At the end of a long and busy day, or whenever I feel a need to de-stress and calm my mind, my go-to activity is to go for a long run. I’m not what you would call a natural born runner by any stretch, but I love to get out and run regardless.
I’ll often run at night, around the inner city neighborhood where I live. It’s a chance to stop my overactive brain and let new ideas enter the voids that this process naturally creates.
Along my usual route, there is a long and narrow path. One side of this path is enclosed by a steep knoll, which rises over onto a neighboring park, while the other side is lined with evenly spaced fig trees that have grown during the past century to enclose the long pathway. At night, the canopy of the old trees overhead shields the path from the light and noise of the city just meters away.
As I turn the corner from noisy well-lit streets and head down the darkened path, I feel a sense of solitude. The cold air stings my nostrils on the inhale as it’s transformed into steam in front of my face. The silence all around is a welcome intruder at the end of a busy day, an escape from the external noise.
Some distance away, at the very end of the path, I see the dim lights of the street on the other side, guiding me in the direction I must travel to get home. I have to get from one side of the path to the other. I have to take the first steps into the darkness and continue one step at a time. I run for this moment.
Running can be an acquired taste. It takes a certain amount of discipline, determination and a willingness to explore your own body’s reactions to discomfort and challenge. For many years, running was about as appealing to me as a big bowl of oats. I knew it was good for me, but there’s just no great attraction in consuming that bland, tasteless mush more often than necessary.
But now, unlike the bowl of oats, the process is one that I get great joy from. It leaves me feeling relaxed and mentally clear, while also giving me a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that improvements are being made.
That feeling is partly because the process of running—or any exercise for that matter—is a proven way to increase positive chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, the neurotransmitter that improves mood and regulates sleep and appetite. It also releases endorphins into the body, which help produce the relaxed feelings and natural “runner’s high” that I feel at the end of a good run.
I have to get from one side of the path to the other. I have to take the first steps into the darkness and continue one step at a time. I run for this moment.
There are many examples of people who have found similar joy in running. Using it as a process to give them clarity and assist in generating personal transformations in other areas of their lives.
As a young man, Haruki Murakami worked long hours trying to keep his small Jazz bar next to a busy Tokyo train station in business. Exhausted and in need of a break, his life changed dramatically one day when he began to instinctively write his first novel.
Within months, he had handwritten the novel and submitted the only copy to a literary magazine holding a writing competition. He ended up winning this contest, with this first piece of work also well-received throughout Japan. Over the next few years, Murakami continued to operate his Jazz club while writing other short novels in his spare moments and in the early mornings after closing the club.
Little by little, his work gained enough notoriety throughout Japan that he made the decision to sell the Jazz club and pursue his passion for writing novels full-time.
Soon after making this decision, Murakami noticed he was starting to put on weight. He was also smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day and realized that his life as a novelist would be cut short prematurely if he continued on this unhealthy path. So, in 1982 at the age of 33, he decided to make another life-changing decision. He took up running.
From that point onward, every single day Murakami would take small steps to transform himself into a runner. The physical and mental benefits of this process led him to gain a greater sense of happiness and inspiration as he began to improve himself both physically and mentally.
It’s hard to say whether the clarity and sense of purpose gained through this running regime translated directly into his writing, but over the past 35 years, Murakami has continued to create novels of exploration and deep understanding of human experiences that have sold millions of copies and won a range of literary awards throughout the world. He even wrote a book on running.
Murakami has also competed in many marathons and ultramarathons while maintaining his commitment to run every day without fail. He discovered the path to his unique purpose in life through making the instinctive decision begin, to take the first steps toward growth and transformation—in both his writing and his running.
For me, the best part of running is that every run is a small metaphor for this transformative process. As I enter the dark and lonely path near the end of my usual run, I know that the only way through to the other side is to take it step by step. To get home, a little bit stronger than when I began. It’s a powerful and energizing experience.
So whether it be writing a novel, running a marathon or attempting a task we feel instinctively drawn toward, our path won’t always be made clear to us, and there will be many steps to take before making it to the other side, but we can only reach that goal if we decide to begin, and take the first step.