I was meandering my way through Runners World this morning and found this quote from Deena Kastor, the American Record holder and Bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics:
"Ditch the music, especially on trail runs, and listen to your surroundings. It's amazing how connected you'll feel to your environment when you take in what's happening around you."
Years and years ago, when Nike was young and Etonic still made running shoes, I ran because I had to - my track coach thought even discus throwers needed five good miles a day. Though I must admit I never felt fatigued crossing the eight feet of the circle, I did it both because he insisted and, once I got fast enough, I could hang with the cute girls.
This was a time before iPods, before the Sony Walkman. We didn't listen to music as we ran. We talked. Some of us would sing, proving that we were better athletes than vocalists. If you saw another runner, you gave him or her a thumbs up or a little wave. And, shockingly, they would return the wave and with a smile - most of the time.
The boys dodged traffic - I first ran in Seoul, South Korea - seeing how close we could get to rear bumpers as we sprinted across the roads off post. A fun game, at the time at least, and none of us ever got hit by a car, proving we were lucky as well as quick.
(Quick aside on the invulnerability of the teenage American male - I had the misfortune to be cut off by a kimchi cab while doing 20 mph on my bike. The cab hit his brakes, and I crashed into his bumper. As I hurtled over the handlebars, I remember thinking 'Oh wow..." as I looked at the cab upside down. Hit, roll, back up to feet - being 17 is wonderful at the physical level - and ran to the cab - to make sure I hadn't damaged the man's car.)
The Sony Walkman changed everything. By today's standard, it's big and clunky and decidedly uncool looking but in the day. . . it was the hottest thing out there for walkers and runners. You could actually take your own tunes with you. No one ran with a radio - who wants to listen to commercials? - but the Walkman let you take your cassettes with you. If you have a long-playing cassette, you could get an hour of music, though you had to stop and flip the cassette to listen to the second half.
Runners - especially women - took to the Walkman in droves, and you could see them nearly everywhere, running in spandex at low speed, earphones mounted on their ears, rocking in a little musical world of their own.
Most runners still didn't use the Walkman. It was a pain to carry and would pull down your shorts if you clipped it to your waistband.
Enter Steve Jobs and the first iPod. Small, smaller than anyone had previously envisioned for a playback device. Light-weight. And, instead of an hour of music, days of music. And, did I mention small, small enough to wear on a sleeve? Small enough that you don't even notice it's there as you cover ground and lose yourself in the music.
The iPod took music mainstream for the average runner. If my local community is any indication, more than half of the runners today use some version of iPod (though some use their phones - mine would end up in the river. Just saying....) They - and it's both men and women - tune in and zone out on the local bike paths. I've seen the distinctive white wires on runners as they shuffle across dirt trails and forested paths.
I could rant on the dangers of listening to music while running- I banned my daughters from using an iPod. We live in a small community, relatively safe, where we have neighbors instead of people occupying houses next door. I still worry about my girls running, zoned out and unaware of the environment around them. Zoned out females are a favorite for many predators. . . .
The loss of connection is a bigger issue for me. Running, especially on trails as Deena noted, can ground you and carry you, with each step, to a place that you share with the world, a part of it, not separate. Magic happens in those moments when the tumult inside quiets, and there is just breathing and striding out, angling into and out of turns, all happening on a deep instinctive level that we all have.
Those moments, fluid and fully aware, connect us to the world around us as we move as unconsciously as an animal, whether it's solo or part of a pack. Instead of tuning in, it's flowing out, joining instead of isolating. The music stops that, turns us inside the song. disconnected from ourselves and other runners and the wider world where every sense tingles.
So give Deena's advice a try - ditch the music for a while.
And when you see another runner, give them a thumb's up - we're all connected to the same big pack.