An Open Letter to the Non-Runner

I know what you’re thinking: Here’s another self-righteous asshole trying to tell me what to do. Up on his high horse, berating my sedentary lifestyle, tossing around phrases like “obesity epidemic” and “heart disease”.  Making grandiose claims about brain chemistry, all while promising a decrease in body fat and an increase in energy. 

But that’s not what I’m here to do.  I want to talk about running in the context of our culture.  I want to talk about running as a way to escape. 

I used to be just like you.  There was nothing about running that appealed to me.  I used to sit behind the wheel of my car and scoff at the idiots running by in their short little running shorts and stupid visors.  I would laugh at their sweat stained shirts as the artificially cooled air spilled out of the vents and into my face. 

“Why would anyone want to run, just for the sake of running?” I would often wonder.  It just didn’t make sense.  It was too simple to be attractive. There were no bells and whistles.  It wasn’t exciting enough. “If I want to do cardio, I’ll just play basketball.  Then at least the running has a purpose beyond just… running.”  

But then something changed.  And it wasn’t from a physical standpoint, like you’re probably imagining.  No, this particular change came from a spiritual standpoint.  To put it succinctly, I was bored.  I had gotten myself into a place where I was completely overrun with stimulus; sounds and pictures and lights constantly bombarding my senses; computer screens and TV screens and a cell phone screens, music being pumped directly into my ear canal and advertisements shouting at me from every direction I looked.  But somehow, amidst the ever-present stimuli being disseminated on a level unlike anything the human brain has ever seen, I was incredibly bored. 

I found myself withdrawing further and further from the reality TV, fast food, endless-consumption culture that was being thrust upon me at every turn.  It just didn’t feel right.  Everything about my life had become so complicated.  All the technology that professed such convenience and comfort was making me feel like a prisoner.  Complications that beget more complications.  Did it ever end?  Suddenly, I was craving simplicity. 

As Steve House, arguably the finest American Alpinist, reiterates many times in his book, Beyond the Mountain, “The simpler you make things, the richer the experience becomes.” It seems counter-intuitive, but if you keep it simple you’ll never get bored. We’ve been brainwashed by consumer culture to think that we need a huge production to be entertained.  I’m here to tell you that the exact opposite is true.  What you really need is to get as far away from your cell phone and TV as is possible in your current situation.  You need to pull the headphones off of your ears, get off of the air-conditioned car seat and start putting one foot in front of the other.  Just run—like we’ve been doing for thousands of years.  It’s time to regain a little primal simplicity.

Use running as a way to stand up and rebel.  Don’t watch Keepin’ up with the Kardashians like everyone else.  Don’t spend countless hours a day mindlessly browsing Instagram and Twitter feeds like everyone else. Just get outside and do exactly what we were designed to do: move. 

Use running as an escape.  Don’t think about how many calories you’re burning or how fast you’re running. Take the most simplistic, primal activity that exists and make it a part of your everyday life.  Get away from your work emails and group texts.  Don’t worry about the trending topics.   Just enjoy the rhythm of your feet falling onto the dirt or the road or the grass.  Really listen to the sound of your breath.  Connect with the landscape.  Find your place in the natural world.  Find your flow.

If you’re even a little bit like me and you’ve been feeling bored staring at all those screens—trapped in a world that never stops trying to sell you something—I am offering you a simple, no-strings-attached escape:  Run.

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Chasing Flow

Dr. Angela Garcia, a Cultural Anthropologist at Stanford University, has coined the term “moment of incomprehensibility”.  In my rudimentary understanding of the subject, this is basically a moment where what is in front of you becomes utterly incomprehensible.  You can’t explain it.  You can’t find words to describe it.  All you can do is just be there.  Absorb it.  Try to take it all in. 

These moments don’t come around very often.  For most people, they don’t come around at all.  Most of the time, you have to be pretty far outside of your comfort zone to stumble across a true moment of incomprehensibility.  I’m not talking about being unable to fathom why the dude in front of you is going 15 mph under the speed limit or being baffled by the garbage spewing from the mouths of the Kardashians.  The moments that Dr. Garcia and I are talking about are beyond written description.  These are the moments I am chasing.  These are the moments that allow me to experience flow at it’s fullest. 

Standing atop Mt. Whitney, my first 14er, and experiencing the sheer, undeniable magnitude of it’s vast beauty.  Running through the early morning mist in the Santa Monica Mountains, climbing above the marine layer just in time to glimpse the first rays of the sunrise.  Scrambling between the switchbacks through the talus on the way up Mt. Timpanogos, stopping to suck wind, entirely exhausted, and glancing up at the seemingly unconquerable, gorgeous mass still waiting for me above.  Bombing down an underused single track, racing the setting sun, watching it slowly descend into the Pacific Ocean, increasing my pace as it disappears beneath the shimmering, purple water in a subtle, yet perfect flash. 

