Running Towards Consciousness

Mile Twenty One in the Bronx2 - Running Towards Consciousness
Mile 21 of the New York City Marathon.

In discovering self-consciousness, Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am.” To explain the experience of self-consciousness in such a manner presupposes that the mind and body are separate. This however, remains to be seen and is a constant debate within philosophical circles. Are the mind and body separate and does the existence of one preclude the experience of the other? Are they unique amalgamates clearly combined into one entity which is existence itself?     

I propose this ontological question in relation to the experience of exercise and athleticism. I have been running for about 20 years, and when people ask me how it is that I can discipline myself to wake up every morning at the crack of dawn and run no matter what, I again re-evaluate the meaning my running has on the essence of my existence. I sometimes wonder myself what motivates me as I put my running shorts on in the morning and head to the track for an intense speed work-out. I know I am walking out the door, and that in 15 minutes, after my warm-up, I will be battling and pushing myself in the face of pain.

Many friends and acquaintances describe the desire to exercise but are continuously frustrated by their lack of motivation. They often ask me questions hoping that some of my passion for running will wear off on them; they want to know my secret. I believe it is very frustrating to desire the effects of being in shape—increased energy, better state of mind, weight control, muscle tone, cardiovascular fitness and the list goes on—and to find oneself unable to achieve such goals because of a lack of motivation.

I recently completed my third marathon, a 26.2 mile road race. In order to be prepared and train for such an event, I had to wake up every morning religiously and run. Every Saturday for four months I got up at four o’clock in the morning to run between 14 and 20 miles. This may sound more like work than pleasure especially for those who have difficulty staying on a stairmaster for 30 minutes.

It is the intensity and challenge that first attracted me to running. The perseverance and determination that is required to run past the point of pain mirrors the challenges faced in other aspects of life. There is such thing as the wall that all marathoners have encountered at one time or another. This usually occurs around the 20th mile, but can happen at any point during the race. At this point, the body completely runs out of muscle-moving glycogen, and the lactic acid builds to unbearable points. In other words, it feels like you are never going to make it, and it hurts to move on. It is at this point that one contemplates stopping; I mean, the pain is self-induced and all one has to do is stop running.
However, it is at this point that the mental component of the sport is the most important. It is the ability to push in the face of indescribable pain, to pull from within, and find reasons to go on that enables one to finish the race. At the New York City Marathon, my second marathon, I hit the infamous wall at the 22nd mile. At this point, I was in horrific pain, and my legs, once bouncing along effortlessly, would not turn over without extreme effort. I was fatigued to the point of absolute and complete exhaustion. I knew, however, that I had only four miles to go and that stopping at this point was out of the question. When I entered Central Park at the 23rd mile, I heard the crowd cheering, “You made it, only three miles to go.” I was very emotional at this point, fighting off tears of joy and pain simultaneously.

As I pushed on, I actually became faster and faster. I pulled from within and found the strength to go on. I became stronger than I had been throughout the race. Those last four miles were the most painful, and yet the most satisfying part of the race for me. I remember thinking, “I feel so powerful and strong. Where am I getting my energy from? How has my stride become so efficient?” I was stunned by my own power. It was the best part of the race for me and one of the best moments of my life—the point where I recognized I could accomplish anything if I set my mind to it.

Although on a smaller scale, I get the same satisfaction from my daily training. I do not run necessarily to stay in shape—this is an added benefit. I run because of the intensity. I run for self-growth and knowledge—to enhance my existence. I never feel more alive and yet at peace than when I am running. It is the true experience of the mind-body connection; it does take both powerful forces to run! I feel my mind and body as one when I run; I feel complete. Therefore, I believe the lack of motivation stems from the neglect of the spiritual side of the exercise itself. It is this part that keeps me going.

Life can be difficult at times, and many questions have no answers. The determination it take to go on and the resiliency required of the human spirit to find joy is an integral part of existing as human. Running is symbolic of this struggle. The joy and satisfaction come from meeting the challenge head on and from realizing that just when you think you cannot go on any longer, if you pull from deep within yourself, you will find strength beyond anything imaginable.

— Jacqueline Lisa Simon Gunn

Today’s guest contributor, Jacqueline Lisa Simon Gunn, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan and is the author of In the Therapist’s Chair; Analysis of the Relationship between Shame, Guilt and Empathy in Intimate Relationship Violence, and Breaking Through My Stride. Dr. Simon Gunn’s new book, Bare: Psychotherapy Stripped, will be out soon. Her website is

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