I’m happy when: I’m running naked and free

Trail Run: LaPorte, Indiana
Trail Run: LaPorte, Indiana

This past week Gordo Byrn asked the question, “I’m happy when…” He then provided some insight to different ways that he has tried to look at and work through this question himself. It sparked some internal dialog of my own. Answering that question has been something I’ve been obsessed with ever since I happened into a visiting lecture by Ed Diener while I was in graduate school. Diener’s research was surprising and amazing to be exposed to. Many of the things that I assumed would make people happy were not really what he was saying.

I have answered this question previously, or at least approached the topic within a blog post. But, I had so many different possible responses that were coming up as I would go on my “mind clearing” runs that I decided to start a series of posts and go into some of the answers to Gordo’s question. I might also approach the concept of “My happiness is compromised when…”

Here is one thing I know: I am very bad at predicting what will make me happy in the future. This is one of the points from Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, that I remember, but it continues to be so true in my own life. My future self always tends to have different desires, goals and dreams than what I have today.

So here is my first answer: I’m happy when I’m running naked and free.

I love to run. I love what it does for my mental health. I love the friends it has brought into my life. I love the ability to share the passion I have for it. But, that doesn’t mean that I always love to run and that it will always bring me happiness.

Outcome obsession steals the happiness:

It might be no secret to many of my friends or those that I used to run with on a regular basis that I lost a lot of enjoyment around triathlon and running back in 2010. I don’t need to go through all of the races and things that were going through my mind during that time, I will summarize it in two simple sentences:

I found myself trying to make 100% of my income through training others to run, which wrapped my entire identity up with running. I believed that if I didn’t get faster myself, I would not only have bad races – I would fail at everything.

I have listened to a lot of individuals in the startup world talk about founders trending to depression. Brad Feld has talked about it a lot on his blog. I think that my situation was similar to a founder who had their entire identity tied into their startup. Tim Ferris has said that every founder should have multiple areas of their life that they can find a win. For example, if they have a bad day at their startup – it’s advantageous to have a physical challenge that you can win at. This could be lifting weights, swimming, running, anything – just try and set yourself up for having multiple avenues to achieve.

This lack of happiness with running, being focused only on the outcomes, flowed down from the macro to the micro. While having faster times and new PR’s was part of it, the mind set started to enter every single run. I got overly obsessed with every single mile or interval. If I was not faster this week then last week, I failed. If I was not faster this mile than the last mile, I failed.

The really difficult thing to understand is that I know better. I teach runners to not get caught up in the moment to moment outputs. The process of training necessarily requires some days to be good while others are not. Knowing this didn’t help. I kept getting dragged down and eventually I got very cynical of the entire thing. I stopped cycling, I stopped swimming and for the most part, I stopped any real running. I only ran to keep up appearances for those that counted on me for their training.

Why am I finding happiness again? What is it that has brought back the joy?

I have tried a few times over the past four years to find happiness in running again. I’ve had moments, but never a sustained period of running bliss. That seems to be changing over the past three months and I want to share some characteristics that I believe has allowed this to happen:

No expectations. It has been a long time since I was actually ‘racing’, so it is pretty easy to not have too many expectations. At the moment I have two pieces to my plan:

1. Run on most days.
2. Run on Thursday night with the run group.

I happened to have a really good 10k last weekend, so it will be interesting to see how long this persists. I started setting some ambitious goals this week. The key is going to be setting goals that are challenging and inspirational, without allowing them to become overwhelming.

Get on the trails. When I run on the roads, the metrics and data becomes a pretty difficult thing to escape. There are little variances with terrain, but runners always have an idea of what is “good” and what is “bad” on the road. The trails take all of that away. At the Red River Gorge, there were times where I was going 16 minutes per mile and working hard.
The trails also encourage me to unplug my iphone and to listen to my surroundings, feel my body’s strain over the miles and be present.

Search for Flow. Running can create a highly meditative state, if you learn how to use it this way. It takes practice to allow this to happen. I believe this is why trail running has been so beneficial because you unplug and tune in to the moment. I have been doing a few things to search for flow:

1. I have runs where I focus only on my breathing, sensation of my heart rate and the moment of impact when my foot strikes the ground.
2. Around 50% of the days, I have some specific meditation. I have been using two apps to help facilitate this: getsomeheadspace and calm
3. I have been reading on the topic. I revisited Timeless Healing by Herbert Benson. I also finished “The Rise of Superman” which discusses how extreme sports athletes have become the best at hacking the flow state.

So, to answer the question: I’m happy when I’m running naked, without a hyper awareness to the Garmin or Iphone. It’s just me and the run. I’m happy when I’m running free, without any feeling of internal or external expectations.