miler, untethered, victim to my vicious thoughts.
And a victim I was. The dread of silence for the next hour or so was demoralizing. I tried to rap some songs from memory in my mind. But my mind would drift from song to song in fractious shifts like a static-addled radio controlled by a madman. I kept vowing to buy a spare pair of headphones for the marathon. And then something changed.
Late in the run I broke through my mental barrier and realized, despite the lack of music, that I was…having fun. How could that be?
For the previous hour I hadn’t been fussing with the buds popping out of my ears, or worrying about skipping tracks when one started playing I didn’t like, or fiddling with my iPod to fast forward past a dull intro. I had simply been running.
I may not have transcended my craving for distraction, exactly, but I certainly became aware of it. And in doing so I began to conquer it.
It also wildly enhanced my marathon experience.
The community was astonishing. Thousands of cheering spectators and generous neighbors showed up bearing snacks and dousing runners with sprinklers. Runners were also overly supportive of one another, helping those who’d begun staggering and encouraging each other with kind words. Local bands were set up intermittently along the course. Friendly conversations sparked up among runners throughout. The abrupt camaraderie of the atmosphere filled my heart.
And I would’ve missed it all had I been listening to music.
All my life I’ve hated to run. But now I know why: it’s too abstract. Running is a sport preoccupied with abstraction—we micromanage time elapsed, mileage, pacing. Our entire experience of a run is often reduced to mere numbers. Running, we usually feel like little more than blips moving gradually along a mental timeline from start to finish. Music only serves to make further the abstraction. Each song becomes another unit to measure our runs with. What I soon found is that without music, my obsession with timing slowly began to fade. My pacing took care of itself, and I became present in the physical world. The surface below my feet, as well as my experience of the race, became resolutely concrete.
There’s nothing wrong with abstraction, but it is a lonely enterprise. As we concern ourselves with the finest measurements of distances and calories and paces, we become further cloistered away in our own thoughts.
Running is solitary enough as it is. When it comes to basking in the thrill of a run, at the very least come race day, ditch the headphones. You can thank me later.