In an excerpt from his new book, the NPR host Peter Sagal writes: “If I don’t leave my headphones behind when I run, I wouldn’t spend a single minute of my waking life free from input.”
By Peter Sagal
In my long years of running long distances, I have made great use of headphones and iPods. For races, I used to program special race-day playlists, which would always begin with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (a cliché, I know) and end with OK Go’s “Invincible,” which I loved not only for its anthemic encouragement — “When they finally come to destroy the earth/They’ll have to go through you first”— but also because of Damian Kulash’s sly aside, “When they finally come, what’ll you do to them/Gonna decimate them like you did to me?” Nothing inspires last-minute effort more than bitter irony.
But after a while, I started to leave the headphones behind. First I gave them up for races. It occurred to me that if I was going to train and practice and focus on achieving something, when the time came to actually do it I could at the very least pay attention. A race, most especially and counterintuitively a marathon, requires more focus on the moment than someone who’s never done it might imagine. We scan our bodies for discomfort, we check our pace, we count the miles and measure our remaining strength against the remaining distance.
Then as time went on, I started to give up my headphones for training runs as well. I am typing this, obviously, staring at a screen. The computer is also playing music, which I enjoy as I write. When I finish writing in a little bit, I will go have myself some lunch, and of course I’ll play some music or news, and maybe even look at another screen. After lunch, I’ll go rake some leaves or do other tasks, with headphones firmly in my ears; I’ll enjoy music over dinner, and then finish my day by watching another, larger screen, with some content that, I hope, can command my entire attention.
If I don’t leave my headphones behind when I run, I wouldn’t spend a single minute of my waking life free from input.
I have a friend who wears headphones on long solo runs because, he says, “I can’t spend that much time alone in my head.” I disagree. He can, and he should. Spending that much time inside one’s head, along with the voices and the bats hanging from the various dendrites and neurons, is one of the best things about running, or at least one of the most therapeutic. Your brain is like a duvet cover: Every once in a while, it needs to be aired out.
I am conflict-averse by disposition and funny by profession, and like the unpopular flavors of soda pop, my darker, angrier and more earnest thoughts tend to accumulate in the dispenser and gum up the works. When I decide to run alone, with nothing in my ears but the air and the occasional gnat, it gives me a chance to rehearse the things I’m too shy or self-conscious to actually say, and to put them into words with the help of my constant left-right-left metronome.
Often, my inner monologues are serious responses to the daily news my day job forces me to joke about — speeches that might be delivered from presidential podiums or witness stands or news desks that the actual person in question just apparently isn’t smart enough to give. They should consult me — in my inner cable news channel, my speechwriting always works, and almost always inspires a standing ovation, groveling apology, or both.
Sometimes, of course, these perorations are quite personal. In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air. On my runs, unlike in real life, there are no rebuttals, no counterarguments, no ripostes beginning with “Well, how about the time you — ” In my running mind, and only there, my opponents are dumb with sheepish recognition.
And every time I let off this toxic steam — rising and evaporating with the other noxious gases from my sweaty self — I can feel the tension leave my arms and legs, and my gait becomes looser and freer. I come from a long line of shoulder-hunchers, and as I rant and I run I can feel my back straighten and my head rise. It’s as if the dark thoughts I give silent voice to are quite literally holding me down, weights tied to my neck and clavicles, and as I indulge them I cut them and let myself rise again.
And then, as my vents clear, I begin to think about running. Our sport seems mindless only to people who never run long enough for any thought to form other than “When can I stop running?” But the only way to succeed as a long-distance runner is to do it mindfully, to be aware of the body and the world it is moving through.
I think about my motion, and my breathing, my muscles, and their state of agitation or stress or relaxation. I note my surroundings — the downward slope I would never notice driving this street, the hawk’s nest I would never see for lack of looking up, the figure in a window caught in a solitary moment of their own. I think about the true meaning of distance — about the learning that comes from running a mile in your own shoes. I think about blisters and bliss, and the voices quiet.
Peter Sagal is the host of the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and the author of “The Incomplete Book of Running,” from which this essay is an excerpt.