All of these experiences included a moment of incomprehensibility for me.  I have not described these moments here; to do so would be impossible. I have simply set the stage in which these moments took place.  My sense of awe was unmatched.  I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment.  The stars were aligned and I was absorbed by an overwhelming sense of rightness.  I melted into the landscape.  I became one with the mountain.  My soul was nourished.  Flow was realized. 

For me, Bobby Geronimo, this is what flow is all about.  Every time my foot falls on the trail, I’m chasing these elusive moments.  These moments don’t happen running through the city streets or staring at the screen of your iPhone.  These moments have to be earned.  These moments take blood and sweat, experience and knowledge, miles and miles, sacrifice.  These moments take an understanding of your own insignificance.  An understanding of your true place in the world.  These moments make me who I am. 

I want flow.  And I want it to be utterly incomprehensible. 

Be Evolutionarily Relevant

As I’ve been tacking more and more miles onto my personal odometer, it’s become harder to keep my running obsession under the radar.  It’s not that I’m trying to keep it hidden; I’m incredibly proud of the running I’ve done and what running has done for me.  It’s just that I skew introverted to begin with and as soon as people start to realize what I’m doing, it inevitably leads to questions.  Questions that I generally have no interest in answering.

Every ultrarunner understands exactly what I’m saying because every ultrarunner has been asked, at some point, ‘Why?!?’, when something like the distance of your next race happens to be disclosed through casual conversation with a non-runner.  And we all know that someone who would ask that type of question has no idea how to fully understand the answer.  At least not in a real, practical sense.  So we utter clichés and talk vaguely about the intrinsic value of running.  

More often that not, when I arrive back at work after a long run in the middle of the day, I’m forced into some variation of a conversation that goes something like this:

“Bro! You were running this whole time?!?” You’ve been gone for like three hours!”

“Actually that was about four and a half… bro.”

“That’s nuts man!  I can’t do anything for four and half hours besides sleep. Why would you do that?”

“Oh, you know, I really enjoy getting away from everything—getting out in the mountains—and just running around.  It calms me down.”

  “You’re insane!! Why would anyone do that?! What do you think about while you’re out there?  Does your ipod last that—Bro! Where you going? Why you walking away?”

When looking at the human body from an evolutionary perspective, it seems odd that nobody ever has conversations like this:

“So, how was your day today?”

“Eh—it was pretty rough.  I sat at my desk at work for eight hours and then I sat in my car for an hour on my commute home before sitting for another five hours in front of the TV.”

“You mean to tell me you’ve been sitting for 14 hours today!?! That’s crazy!! How could you have possible done that?!? Isn’t your back killing you?  I’ve never heard of anyone sitting for so long!!”

“Well, I did get up a few times… I had to go to the bathroom and get something to eat… walk to my car.”

“Still, I don’t how you anyone could sit for so long!!  I would have lost my freaking mind! You’re a way stronger person than me.”

What happened to our evolutionary relevance?  As Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Daniel Lieberman points out in his book, The Story of the Human Body, humans are incredibly slow in comparison with the majority of quadrupeds.  The fastest humans top out around 23 miles an hour for—at the most—20 seconds.  Your average lion is running around 45 miles an hour for over four minutes.  

Tools like the bow and arrow weren’t invented until about 100,000 years ago and even the most basic stone spear points only appeared 500,000 years ago.  Yet there is archeological evidence that early humans have been hunting quadrupeds like kudu, zebra and wildebeest for almost 2 million years.  These animals were faster, stronger and much more agile than the humans hunting them.  But as mostly hairless bipeds, our ancestors could do a couple of things better than the rest of the animals on the planet: sweat and run long distances. 

So, according to Lieberman, we waited until the day was hot and we ran our prey down until it collapsed from heat stroke.  We evolved to be endurance runners. Now, we sit in chairs and type on computers.  We’ve lost touch with our evolutionary history.  Most of us have completely stopped using our bodies in the way they were designed.  And for some asinine reason, we expect no consequences for these actions. 

The next time someone comes up to me and asks me why I run such long distances with an incredulous look plastered across their face, I’m going to simply reply that I’m “attempting to stay evolutionarily relevant”.  I think that sums it all up nicely.  What more should I really have to say?

Now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to run outside under the hot sun and sweat my ass off.