This story first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Competitor magazine.
This fall marathon season, thousands will gather at starting lines. Many will run for a fitness and racing goal, or as a means to rk through a personal struggle. Some may run in dedication for a friend or loved one, while others will run for a charitable group.
Running for a reason outside of our personal pursuits allows us to see things from a different view, while also giving us an opportunity to give back. We might even figure out why we run, and consequently understand life a bit better.
This past summer I had the privilege to be a part of The Nature Conservancy's Team Nature that ran the Safaricom Marathon in northern Kenya. Beyond raising money for the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and running a marathon amid a stunning landscape, the trip provided a greater understanding of how running continues to connect me with people and experiences in unexpected ways. These experiences remind me why I run, why we all run.
Imagine a landscape where elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, zebras, lions and cheetahs are all just a few of the animals roaming the undulating savannah where a marathon course carries a couple thousand runners down a two-track dirt road. Just days earlier on these same plains, I watched as a cheetah moved swiftly through the grass and small groups of gazelle ran smoothly alongside a herd of zebra. They know when to run and when it is safe to rest. No training plan or heart-rate monitor is needed. These animals, large and small, are in touch with a "sixth sense," something we tap into while running by feel and get immersed in the present moment. We also tap into instinct on those days when we know we can push the pace and when it is best to take it easy.
After the marathon, we visited an elementary school funded in part by the Safaricom Marathon and The Nature Conservancy. By western standards, the schoolrooms are meager to say the least, but we were told the school is far better off than most in rural Kenya. It has a concrete floor -- most are dirt -- but a lot of learning takes place there despite the simple amenities. Classrooms have 60 children, most of whom have walked and run six miles across the wildlife preserve to get there, and, of course, will run another six miles home. Running and walking are still primary modes of transportation in rural Kenya, and there's a lot to be learned from that in our more developed world. The more we make the effort to do errands and commute to work or school by running, the more we, too, can connect with the original mode of transportation.
Midway through the trip I ran on the open grasslands of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Rift Valley with Maasai warriors. For centuries the ancestors of this tribe ran down gazelle until the gazelle fell to exhaustion, and I can't help but imagine us on a persistence hunt as the warriors run effortlessly alongside me. Rather, they now are running with our group to protect us from the lions and leopard that roam for prey on the open plain. Running is akin to survival in the rural Kenyan environment, no matter if you're the hunter or the hunted. We tap into that survival mode on a similar level when we chase down the racer in front of us or give it our all on the track during the last few intervals of a speed session.
While on a short training run along a dirt road in the Lewa Conservancy, I passed through a village. Out of nowhere a young boy joined me and ran alongside me. I hardly noticed he was barefoot as he floated across the rocky dirt road because his face was all one big grin. We exchanged a few words, but mostly we smiled at each other for a couple of miles before he turned around to head back home. He reminded me running is a form of play, something that should be fun. Since my trip, I continue to think of that boy's smile and try to plug into that feeling of playful joy no matter how hard I am running.
Striding across the African savannah reminded me as humans we are all a part of something bigger, a web of life that goes beyond that heart and leg pounding body of ours. Running gives us meaning and a sense of direction. It provides new insights and unexpected connections to the world around us. Look for them on your next run, wherever it might take you.
Based in Boulder, Colo., Scott Jurek is a seven-time winner of the Western States 100-mile trail run.