The Eternal Growth Mindset of Running
Inspired by a conversation with Nick Thompson, the CEO of The Atlantic, I muse on how running could move from a capitalist mindset to sustainability - the philosophical opposite - but probably won't.
A few weeks ago, my friend forwarded me an edition of Nick Thompson’s newsletter. The CEO of The Atlantic was talking about running. He’s previously written at length about running, spoken about running, he’s set an American record in the 50km distance. He is a runner.
I got in touch and got an exciting interview lined up. 30 precious minutes with a titan of 21st century journalism. In an era of publications closing left, right and center, he has doubled the circulation of The Atlantic and its “exploration of the American idea” three years into his tenure, and has otherwise built a career on his seemingly preternatural ability to identify and dissect technology trends. What other trends can there be in the 21st century?
It got me thinking about what else Nick and I could talk about aside from running.
We get to our scheduled time slot and the tech that I’m relying on doesn’t work. The video call is glitching. I’m losing both time and any composure I might have had.
But then it connects and we end up with 14 minutes to talk, but I haven’t finished panicking. I know I’m not getting another chance at this interview. I know that Nick’s time is rare. He’s as busy a man as you’d expect any C-suite executive to be.
Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I lifting the veil of what went on behind the scenes? It’s because it ties completely into what I wanted to speak to Nick about.
The Americanness of Running
(and a reliance on technology)
Can relinquishing the desire to run faster or further in favor of running for your health be a more sustainable future for you? Could you pause your never-ending search for a new personal record in exchange for happiness? Or is that an impossible oxymoron…
I am currently deep in the throes of learning how to be an American. I have my citizenship interview in a couple of weeks and of the Civics topics, one stuck out. America follows a capitalist economic system. Straightforward enough, perhaps, but it made me think. That philosophy runs through every single American process, doesn’t it?
For example, The American Dream (pipedream?), in which anybody is able to drag themselves up and out of their current economic band. It’s a folk tale told about upward social mobility that can be achieved either through brilliance of innovation and/or old-fashioned hard work.
It’s an ethos that sells itself primarily on the merits of individual prosperity and success. It’s a framework that not only survives, but thrives on the American ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, and equality, AKA Capitalism.
Running has the same growth mindset. We’re always looking for a new personal record. A new Olympic Record. We’re always looking for a longer distance to run. Faster, further, richer, bigger, shareholder satisfaction. More, more, MORE.
I can only shake my head when I see yet another exhausting person complaining on LinkedIn about suffering burnout from the rat race and then a few weeks later post 10 slides about how to… avoid burnout.
I don’t want you to think that I’m some sort of anti-Capitalist goon, though. This is the world that we live in, I enjoy so many of its trappings, and I don’t think there’s any real intention of overthrowing it for an alternative, hopefully better economic system. Here, I’m simply exploring other methods of living within that system in a less intense fashion.
As with the title of this blog, I revel in identifying difficulties that I encounter, even when they’re intrinsically linked to an important part of my life. After all, in coaching as in life, remedying a weak point is how one improves.
But how do we find a better way when the downtime from your 40 hours of rise ‘n’ grind is 40 miles of rise ‘n’ grind?
Nick, for instance, uses his running to balance work life with family life.
“My running life is mostly solo. My life is complicated with three kids and a day job. It means I'm just forced to train by myself. I run to work and I run home from work. It's probably the only way I can train at a reasonably high level, because it's by far the most efficient way.”
What does a successful run look like for you?
“When I'm in training, I'm doing a workout three times a week. I'm doing a tempo, a speed, and a long run, and their success is partially based on whether I hit whatever my goal is, but mostly whether I completed the workout, and put in the effort.”
“If I know that I've put in the effort - even if I didn't hit the time - it's successful, right? Yesterday, I had to run 8x1km, with aspirations to run them at 3min15secs. I didn't pass for any of them. That was still a successful workout because I believe in the effort. Those are the three runs a week that I'm actually focused on improving the other runs.”
Aside from those three workouts, Nick talks about success being reaching a level of contemplation or relaxation. A mental break between one part of the day and the next, between playing with the kids and work.
It’s possible that his chat with me was going to provide him a break from the workday, but we know how that turned out.
Breaks are important, though. It’s estimated that 80% of Americans work sedentary jobs. It’s suggested that you take 15 minutes of every hour of screen time to take a break. Go for a walk! Do a short yoga class! Wash some dishes! Optimize the ergonomics of your work-from-home workstation setup.
