Rachel Ann Cullen, author of Running for Our Lives, shares how running without technology and having a record of her performance brought the joy of running back.
In Running for Our Lives, Rachel shares moving stories of how running can help ordinary people to overcome struggles and challenges in their lives in incredible ways.
So apparently, I’m a naked runner. These are words I never imagined writing about myself in the same sentence. ‘What is a naked runner?’, you may well ask. To be honest, I only found out myself the other day. Thankfully, it’s not what you think. The world is spared the literal definition – mercifully, I run with my clothes on. A naked runner is somebody who runs without technology. In that sense, we are running free. Free from the constant assessments and data-gathering; free from the endless distractions of the all-seeing eye of Strava and other training apps.
For the last six months, I have run without a watch. No Strava, no HR monitor. No mile splits. No intermittent beeping or less-than-encouraging messages from an electronic device on my wrist informing me that I am ‘underperforming’.
Again, it’s another good question. It came about following a summer of chronic pain and frustration during which time I was unable to run at all (I was diagnosed with a bulging disc in my lumbar spine) whilst at the same time I was busy writing a book about all the ways in which running has helped people to overcome adversity. There was a stark contrast between what running had become to me in recent years and the way in which running was used as a tool to help people heal through unimaginable personal turmoil. In fact, the contrast was so great that it smacked me right between the eyes. Questions whirred through my mind. How have I got this so wrong? What has running become to me? How did running change and become something so far away from the inspiring stories I am now writing about? The answer was startlingly clear: I was no longer running for joy. I wasn’t ‘enjoying the process’ or even asking myself where I was running, and why. In becoming a slave to the technological god of Strava, I had lost the essence of running completely. I had been consumed with outcome and blinded to the concept of enjoying the journey.
When my back pain had subsided enough for me to commence running again, I decided that things would be different. They had to be. I couldn’t go back to how it was before, and I didn’t even want to. So, I decided to commit to four things:
I would only run on trails.
I would run without wearing a watch or technology of any kind.
I would run without listening to music.
I would only run when I felt like it.
Inspired by the stories I was hearing and writing about, it felt like something had shifted in my mind. I wanted to discover for myself the very thing these people were talking about; the thing that I had myself experienced many years earlier in the ‘wonder years’ of my own running journey. A time before Strava and mile reps had killed the joy I felt from running to the point where I almost lost it entirely. And I began to remember that time vividly. I recalled the many joyful runs; the marathons I ran with ease and the training runs which weren’t a means to an end; they were an end in themselves. I ran because it made me feel free and alive like nothing else had. All of this came rushing back as I took my first tentative steps back to running in a completely new way.
At first, it wasn’t easy to make the change. Just like breaking free from any long-term habit, I felt strangely – naked. Beforehand – without my running watch – I would have immediately turned back at the realisation of forgetting to put it on; the prospect of not logging my run on Strava simply inconceivable. It was my foolish belief that if it wasn’t on Strava, it hadn’t happened. My ego also took an initial kicking. How will I feel without the evidence of the miles I’ve run and the splits of my speed reps? Even my logical brain tried to get involved. You won’t know how hard you’re working without the constant stream of data from your heart-rate monitor. It felt strange to be completely tuned into my surroundings and to find that when I stopped for whatever reason, my right hand would automatically reach to press ‘pause’ on an invisible watch that was no longer on my left wrist. It felt like my own mind was trying to convince me to go back on my pledge before it had even begun. And social media didn’t help, either. Seeing the hourly posts of other people’s running adventures and the usual add-on: ‘Yay! 16 miles in 7.55 m/m pace!’ That was me. It was me for a long time. But something had changed.
It didn’t take long for the magic to happen.
I’d always told myself that I was a ‘road runner’ – that I’m no good at running on trails. And just like the early days of my journey into running, I began to feel this self-propagated myth being dispelled right in front of my eyes. Not only can I run on trails, but I can also ENJOY running on trails! Sure – it’s a different kind of running to the mile reps and years of training for road marathons, but it was something I could still be a part of, even when my head told me that wasn’t the case. I began to realise that where and how I run is just as important to me – in fact, it’s more important – that what any data could possibly tell me.
Choosing to run along beautiful trails made me more able to relate to Maria’s story of healing following the death of her young daughter; hearing the gentle sounds of nature enabled me to understand how – in the depth of her grief – the silence and the birdsong soothed her soul. I began to enjoy taking photographs of the many views of sunrises and hillside shadows. It mattered to me that I was running and being part of nature. So much so, that I soon forgot that I wasn’t wearing a running watch at all.
My own personal healing has taken place thanks to hearing the stories of others and following in their footsteps – learning to see running as a journey through life rather than simply a place to get to which never arrives.
I am thankful for all the people who have shared their stories with me and helped me to learn that there is another way …