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the runner's low

The runner's high - that sought after, beautiful feeling of flow, fulfillment, contentment, and even pleasure - is so present in running media and culture, it seems as if the runner's low doesn't exist.

friends make the runner's high <3
...Yet it's presence is continually there. It shows up in different ways - the post race blues with the unbalance of hormones and exhaustion and lack of routine. It can slide in at envy of others runs, their training schedule and ability, their social fun. It is deep in sultry pains of an ultra, when we question ourselves, who we are, why we are doing this. It's fierce when we are injured and unable to run at all. It sneaks in as a "NEED" to have another adventure, another high, and the low feeling when we can't satisfy that craving. It seems part of an addictive solution for our brain to feel happy and alive. It exists -  we remember a particularly fun run/adventure/race, and we want it - again. Even right after a race, blisters still oozing on our feet and legs throbbing, we browse other races to sign up for, desiring all the good things we remember from the race to happen to us - again.
This is in a big part to how our brains are programmed - we seek more of the good, and seek equally to avoid the bad. It's how we've evolved and survived as humans. But we take it to extremes.... taking care of the house is not enjoyable, frolicking on a ridgeline IS enjoyable. So we end up craving the next fun run, (maybe this weekend?!) and diverting mental energy to shuffling through the task at hand to get to it. 

It is interesting that a lot of modern happiness research circles to the Buddhist philosophy of ending the crave/flee cycle and simply being present - "if you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sad but you do not suffer from it... If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind." (Harari, Sapiens)

Probing this, and it's relationship to my motivation to run, has been enlightening. Often I want to run a ridgeline to escape, or a weekend in a mountain range as time away from the stress of work, family, health issues, etc. It is seen as unsatisfactory to run on a treadmill or from the house because running in a scenic fork or on a mountain top is more pleasurable. ...But what about when there isn't time for that? I still am left with the craving to flee...
adventure play in coalpit
It seems that to enjoy the utmost peace in the adventure, or the flow, one must also accept the runner's low. Not only accept that it exists, but not crave that it leave, and not crave for the runner's high to become a constant. Finding contentment and gratitude in the stationary running, the slower periods of life, and appreciating the richness when time and life offer the grander adventures.

What I am calling the runner's low here isn't applicable only to runners - a quick search online shows that a lot of athletes across disciplines struggle to find contentment with themselves when they aren't at their peak. Most notably Michael Phelps has been speaking out. "I was always hungry, hungry, and I wanted more. I wanted to push myself to see what my max was... Really, after every Olympics I fell into a major state of depression."

We compare ourselves to what we know we can be, or the things we know we could be doing, and when our current life falls short, it depresses us. No one can be constantly winning the Olympics, high on a run, frolicking in the mountains, and avoiding the mundane.

wishing I could take away anothers low
So why are we seeking the runner's high? I think to address the runner's low, once has to address why they are there. If the runner's high is an addiction, why did the runner become addicted in the first place?

"Addiction is finding a quick and dirty solution to the symptom of the problem, which prevents or distracts one from the harder and longer-term task of solving the real problem." (Meadows, Thinking in Systems)

Often what I want from running is the diversion. My life is stressful, and I want a coping crutch, a distraction. I want to have deep and meaningful connections with my friends, which have been forged in recent years on the trail. Unfortunately, craving that diversion then draws my attention away from my children as I'm trying to figure out when I can run after helping with homework, or from my work as I am trying to plan when I can squeeze in a workout. I'm at the hospital, double stressed on a family member's health and not knowing if I'll get to run that day. 

I can't change the cycle or system of the crave/flee if I am still allowing myself to be a subject of it - life is stressful and monotonous -> run/adventure/feel really alive-> crave feeling alive in the hard and monotonous-> get to run/adventure again, and so forth. I want to stop fleeing the difficult, stop craving the high. Find peace with myself in both areas.

This post isn't an answer, although I hope some comments offer further enlightenment and discussion. It's a discussion on the mulling thoughts when I find myself trying to make peace within a runner's low - so that I can continue to feel it, but not suffer from it. Happiness isn't quantifiable, nor is contentment. I am working on breaking the runner's crave/flee cycle within myself, living with more contentment with what I get to do both in and outside of running, giving more presence in the tasks at hand.

"Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and it is never complete." (Kalanthi, When Breath Becomes Air) I have friends who have been running as long as I've been alive, who have shared wisdom to help me move forward with more contentment and gratitude with running and less craving and comparing. For this I am grateful, it bleeds into a better mental state for all other areas of my life. This is perhaps the aspect of running for which I am most grateful, the wisdom shared with me from the friendships running has allowed me to forge.

The runners low, and the runners high - I am coming to see both as parts of being a runner. I can't shun one aspect of running to chase the other, they are two sides of the same coin. They exist within me as a runner, whether or not I want to suffer from or accept them.

Do you accept your runner's lows? Why do we not talk about it running culture, make peace with it? How do the lows interact with your training and goals? How do you find contentment when your brain is constantly wanting to push for more?


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