The New York City Marathon: Why Running Long Distances Can Help You Reach Zen

Running is something anyone can do, but few do it for its greatest advantage — mental stability. Running for enjoyment and mindful living is an unexplored avenue that becomes illuminated with a lengthy jaunt through the woods or urban trails. Pushing our bodies to increasingly greater distances can be done at a sustainable and enjoyable pace. To run with no equipment but a pair of shoes, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, is a mentally and physically liberating experience.

There is a whole culture that one unpacks when venturing into the world of long distance running. There is a world of ultra-marathoners and running gurus, a world that is thoroughly explored by writer and runner Chris McDougall. McDougall is best known as the author of Born to Run, which documents the Tarahumara, a Mexican indigenious tribe, who can run hundreds of miles without injury. Ultra-marathoners search out the very longest races in the world, in some of the most dangerous places, like the Death Valley. These men and women live in a close-knit subculture that spend their days simply running. While putting in upwards of 100 miles a week may seem a bit obsessive, it's worth taking a look at why people do it. Why do men such as Caballo Blanco take off into the Copper Canyons to just run? There's a simple and profound truth in it that can be found by anyone. When running, the act of running becomes the only thing that matters, everything else becomes trivial.

Running can be just about as close to enlightenment as we can get. We'll never be a Buddha, but running is a good place to start.

Putting aside technique arguments over shoes verses barefoot running, or the idea of running simply to lose weight, we are left with a simple activity that is prevalent in our culture for a reason. With greater distances constantly being pushed, running gradually becomes not only more comfortable, but it becomes something addictive. This isn’t to say it's easy to go out for a 5 to 10 mile jog after a full day of work, but it's not impossible to put your mind and body in a place where this is not only achievable but enjoyable.

Running for the sake of running — speed, and weight lossresults aside — is one way to disconnect from the overly connected world. It can be a time of solitary meditation or a moment a shared experience with a few other people. Running at a sustainable pace (a pace where you can comfortably converse is a good way to gauge “sustainable”) focuses our minds on a solitary act. A problem easily falls to the wayside after 3 miles. It becomes manageable after 5, and a solution is all but guaranteed after 10.

There are sects of Japanese Buddhist monks who center seven years of practice around running. During the first three years they do 100 consecutive days of marathons. During the following two years they up that rate to 200 consecutive days. Then they increase the mileage in the final two years of the cycle. There is something to the idea of “mind over matter” here. Running is key to a fit and balanced life.

Even if you're not an ultra-marathoner or a Japanese monk, you can plan out a route and pick a time when there is plenty of daylight (or night) available. Find a place on the map you haven't been before and go for it. But don't think about the distance or the destination. Instead, focus on the present steps. Running is a really intimate time to listen to our own bodies. Start slowly and just take in the sights and sounds. Make sure that your breathing is stable enough that you can still talk. If you can't talk, you're working too hard. Mindful running is not about speed or results, it's about the process.

Besides those guidelines, there are no strict rules to running, and it is fine to take a break and enjoy the scenery. Stop to notice a squirrel or something. It doesn't matter what catches your attention, as long as it is helps you appreciate and enjoy the quality of the present moment. It's not a moment to be taken seriously. A good run should simply be. It should have no goal or objective, but to experience a moment of clarity and happiness.

The best part of running is its profound individuality. Time doesn't matter. How you run doesn't matter. There is no single right style or workout method; all it takes is slapping on a pair of shoes, hitting the road, and striving for distance.