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Is Running Selfish?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I'm a few months shy of turning 30, and many (most) of the people I grew up with have embraced the sensibility and stability of marriage, parenthood, and the 9-5 (plus a side hustle) grind. Their common complaint is not that their husbands are annoying or snore too much or leave beard trimmings in the sink. It's not that their kids are belligerent or that their bosses are intolerable. No, their most common complaint is that they don't have enough time to do everything they want to do. And when they have a million things to do and other people do attend to, something has to give. Often, the first thing to go is the morning workout or the after-work run.

"It must be nice to have so much free time," they sigh, and I'm not even mad about it. They don't know what occupies my time, and frankly, it's none of their business. One friend told me she gave up running because it would be selfish to take that much time away from her family. One friend expressed jealousy over my weekends in the mountains. Another asked me whether or not I feel guilty that I spend so much time running. My answer was no, not really.

Of course, it is selfish to train, especially like I do. I plan my weekends around my long runs. I wake up early to make sure I get my workout in, and in doing so, often wake up my partner. I don't go to Saturday brunches, and I often go for a run or the gym after work. I spend a lot of my weekends out of town, volunteering at races or racing myself. My long runs can eat up the better part of a Saturday and afterward, I'm often so tired that I'd rather loaf around than do anything or (God forbid) go anywhere. So yes, it can be selfish to train. But I also know that training makes me a better person. Training hard requires discipline and determination and humility and pain. Training like I do also requires that I put myself first more often than not, but prioritizing myself also makes me a better person, a better partner, and a better friend.

I'm not convinced that a bit of selfishness is a bad thing, despite the negative connotation the word carries. There is no real difference between running for an hour or getting an hour-long massage. There's no real difference between a vacation on the beach and a vacation built around a race. Women especially spend so much time making sure that other people are happy that we forget how to be happy ourselves. We believe that selfishness is a luxury, but somehow, we got the equation wrong. Selfishness isn't a luxury, it's necessary.

I asked my own circle of friends if they've ever been told that running is selfish. Some I've known almost my whole life, some I've only known a few months, but all of them have run for some amount of time in some sort of competitive capacity.

"My mom made me feel bad in college; would make me feel guilty for having to train."

"Someone once told me that running is selfish, but I was in an abusive relationship. I was taking time away from 'us.'"

"It's totally selfish! But you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first."

"Yes it's selfish but that's ok. Nobody wants me around them if I haven't been taking care of myself."

"Any hobby can be selfish, not sure why running gets so much pushback."

"I've had people tell me it's selfish to train so much, mostly my wife. It's important to find balance."

"I don't think it's selfish, but it is a sacrifice of time."

"The act itself isn't selfish, but if it takes you away from being available to others it can be."

And my favorite, "I just read this in a book, 'Don't allow anyone, including yourself, trivialize what running means to you. Yes, it can be selfish, but if everyone pursued a passion the way that you and I love running, the world would be a better place.'"

A person can be selfish in many ways, but zeroing in on a hobby like running seems especially common. Running doesn't center around family life. It doesn't solve any cultural or societal issue. For many of us, running is an escape; from a demanding job, a busy family, a hectic calendar. For me, it's often an escape from people; an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and appreciate nature. If someone works too much, they are at least providing for their family. They are at least being productive. If someone is busy raising their kids or building a business, at least they're forming something. But if someone spends their free time running, they are only building a better body and mind for themselves. It does seem inherently selfish to people who could never understand that the ability to be strong in body and mind is the only way to have a solid foundation for the rest of life. And, it's the only way I know to remain sane, and therefore, remain patient and kind.

I think the root of this question isn't selfishness at all, but passion. If someone is passionate about something, who is anyone to stand in their way? It's arguably more selfish to condemn someone for spending time on their passions than it could ever be to pursue them. It isn't selfish to run, just as it isn't selfish to work or write or sing or sleep.

My take is this: if you've found something you love, consider yourself lucky, and pursue it with all you're worth. The people who love you will understand. The people who are jealous of you are unhappy. And the people who try to take you away from the thing you love are not good for you, period.

P.S. Read this Podium Runner article about selfishness and running here, or this take on the matter from I Run Far, or zoom out a bit and read about selfishness more generally here.


Sarah Rose

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