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In the Long Run: Reflections from the Road

This is the title of a book by Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn, who is both an avid lifetime long-distance runner and a clinical psychologist. She shares reflections on what running means to her, both physically and mentally. One interesting insight I picked up was the psychological concept of “existential homelessness”, which means we feel we are not quite at home in our lives, or something important is missing. Jacqueline says she sometimes feels this way, but always feels completely “at home” when running. I also used to feel that way, and endurance exercise filled in the hole for me. Now meditation also contributes to making me feel at home pretty much all the time.

Dr. Gunn also emphasizes that running may not be for everyone and that we can get the same benefits she describes from other activities like walking, cycling, and swimming. That has been very important for me. I was a running enthusiast for more than 20 years before arthritis took it away from me, but now get similar “high” and fitness results from walking, hiking, and biking.

I also enjoyed the chapter on running and aging. Exercise can delay the onset of age-related physical decline, but not prevent it. Her advice is to exercise for the right reasons, such as physical, spiritual, and mental well-being. The worst reason to exercise, in Jacqueline’s opinion, is to try to continue to meet a cultural concept of youthful beauty. I know that would be true in my case. I may be fairly fit and trim, but I’m still wrinkled!

I would mention something else important about exercise and aging. We cannot prevent age-related decline in performance. People who enjoy competition or just achieving personal bests can get discouraged when in their 40s or 50s they realize their best performances are in the past and it’s “all downhill” from here. One remedy is to stop worrying about achievement and just enjoy the process. Another is to get into age-group competition. This can turn aging on its head! If you are doing competitive events like running, triathlon, or cycling time-trialing, it can make you look forward to landmark birthdays. I will turn 70 on January 12th, and I’m excited about where I’ll be on Strava cycling leaderboards in the 70-75 age group instead of 65-69! But I must admit I also care a lot less about performance and enjoy the “meditation in motion” aspect more than I used to.

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