An Ode to the Long Run

A woman running by herself on a trail through the woods

How Long Runs Change Us

A winding trail through a National Park

Passing through Jones Gap, I entered a cloud. It seemed out of a movie, the cooling mist offering hidden glances at the scenery far below. It struck me as odd, this feeling of serenity, because 30 minutes earlier I began my run by hobbling beside a river with a sore ankle and foot—not a good sign seven days out from a marathon. Three miles of climbing had limbered me up, and now my tendons and muscles responded like the well-trained machines I’d imagined them to be. Summiting the high point of the run, I knew this would be an easy day at the office.

Until the cloud rained on me, that is. It started as a drizzle then slowly picked up in intensity. I’d long since shed my shirt due to the humidity; each drop felt refreshing and enervating at the same time. The next three miles followed that same theme. I descended the backside of the mountain feeling light of foot, but the rain weakened my ability to enjoy it. The environment humbled me.

Just as quickly as it appeared, the rain dissipated. I was back in the valley with 30 minutes to finish. Now the sun radiated off the blacktop. Complicating matters, it was time to pick up the pace for the final 20 minutes of my run. The freshness felt gone, zapped by the long descent and rising temperatures. Speeding up seemed absurd. I bargained with myself, saying I could shorten the distance with the marathon being next week. Save your energy, I thought.

Then I saw that moment for what it was: weakness. I was justifying left and right while the dragon of my fears ruled supreme. Not today, I thought. Forge your sword in the fire now. My stride responded. It was time to slay the dragon. I kicked in the last mile, feeling smooth but fast as the doubts evaporated. My watch hit 20 minutes, and I made an emphatic fist pump. I stood victorious.

Surveying the scene, nothing looked different than when I left. I felt reborn, even though I was just back at my car. But I knew deep in my heart that I’d gone on a sacred journey and come back better for it. So much could happen on a long run.

A man runs by himself on a road

Why We Run Long

If you’ve read previous posts on this blog, you know the benefits of long runs. Those are physiological variables like improved endurance, a stronger cardiovascular system, greater musculoskeletal strength, and denser mitochondrial beds.

From a textbook standpoint, it makes sense to get out there every seven to 10 days and run longer than normal. Sometimes long runs are done at a conversational pace; sometimes they finish fast or have a workout sandwiched in the middle. Either way, they mark the longest journey we take each week.

But there is also something rarified about a long run done well. Workouts fill us with dread and anxiety; races are a rodeo show of adrenaline and heavy breathing. Yet we gladly anticipate spending hours at a time wending through the landscape. We believe it to be pleasurable, engaging, and some might even say enlightening.

The question is why.

A running trail winds through the woods

Lost On Our Own Oregon Trail

When I was in elementary school, two words in computer class could make even the rowdiest 9-year-old sit still and pay attention: Oregon Trail.

The game offered minimal graphics, and, on the surface, consisted of little more than buying provisions, hunting for wild game with the spacebar, and dying from 19th century diseases like dysentery and cholera. What should have been a boring educational tool about the hardships pioneers faced crossing the country instead sold 65 million copies over ten editions and became a cultural touchstone.

Children all across the world learned about money management and history through the game. But what kept them immersed was the playful sense of adventure and mystery that was inherently built-in.

Flash forward to our adult lives and much of that play is gone.

Not only do we no longer face the demands of steering a team of oxen across hostile territory Oregon Trail-style, but we lack even the most basic adventures like searching for food or discovering new places. Creature comforts have given us a measure of control that was unfathomable just a century ago, but that security comes with tradeoffs.

There’s no reason to cross the Snake River with all our family’s possession on a wooden raft. We don’t see a majestic mountain range and ponder how we’ll cross it. The landscape has become little more than a painted backdrop designed to pass the time as we drive by.

The long run changes that dynamic. Instead of passive passengers we become active explorers of our landscape. We run into forests on time-worn trails and find magnificent waterfalls and miniature flowers we never knew were there.

In cities we find stunning skylines; in the prairies we watch wheat fields sway like ocean waves. We see a dashed line on a map and become determined to see it with our own eyes.

This exploration is not limited to the physical. Spending three hours in your head without the chime! of your phone or the ding! of your email can lead to wondrous insights. It can also lead to epic adventures playing out in real time.

Take my run: Over the span of 90 minutes, I limped along a river, powered up a mountain, entered a cloud, escaped rain, found the limits of my endurance and then pushed through it to victory. It’s not quite The Odyssey, but it sure rings familiar.

A woman running on a trail through the forest

The Long Run as Myth Creator

If the above description sounds like a mythic tale, well that’s probably because my mind framed it that way. Long runs offer us the hero’s journey in microcosm.

“Myths were clues to our spiritual nature,” Joseph Campbell says in the documentary series The Power of Myth, “and they could help guide us to a sacred place within where we might unlock the creative power of our deeper, unconscious self.”

Long runs do the same.

Campbell was the preeminent scholar on myth and heroism, and he saw the arc of the hero’s journey as predicated on certain acts. There was a call to adventure, followed by crossing the threshold towards challenges and temptations. Deep despair would ultimately enter the picture, but if the hero was successful they would emerge from those trials with hard worn knowledge.

That certainly seems in line with the epic long run. It is us playing Oregon Trail in real time, facing all our doubts and fears without the risk of imminent death. The jumping off point is scary, but the reward at the end is surely worth it.

“The achievement of the hero is one they’re ready for,” Campbell says. “The adventure that he’s ready for is the one he gets.”


By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).


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