What makes you run despite common sense?

Many runners experience some degree of runner’s guilt, compulsion or whatever you call it-that urge to run even when you probably shouldn’t. Like when missing a day makes you think you’re getting out of shape, or if skipping a run means you’ll miss your weekly mileage goal. When recovering from an illness you know it’s advisable to rest a bit longer, but that little voice says, “It’s only a cold, just a few miles will clear my head.” Or thinking a short run might loosen up those tight muscles in your sprained ankle. So I asked several friends how they are affected.

Jane Murphy, a two-time Olympic trials marathon qualifier and one of the region’s best runners, calls it “what we crave” rather than “guilt,” noting the addictive nature of running: “You have a good race and the only way to run better is to run more. You have a bad race and the only way to get that edge back is to run more. We become so addicted to the ‘feel good’ that running gives us, we can’t distinguish between ‘healthy running’ and physical depletion. Anything is better than putting a goose egg in the running log book or being lazy, as that spells defeat, and God knows we are all here to be winners!”

Jane acknowledges a balance between good and bad, but feels it’s been mostly good. Her perspective comes from someone who has competed at a very high level for a long time. Many of us have similar compulsions, but perhaps a little less intense since we haven’t had Jane’s talent or her level of competition.

There are levels of runner’s guilt, but Gary Townsend, one of the all-time intense runners has his down to a science. With increasing age, he’s not as bullet-proof as he once was, so if he incurs an injury (like a muscle pull), he takes the following day off, using ice and ibuprophen. On Day 2 he runs very slowly, but if there’s any pain he takes two more days off, figuring it’s an “actual” injury. He then resumes slow, short running on Day 4. The procedure has some variations, but Gary’s careful formula would itself seem to indicate a certain degree of compulsion (you could ask his wife Eileen for details).

The other end of the spectrum is from Cliff Carlson who says the only guilt he feels is “guilty pleasure” by completing runs when he didn’t really want to- “by getting my lazy self to SHOW UP in the rain, heat, snow, blizzard, and the rare good day.” He may be lying.

Cheryl Benson, an original member of the Oak Park Runners Club, recalls running one of her “too many 20 milers” when a thunderstorm suddenly erupted. With lightning cracking all around her, Benson still finished the prescribed distance.

“I now look back at how stupid that was,” she admits.

Buck Hales, recovering from serious stress fractures of his knee is now a bit gun-shy, having been unable to run at all for a long time, much less feeling guilt about missing a day. He says that he has a “distant memory of that mind set,” saying that “now my guilt comes from not running, missing it, fearing it.”

Barb Kummer, a leading senior runner, recalls one Chicago Distance Classic after a party the previous night where she ate too much food. Feeling ill before the race, she started anyhow, but midway through she was calculating how to return to the start without anybody noticing she had dropped out. Kummer struggled on, planning to eventually take a shortcut. Then guilt took over and she finished the full race, since “dropping out was just too much to bear.”

Nick Bensen, president of the Oak Park Runners Club, says his guilt pangs come the week before and the week after a marathon. Pre-marathon Bensen knows he should rest, but feels like he should be running more, and the week after he’s anxious to get started again though he knows he needs a full recovery.

His wife Geri Bensen, director of The Race That’s Good for life, tells of training for the 2001 Boston Marathon. Her schedule called for an 18-miler on Saturday followed by an easy eight miles on Sunday. She was fatigued from the 18-miler, but her schedule was set. On Sunday she turned her ankle in the first mile, but pushed through seven more because her schedule specified eight! Severe swelling and torn ligaments halted all running for two months, and Boston was down the drain.

Finally, I’ll admit that I ran on the morning of August 1. Temperatures hit 99 degrees that afternoon (but it was only a humid 82 at 5:30 a.m.).

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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