DO something, so that you can continue doing the thing you're meant to be doing - your job. Keep your body and mind in optimal condition for the rat race (see: corporate wellness programs). If you can find the time…
The classic trope of people driving to the gym and parking as close as possible to the entrance exists, but there was a day soon after moving to L.A. when I logged under 1,000 steps. I woke up, drove to my desk job, got a parking space really close to the building, took the elevator, sat down, had lunch delivered to the office, work, elevator, walked back to my car, drove home, and parked right outside my apartment before watching TV on the sofa and then going to bed again.
It’s all about time. You drive up to the gym so that you can get to the treadmill without wasting any time. You fit as many meetings and tasks into your day so that you maximize revenues. You go running because it’s the solo exercise that takes the least time. You just pull on your shoes and you step out of the door. No need to drive to the pool or organize the calendars of 25 other people to play with. Like Nick, you can even run your commute.
That’s why running is the most popular solo sport in America (7th overall). I posit that jogging is the most American of sports. It’s an individual activity. It’s easy to fit into a busy life. It has achievable goals. Running has capitalism coursing through its veins.
Capitalism is the polar opposite ideology to Sustainability, of course. Al Gore’s idea of Sustainable Capitalism is the closest that I think we could get as a society, but doing our bit with paper straws and three recycling bins feels pointless until big businesses also decide to do their bit, and re-regulation seems a distant hope.
It's on us, as individuals, to make it work.
What if we focused on running for happiness? What if we focused on sustainability? What if we shifted our thinking from eternally growing to sustainably existing? What if we thought about how we can keep doing this thing that we love - running - forever, but without the shackles of recorded times and distances? Without the associated fear of failure looming overhead.
But what else is there to run for, if not personal records?
Running gently so that we haven’t torn apart every fiber in our legs by the time we’re 40, and enjoying the side-effect of the runner’s high. Running in the morning to get that circadian rhythm and mental health-aiding sunlight in our eyes. Running to get those 45 minutes of exercise three times a week, like our doctor has always suggested. Still running for yourself, but running to run forever, and happily.
I read a great piece this week by Emily Oster [link below] about using data to adjust your personal record times as you age. A novel data-led idea that will no doubt thrill many, but what if that’s just a little too much effort? What if constantly changing the goalposts to say, “This is actually a faster 5k time than when I ran it when I was 26,” is an infinitesimally dull conversation to have - even with another runner. What if you took a break from trying so hard all the time and just relaxed? What if the goal was to simply never suffer burnout? Maybe that’s ok. Good, even.
Maybe Nick’s method of two-thirds of his runs being meditative head-clearers is a solution to fitting relaxation and health into that time-poor grind. There is a fear right now, of course, that this current technological revolution is going to make our lives even busier.
Luckily, Nick is an expert in artificial intelligence, so it makes sense to ask him how AI can help us run. It’s certainly not wearing Apple Vision Pros while we run, because they’re a) $3,500 and b) weigh over a pound / half a kilo. Protect ya neck.
“AI will certainly increase the ways our work lives are tied to machines. It will deepen our reliance on technology, which will increase our need for ways of escaping that. It might create an impetus that makes us want to run more in order to find that cabin in the woods as you said [link below].”
“There's a hypothesis that AI could make our lives easier by taking care of menial tasks and giving us more time to run, but I don't think that's true. Technology tends to make our lives more complex.”
“A third would be there will be all kinds of ways that it helps us to train. Helping us understand our data gives us a deeper understanding of human biology, which then gives us a deeper understanding of human performance. It’ll make us more able to train ourselves.”
So that’s the future. A life hog-tied to computers that will help us run faster. Computers that will design training plans showing us how to make the most of our lunchtime workouts. You only have an hour a day to exercise, after all. You can eat at your desk.
Or choose a life free of trackable metrics and the never-ending quest for a medal. Imagine never worrying about failing ever again. You have the choice of making Success the simple act of getting your shoes on, stepping out of the door, and focusing on relaxation and health instead.
There’s no such thing as a bad run, but we can always make it better. Running is the alone-time buffer we are afforded between the pressures of work and family, so we might as well make it as pleasant as possible.
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
Inspired by Julie Hughes of Run to Write, here’s a haiku. Maybe I’ll do one of these every week. A haiku of the week? Who knows? That’s what it says up there, so I guess we’ll see!
We just want to run.
But life is so dang busy.
Can AI help? No.
I will absolutely not be taking any feedback on my haiku, but I would love to see yours in a comment. Why not!?
Further reading and lots of it
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