Let's talk about running.
I've been a consistent runner for over five years now. To me, running is a way to have a sense of solitude. The quiet, focused moments naturally allow me to connect with my inner self and organize cluttered thoughts. The process of internalizing what I'm feeling/experiencing at that moment always helped me to maintain and strengthen my mental health however circumstances I was in (e.g., working hard on a big project, writing a research paper, and traveling around the world for business, or even on vacations).
Moreover, running is a liberating activity for those who seriously hate competing with others, like me; unless you are a professional athlete, the only "competitor" is yourself for the sport, and you can freely play the game however you want only with a decent pair of shoes. Last year, the at-my-own-pace consistency brought me to a point that I've envisioned for a long time—I finished my very first sub-4 marathon at the Royal Victoria Marathon in Oct 2022.
* Photo from Matt Cecill Visuals.
Everything was positive, until recently.
The tipping point
Since my next milestone is to run a sub-3.5 marathon, I've increased the pace of my daily runs this spring and tested my fitness at shorter half-marathon races, Vancouver Marathon (1'35) and Ottawa Marathon (1'31), in May 2023. The results showed that I am capable of running long distances at a sub-3.5 pace, though I must recall that half and full marathons are completely different games.
Regardless of the progress I've made over the last few months, however, the process was mentally tough for some reason. I clearly felt running actually hurt my mental health for the first time. The longer and faster I run, the weaker my self-confidence gets—Why am I doing this? I also found significant mood swings during the period—What is the meaning of my life, really? And I felt like the physical motion is detached from my consciousness—Who am I?
In short, I suddenly lost myself while running, and I just kept running like a machine (or zombie, maybe) while searching for my identity. Well, I still have clear functional identities such as runner, hiker, traveler, minimalist, and developer. But what I lost was something more fundamental.
I know it was partially due to a bad life event that happened lately. Yet the situation was very strange because I think I currently have the highest quality of life and the least external stress in my lifetime. I couldn't understand what was wrong with me, and how to fix my deteriorating emotional states.
The emotional states are the complete opposite of what's known as a runner's high.
Ultimately, I came up with a hypothesis that an overdose of solitude amplifies your sense of loneliness. While quietness works effectively when your busy day is filled with a lot of external interruptions, too many of them won't be helpful for the social creature; humans aren't designed in a way that one indefinitely stays alone in a quiet environment. A monk who mastered mindfulness may be different, but I'm still not at the point. Consequently, extra time being self-conscious during the runs possibly damaged my health1.
After I suffered from a depression-like symptom last year, I have implemented several mechanisms to strengthen my social ties, and they are working quite well. Yet, as a working-from-home single, I normally spend more than 95% of my day physically alone2. In this situation, the deeper I dive into my inner state while running, the more introverted my personality becomes. And the hazier my identity gets.
What's worse is that, as I'm recently into philosophical studies as part of my learning journey3, I have had a tendency to overthink alone. My typical day in April and May 2023 looked like this: meditate, run, eat, read, think, eat, read, think, walk, eat, think, sleep. By contrast, in my understanding, real philosophers and thinkers are the ones who actively examine their life while engaging with others; the intellectual process won't be complete if your thought is enclosed within yourself. For example, Aristotle's life was full of interactions with other researchers and students. Similarly, the evolution in many scientific disciplines in the 19th century was driven by philosophers' mutual interactions as The Philosophical Breakfast Club illustrated.
No matter how many benefits aerobic exercises could bring, moderation is key to balancing stimulus and comfort, and solo activities won't play a meaningful role unless these are accompanied by social ties. That's my assumption, though I haven't had a chance to validate the argument yet.
On the one hand, the overdose of solitude forced me to touch the deepest, most fragile part of myself. This was (is, in fact, as I'm still struggling with it) mentally tough because taking ownership of one's life becomes extremely harder under this psychological state. On the other hand, the good news is that the loss of myself brought me back to a blank state, where I can draw anything from scratch; I can be open-minded more than ever if no one, including myself, can accurately define who I am. A strong, solid identity is powerful, but its fluidity is also something we as "dividuals" can celebrate.
Speaking of identity, it may not be a coincidence I'm experiencing such a psychological state here in Canada, a young country that consists of fluctuating, multifaceted identities. Simply living in the nation has made a big change to how I perceive myself, and I've got more opportunities to actively question who I am, what my life is for, and why I'm doing this.
On a day before the Ottawa Half Marathon, I found myself at Canadian Museum of History with a mixed feeling of loss of myself and excitement for the race. In my view, their massive exhibition of the pre-/post-settlement history of Canada4 is clearly questioning the identity to be Canadian. It internally bundles various physical and emotional states shared by "Canadians" in the past and present days, such as energy, conflicts, dilemma, regret, and struggles.
As a movie Being Canadian humorously depicted and I personally witnessed over the last 2.5 years, what's unique about Canadians is in fact the lack of "the" identity shared by the population. Not to mention it's not just about the mix of English and French-speaking populations. The characteristic can be labeled as diversity, but we shouldn't overlook the fact that diversity is often a synonym for complexity. It is indeed challenging as there is little to no implicit consensus people can rely on, but it's the beauty of the human society we live in today.
While running at the capital of Canada, my mind has been filled with a deep gratitude about the fact that I can physically situate myself in a complex environment. That moment was peaceful, and that's exactly why I keep running rain or shine, even if I lost myself in the middle; whatever happens, happens, and we could eventually reach an exit as long as we keep moving.
1. As I previously reviewed in "Loneliness Is Worse Than Smoking, Alcoholic, Obesity". ↩
2. As of writing, I open my mouth and interact with others for no more than 30 minutes on an average day, meaning that I'm in a quiet environment for 23 out of 24 hours a day (= more than 95%) regardless of the running habit. ↩
3. In particular, I'm studying Floridi's Philosophy of Information and its surrounding matters, which I partially discussed in "Information Sustainability, Mindful Consumption, and Healthy Engineering" Also, I have taken The University of Edinburgh's Introduction to Philosophy course. ↩
4. If you can be more serious about the matter, I highly recommend online educational contents. ↩
- My 2022 Annual Review: Towards the Deepness
- Starting with Empathy to #GetReal, Beat Loneliness, and Be Ethical. #MentalHealthWeek
- Quality Habit-Formation: It's Like Casting a Vote on My Desired Identity
Last updated: 2023-06-20
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. With a decade of experience at start-up companies and Big Tech ranging from full-stack/machine-learning engineering to data science to product management, I am currently working at the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications. See CV for more information.Support by donation Gift a cup of coffee
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