Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst and writer, is not surprised by the growing popularity of retreats: 'People are aware of having too many external stimuli. What do you hear when you stop listening? The question is about whether anyone has an internal world any more.'
This is what running provides. Every week my long run is the equivalent of a retreat, because there is nothing but the movement of the body through space. This can happen automatically – you get into a rhythm and the body takes care of itself allowing the mind to be blank or drift onto various topics so that attention can drift. Alternatively there can be full attention and one is aware of how the muscles and breath are working together. In a similar way you have a sense of the space you are moving through, either through having to pay close attention to the ground because when you are off-road you have to be careful where your foot lands or by having a more generalised appreciation of the landscape, which tends to come in and go out of focus.
Through running you discover your animal core and without that I do not believe you can have a complete sense of being. Running is obviously not the only way to do this; yoga, for example, stretches the body to prepare the mind for meditation. I find running a better route because it is simpler, more direct and rhythmic. However I only really get a sense of oneness on long runs. In one of my earlier posts about injury I quoted Joe Henderson saying that when he was not running he really missed the short, nondescript, filler runs. With me that is not the case - I easily drop those. What I miss, and miss with great interior agitation, is the long run and the chance (as it does not happen every time) of getting to the state of sensing the body with an empty mind.
I think this forms part of my manifesto for the soft-core runner. The hard-core runner is deeply wedded to stats and targets, mileage and times (mostly long and short, in that order) but I am soft-core and my objective is the ineffable sense of being a good animal. Through that, eventually I might become a better person. (The might and eventually are heavily underlined in the last sentence).