Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Wilcock

Call this my “hippie running” post.

What does the 1969 film Easy Rider, which encapsulates the hippie era, have to do with running? It’s about time, man.

Wyatt and Billy the Kid (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) set out riding their choppers from LA to New Orleans. In the opening sequence, Wyatt takes off his wristwatch at a gas station and throws it away. Later in the film, Wyatt says “I’m hip about time…but I just gotta go.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about time when running. I’m hip about it, but I just gotta go.

We live in a biometric era, a time when our wearable technology can increasingly track our bodies’ performance, our heart rate, how many steps we take, how much we sleep, and, biggie-of-all-biggies for runners, how fast we go.

Wyatt’s character would likely agree with me about this: we lose something important when we watch the clock. Over long periods of time, we are just quantifying our own slow decline. PRs, I’m convinced, are good short-term motivators but long-term torture devices. Time is just one dimension of a run’s quality, and for me one of the least important.

Far better, I think, to run “free and easy”—to steal a line from Crosby*, Stills & Nash—outside of time’s constraint. With head up and ears free, I can notice the trees and gather energy from birdsong.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than an easy rider, economists would probably label me a “free rider,” because I don’t pay for benefits I derive from most of my running friends who wear the high-tech Garmin watches that beep every mile. I’m not opposed to asking them how fast we’re going, or how far. I’m not a purist. My advantage is that I don’t care that much about time while running. Since I don’t own a watch, I’m not incentivized to start caring.

So what about competition? What about prepping for the big race? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about that. Time has motivated me in each marathon I’ve run. I’m not fast. My best time in a full marathon is 4 hrs 08 min. But here’s the twist: I’ve run my best marathons when I mostly forget about time and focus more on the energy of the crowd and how each ‘distance down and still feeling good’ is like money in the bank.

This hippie-like mentality was inspired in part, ironically, by a very competitive runner in his day: Jeff Galloway.

A bit more than a decade ago, when I first started running, I lucked out when my aunt’s brother-in-law recommended to me Galloway’s Book on Running. I picked up a copy, which influenced how I think about running ever since. Early in the book, Galloway gives an overview of distance running’s history. Running’s massive popularity, which incidentally began during the 60s/70s hippie era, came about in part due to the discovery of slowing down to cover longer distances. Later, Galloway defines the “runner” as someone who has evolved past the competitive stage and is motivated mostly by running’s intrinsic value.

Reading this book, I thought to myself, why not take the short route to enlightenment—go straight to runner: run slow for pleasure and physical benefit. I pride myself about not giving much of a damn about time. The relative who recommended the book to me also served as inspiration. He started entering the Marine Corps Marathon in his 60s and ran a couple of them pretty well. Here I was in my 20s, and I thought to myself, damn, I’m slouching. There must be something to this wise way of running.

Galloway is a major figure in the running world, mostly known for coaching running to take walk breaks early and often to obtain a better performance/time overall. He has good arguments for this. To return to the theme of time, I think the walk break point to how time is tricky. Everyone knows the story of the tortoise and the hare and how it ends. That’s not what tends to happen in marathons. My money is still on the Kenyans. But in terms of enjoying a marathon, I think tortoises can take pride in smoking a whole bunch of hares that need to walk the last five miles.

This is undoubtedly the ode of the middle-of-the-pack runner. If I were one of the Kenyans, I’d no doubt sing a different tune. But if you take away the reference point of competition, what does it matter anyway? Running is a simple joy. It takes work, but it’s much more exhilarating than staring at screens all day. I get paid to do that, so why not be free from screens—including the small kind that track pace and distance—in the off hours? Most people haven’t considered the question.

So why can’t more of us just be hippie runners? We live in a materialistic world. When Peter Fonda throws away that Rolex, he’s making a pretty strong anti-materialist statement. Most runners, particularly beginners, aren’t coming at the discipline from a position of strength. They may feel they are weak and need plenty of motivators such as Garmin watches and MP3 players. When I talk to someone who says “I can’t run without music,” I think to myself, “Really? Have you tried?” The running industrial complex is happy to sell thousands of dollars of gear per annum to such runners. And why not? Although I agree that buying some running gear is a good investment in terms of preventative medicine, I also wish more people would kick their watch to the curb and run like a hippie: more nature, more conversations, less biometrically-fueled ego.

Take my advice or leave it. It won’t make you faster, but it might bring you some peace and decades of running.

PS- for a great hippie anthem that references long distance running and fire breathing dragons, check out the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” below. Happy trails!

*David Crosby reportedly was the inspiration for Billy the Kid’s character.

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