There’s a monster on my heels.
I recently spent a month volunteering at a spiritual retreat center in the lower Catskills. Shrouded in solitude, I was looking forward to devoting all my energy to the pursuits which truly matter to me. During this time, I did hard workouts twice a week in preparation for the 50K I’ll be running in June. These workouts were targeted to improve my fitness at every level, but, secretly, I also hoped that they would help me gain ground on The Monster – the one breathing down my neck, the one that’s kept pace with me for years. Since the previous few weeks of increasing my base mileage hadn’t created any distance between us, I figured that running harder, running faster, might do the trick.
I was wrong. At the top of the hill, every time I turned to jog down and start another repeat, The Monster must have hidden, because I couldn’t see it anywhere. Could it be that I’d finally managed to leave it behind? For the rest of the run, hope would steadily creep in. With The Monster seemingly out of the picture, I’d feel fresh, content; the world would sing in its clarity. A sense of inner peace, of rightness would settle inside me like new fallen snow. But later on in the day, something would inevitably change. I’d feel a tug inside, and it would be there again. I could hear its cold snarl and sense its hunger. And with The Monster nearby, a familiar restlessness would overtake me. The sense that something must be done to shake it once more, if only for a little while. Something, anything. Because whatever I had done that day, it wasn’t enough. The Monster was back.
For such an old foe, you’d imagine we’d be on a first-name basis at this point, but The Monster has many names, because it assumes many different forms. For me, it is a sense of purposelessness and lack of accomplishment. Running is my only path to alleviating the restlessness that is my default state; it provides temporary admission to the guilt-free good life. If I run five miles, maybe The Monster will keep quiet while I enjoy my waffles. Ten miles might get me a whole afternoon of peace: catching up on a good book, soaking in the pool, a heaping plate of pasta and a cold beer, dancing with friends. Only by running do I find myself able to enjoy leisure; they are two sides of the same coin. But, inevitably, there comes a time when The Monster returns and starts whispering in the quiet. Get moving. You earned a few hours with your run, but now you’re on borrowed time.
Too often, we’re not running toward what inspires us – we are running away from what frightens us. The Monster is that thing we are trying to outrun. You and I might be acquainted with the same version of The Monster, or yours might be totally different. It may not even be related to any athletic or competitive endeavor, but instead has its roots in a rocky relationship, professional disappointment, or even addiction. Yet if you, like me, are used to running away, then you know that it is a cycle that never ends. We are compelled to always push harder, never stop pushing, because running is how we avoid facing The Monster. And that means that the moment we inevitably stumble, or have running snatched away from us by injury or other life circumstances, we will be consumed.
Here’s the bad news: no amount of mileage will ever be enough to permanently rid yourself of The Monster, because it cannot be outrun. But the bad news is also the good news: it cannot be outrun because we pull it along with us. As long as we hold to the idea of running as a means of escape from The Monster, we will forever be tethered to its ugliness with invisible metal coils, like Jacob Marley’s chains in A Christmas Carol. It is not something to escape, to run away from, but something to confront, head on. Running can make you feel big, capable, and powerful, but it is not what makes you all of those things. It is merely a light which shines on the strength you and I have harbored and will always harbor.
Next time you feel The Monster in the room with you, notice what it is saying; notice that it is speaking your language, using your own insecurities against you. Then, remember what you believed of yourself in your best moments when The Monster was powerless. It held no sway over you in those moments, not because of the number of miles you had run, or the clever joke you had just told, or the presentation you knocked out of the park, but because you knew that you were stronger. You were certain of your worth. You were certain of your toughness.
Our ability to face down The Monster is always within us, even on the worst of days. At times, running can serve as a helpful and empowering reminder of that fact, but it should remain firmly as a reminder, because without running, that strength must still be available. Learning to wield that strength independent of running is extraordinarily difficult, because the external reassurance that running provides is something concrete to lean on. Yet it is worth striving for. Because, when you manage to do so, you will be able to approach running not from a position of need, but of freedom. Those metal coils will drop off of you as you begin to run not out of fear, but out of joy. As you stop running away, and begin running toward.