Sometimes, running is simply the worst. I’m allowed to say that, right?

I mean think about it … It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable.

Hell, statistics show that 60-70% of us get injured each year.

Like I said, the worst. So why do we run?

Do me a favor and think back on when you first started running. What was it that actually motivated you enough to go out and log those very first miles? Chances are it wasn’t a set distance, like to run a marathon. Instead, it was probably everything that comes with a goal like running a marathon:

  • Discipline
  • Fitness and endurance
  • Weight-loss
  • Stress reduction
  • Time alone
  • Adventure
  • Enjoyment

Those are the motivators that get us on the pavement or trail. But somewhere along the line, most of us lose sight of our original intentions.

The motivation for running shifts from pleasure to chasing a specific race goal, getting faster, or training harder. It gets broken down into weekly plans, and each week into daily runs, miles, splits, and segments. All of a sudden, we’re so caught up in the endless cycle of improving or progressing, we lose sight of the big picture for singular moments and quick thrills. I call that the improvement loop, and it never ends.

The problem with those moments and quick thrills? They’re fleeting.

Moments come, moments go. We spend all this time focused on a single event or goal, and once it’s over, we’re right where we started, looping back towards the next big thing.

Yup, running can be the worst.

Truth is in the Poison Ivy

A few weeks ago I sit at my desk, pantless (more on that later), to type out a few answers for an interview.

“What was your running highlight from the past year?”

That’s one of the first questions, and oddly enough, one of the toughest.

Like most of you when asked a question like that, my initial thoughts dart towards a specific moment — a PR or a big race.

I had a lot of good running moments in 2015: my first ultramarathon win, and a few other big, successful races.

At the same time, I dealt with several blows I didn’t see coming. A severe bout of post-race blues left me unmotivated for months, and in September a mid-race realization that I wanted to quit had me questioning my desire to run at all.

Then, last month, about 24 hours after I finish the Sky to Summit 50k, I wake up itching. The small red dots I can barely make out in a dimly lit bathroom are the first sign of the worst case of poison ivy I’ve ever seen.

Which brings me back to working with no pants on. No joke, I can’t put on pants for days, and more importantly can’t run for weeks.

For months long stretches of this year, overwhelmed by training and the pressure of the constant improvement loop, I searched for a good excuse not to run, only to come up empty. Finally I have an excuse — a swollen, itchy, pus filled excuse — and surprisingly, I don’t want it.

Funny how that happens.

As I spend these weeks on the couch, logging hours of Game of Thrones instead of miles, a few things become clear. The first is that it’s alright to pause and give yourself a break. The second is that I prefer working in my boxers, but that’s neither here nor there.

The break forces me to gain perspective. To ditch the mileage stats, and think about why I want to run so badly in the first place. I find myself thinking back to what brought me to this sport, and it’s those reasons that leave me sticking around.

Take a Giant Step Back

As the new year approaches, and you look forward towards new goals or resolutions (and continue that search for new and exciting moments ), take the time to get poison ivy.

Just play’n.

Take the time to first step back.

Instead of focusing just on running goals for the future, think back on those initial motivators, and the true highlights of your year of running.

While attempting to answer that interview question for myself, I discover that my highlights aren’t a win or other specific races.

They’re the experiences of training for and running those races with loved ones around me. They’re the bond with my local running community and mountains that continues to grow stronger. They’re the discipline, day after day. And they’re exploring new trails and new routes with new friends.

It’s the big picture of running as a whole, which makes this past year, and this sport, so great. When we get stuck in the improvement loop, and lose sight of the big picture, all that joy shifts to PRs, splits, and moments.

Moments may define a great run, but they are not what makes running great.

I have specific goals for 2016, and I’ll fight for results that push my boundaries, just as I often encourage you to do. But more importantly, I’ll aim to focus on the things that really matter. The motivators from the very beginning that still ring true today.

I hope you will too.

Because those are what will bring the most joy, and isn’t that what makes running so not the worst?


Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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2 thoughts on “Bring Joy Back to Running

  1. Great piece Doug – and you hit the nail on the head. I know this, since I’m not a racer, so I don’t get too stuck in that loop, though I still like to improve. For me running is a wonderful time I get to be on my own, doing what I enjoy so much – without the stress of striving for times in particular, though I do strive for distances and trying out trails – I never let it get me to the point where I’m so stressed I don’t enjoy it any more. If that day comes then I’ll find something else to do to keep fit!

  2. Perfect and timely post Doug. Yesterday my phone rang and I figured it was my running friend David to cancel our Thursday run, yes it was David but to make sure I was still meeting him as it was bucketing down as it always does in the tropics. I made my way down the mountain and along the flooded roads on my Motorbike to his house, we then ran in the rain and it was fantastic fun. The mountain tracks were like torrents, fallen trees to jump, a real hoot.

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