I confess that I was caught off guard when I started reading The Happy Runner, a new book by SWAP Running coaches David and Megan Roche. Maybe it was the title, or the oversized “smiley face”on the cover—but I wasn’t expecting an opening sentence like, “Every runner has the same finish line: death.” And then, further down the page: “If you think deeply enough, running will constantly remind you of your own mortality… you realize you’re a sack of bones and gristle, stardust with delusions of grandeur.” I was feeling happier already.
But The Happy Runner doesn’t set out to convince us that we need to be in a state of rapture every time we log a few miles. The way it’s discussed in the book, it’s probably more helpful to think of “happiness” along the lines of Aristotelian eudaimonia—which is frequently interpreted as living well, or flourishing. For Aristotle, living well was the ultimate end of human existence, as opposed to acquiring status or wealth. Similarly, a core tenet of The Happy Runner is that one shouldn’t be too hung up on running’s external rewards—be it an Olympic Trials Qualifier or a slimmer waistline. For the happy runner, running is always an end in itself.
Of course, that’s easy enough to say, but putting it into practice is another matter entirely. Distilled from the Roches’ book and their overall training philosophy, here are some insights for flourishing in your running life.
Know Your “Why”
It’s tempting to view the moments of triumph as justification for the more unpleasant aspects being a runner. Finishing Western States might, for instance, feel like a vindication after months of getting up at 5 a.m. and numerous impromptu bouts of defecating in the woods. While it’s totally natural to savor the highs of the sport, one of the lessons from The Happy Runner is that one should also learn to embrace the shittiness, so to speak, without needing a big payoff moment.
“We found that it’s essential to have a ‘why’ that stands up to the worst times, and doesn’t just anticipate the good ones,” David says. “There’s no right answer, but it probably shouldn’t come from external validation.”
Don’t Let Race Results Define Your Running
One could object to the previous point by noting that, for many runners, “anticipating the good times” is a huge motivator. What’s more, this sense of anticipation is itself often an essential part of what’s now fashionably referred to as “the process.” This speaks to a central conundrum in The Happy Runner, namely that it’s not always easy to parse the difference between internal and external validation.
But when we spoke, the Roches made a helpful distinction between being motivated by a specific goal, and allowing that goal to dictate success or failure.
“We tell our athletes to dream so big that it horrifies them. But the results are just a means to structure the process,” David says. “And once you get there, you have the knowledge that it continues going. Your self-acceptance isn’t going to change based on what happens at a finish line. That’s all decided well before then.”
Keep the Big Picture in Mind
In case the opening sentence of their book didn’t provide enough of a hint, the Roches are big-picture people. Indeed, The Happy Runner doesn’t shy away from asserting that, on a macro level, one’s running life doesn’t carry too much weight. (One chapter begins: “No one gives a crap about your marathon PR.”) While some people might not find this too helpful when it comes to mustering the energy for an interval session, the idea is that taking a broader view of running can help preempt feelings of inadequacy. Furthermore, acknowledging our cosmic insignificance doesn’t mean we can’t be passionate about what we do.
“When you step back and take the big view of everything, you realize that what you do doesn’t actually matter. Even the people who are winning races—we don’t remember who won some random race in 2015,” Megan says. “So, taking a step back and realizing you are always enough, is a really helpful place to start. But also understanding that it’s okay to care a lot, too, because that just means you’re passionate. So, it’s a delicate balance between understanding that things don’t matter and giving yourself the space to care about things deeply.”
Beware the Comparison Game
It’s an undeniable fact of the running life: eventually, you will get older and you will get slower. And that’s the best-case scenario where your athletic career isn’t prematurely cut short by injury or–to stick with today’s theme—death. Especially when you’re at the top of your game, maintaining some perspective on the ephemeral nature of speed and fitness is a way to avoid plunging into despair when the invisible hand of senescence begins holding you back.
The inevitability of decline is also why one shouldn’t peg one’s self worth as an athlete to how well one stacks up against others. Masters categories notwithstanding, the comparison game is a game you’re destined to lose. Or, rather, it’s game you can never win, since there will always be those who are better than you. Once again, it’s crucial to think about running in a way that isn’t self-defeating.
As David puts it: “If you’re comparing yourself to Galen Rupp or Shalane Flanagan, you might not match up. Instead, you can reframe it by asking yourself whether you are doing all the things that constitute a running life. Not just succeeding, but also failing with grace. You are the one who gets to decide your own narrative and it’s nice if you can create a narrative that makes you feel better about yourself.”
Mental Health: The Big Asterisk
The Happy Runner has a whole chapter dedicated to mental health. Since so much of the book is predicated on the idea that success in running is an attitude question, the authors felt it was necessary to acknowledge that for many of us—indeed, probably most of us—it’s never going to be a matter of simply flipping an internal switch.
“We felt the mental health chapter was really important because for a lot people they can’t even start to do things like making enthusiasm a habit, or practicing self-acceptance because their brain chemistry just doesn’t allow it,” Megan says. “There’s that giant asterisk next to everything we wrote.”
It’s an acknowledgement that’s consistent with the tone of the book, which benefits from never venturing into guru territory or turning a blind eye to another macro truth about running: this sport, it’s hard.
“We are all stumbling towards self-acceptance,” David says. “And it’s not always a neat narrative.”