The thrill, the challenge, the rush, the high – mile after mile, what keeps the runner coming back for more? In an exclusive interview for cult running label Satisfy, runner Sam Anderson chases the electrifying surge of The Runner’s High .
It starts first with activating the body in movement and the meditation comes later.
Why do you run?
Running connects me to the empty space inside me… a place that feels dark and empty. And I find myself coming back towards myself and finding light so in a way every run is like a journey through my own darkness into the light. It’s this place of emptiness and a place where I’m just listening to my breath – I don’t listen to other voices, or music. I just listen to my breath.
It’s a meditation but I think that it starts first with activating the body in movement and the meditation comes later. You have to break through this sort of calcification of the body and you break that down with the movement and it opens up into meditation later. Some people would say that’s the Runners High. But the first hour never feels light it usually feels painful and dark and then slowly you start to break down a lot of the barriers inside of you, breaking into a space of lightness towards the end, especially when you’re running long like 1.5-2 hours. The last hour you feel like you’re barely on the surface of the earth
If I go 3-4 days without running I feel like a zombie. I start feeling estranged from myself.
What happens when you don’t do it?
Running has become such a discipline – 5 years, every single day. Because of my past I have a lot of mental things to work though every day and this is my way, everyday, to be unreachable and completely alone, no other voices. I can just tap into myself and see where I’m at. If I go 3-4 days without running I feel like a zombie. I start feeling estranged from myself. Im always living on the precipice of fear of not being able to to do this for my own sanity. Fear of breaking a leg or getting injured
So are you addicted?
I don’t really like that word. It has a negative connotation attached to it – a “I can’t get away from this” thing attached to it. I think that people like to use that word with running because it looks like an addiction but everyday I gotta push myself out there to go for a run. If you’re a drug user you don’t have to push yourself to take drugs. It’s passive. The absence of saying “no”. Whereas with running it’s something you have to actively say yes to. That’s the difference. Running is a discipline, not an addiction.
I get annoyed with this rhetoric sometimes because some people think I’ve replaced drugs and cigarettes with running. But doing drugs, smoking and drinking like an alcoholic… I didn’t have to actively pursue those things. They were always around me. It was easy. This is different… I had to step into a state of control.
The mind acquiesces, kind of accepts being along for the ride.
Describe the sensation of a long run.
I studied metaphysics in college – the philosophical study of what it is to be a person. To be alive. Metaphysics is very much concerned with the relationship between the mind and the body. Is the mind – this thing that I think I am – is that just my physical brain? or is there a soul living in the body – what’s in control? Running is a very interesting space to observe this body-mind interplay. Because in the beginning the body always wants to stop and the mind says no – keep going. As the run continues this dynamic reverses. After an hour or two the mind gets tired and the body takes over because it knows the reward is coming. The mind acquiesces, kind of accepts being along for the ride.
Can you describe how your senses respond to the effects of a run?
Have you ever heard of the Doppler effect? It’s the change in frequency of sound or light when an object moves away or towards you – the way a siren changes as an ambulance rushes past.
As a runner you’re kind of the Doppler effect embodied – you’re passing things at much faster speed than normal so your brain is processing the same information faster. There’s sort of this widescreen element to it where your surroundings are changing so quickly that you’re having to consider all of these changes at once while moving through them – so there’s a naturally higher state of awareness. All while this is happening your body is under a constant state of duress – your core body temperature goes up by about 20 degrees, so your experience of the weather is different. Everything is activated. Everything is rising. Both inside and outside.
What’s it like running in NYC?
Running in New York, you’re traversing neighbourhoods, connecting very distinct places and feelings from each neighbourhood or zone. I used to run in the city a lot because I think I was less aware. My first 3 years of running I was always running in the Lower East Side, and over the bridge to Brooklyn. I had been living here for 8 years or so and I wanted to reclaim what the city meant to me through the eyes of a long distance runner. I remember 2 years ago I had a 22 miler scheduled. I t was a really important run and I didn’t know it but the course I had planned out was going right past the United Nations and it just so happened that that morning, Trump was speaking at the UN for the first time so the whole city was on lockdown. So what started out as this really beautiful morning and spiritual state where I was digging into a 22-mile run in the city, suddenly 8 miles in I’m like walking through midtown trying to figure out how I’m going to get away from the police barricades that are completely cordoning off the middle of Manhattan.
These days are different – I focus on training in a place where my flow will be unhindered and I’ll really be able to get the most out of my time.
You’re talking about Prospect Park?
Prospect park is like going to my studio. I know what the conditions will always be, I know that it’s a place where I can grow. When you talk about the concept of having a studio – What you want from that experience is consistency. It’s hard to be creative if things around you are always different, because then you just end up focusing on what’s going on around you. But if you’re going into a studio to paint or make music it serves as the fixed point where you can go and focus solely on the changes inside. So in that way when I go to the park with the intention of spending a lot of time with myself and my spiritual state – it’s very important that the environment is the same every time.
You do gain the ability to go deeper over time, the ability to stay with yourself longer and longer.
How do you feel running helps your relationship with yourself?
I think it’s interesting to use running as a tool for watching yourself from above. I learn a lot about myself, about my fears and my weaknesses… as well as the things that I want to get better at or maybe just spend time with creative thoughts. And a lot of times it feels as though I’m observing these things while perched atop my shoulder. You’re kind of “watching the watcher” as a Buddhist might say. You do gain the ability to go deeper over time, the ability to stay with yourself longer and longer.
What are the challenges about running in New York?
Car traffic. There are too many cars in the city. A lot of people are not paying attention to where they’re going and forget they’re driving a 1-ton metal costume down the street. You get into a car and suddenly you can just be an asshole. And people act in ways they wouldn’t act in pedestrian life because you have this armour on.
That moment you finally think something of yourself you come around the corner, and the skyline just swallows you up.
Traveling in cars or by train, and working in offices are ways in which we can quickly become disassociated with what it means to be alive. That was one of the things which led me to run on trails – you’re just completely surrounded by the natural world. Instead of cars honking or people screaming and throwing cigarette buttes all that’s replaced by birds chirping or the mist off the ocean and it changes your perspective and reminds you of what you are and who you are. So for all those reasons I avoid the city.
The last 5 years there’s been this romanticism of urban running but I only run through the city to get to the places which open up to the natural world. The film we made traces that journey a bit. Because it’s rare that you can just open your door in New York and you’re in the middle of a park or near the water. You have to travel from where it is you live to the place where there is peace. So in an interesting way the film we made traces the path from where one lives – running through the craziness, through the traffic and the heat and the filth and then arriving in the place where there is peace.
New York City reminds you of your place in the larger picture. And New York City reminds you of your place in the ecosystem of your community. It sort of levels you out. That moment you finally think something of yourself you come around the corner, and the skyline just swallows you up.
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