Rediscovering the joy of running, sans iPod

There was a time when I would never have considered running without my iPod. I purchased one back in 2006 after signing up for my very first half marathon, finally succumbing in my typical laggardly fashion to the latest “must have” electronics craze years after everyone I knew. I remember the excitement of putting together those first running playlists, and the thrilling, almost buzz-like surge in adrenaline during training runs when just the right song came surging through those sweat-soaked ear phones. It was entrancing, motivating, and for this neophyte distance runner doing most of his training runs alone, it was a Godsend.

When my first iPod gave up the ghost, circa five minutes after the expiration of it’s warranty period, I quickly purchased another one. I was hooked, and the thought of doing long solo runs without that magic little music box seemed unthinkable. Every time I began to struggle up one of Columbia’s many long hills, AC/DC came to the rescue with “Rock & Roll ain’t Noise Pollution”, or the Beastie Boys came calling with “Sabotage”, or the Bottle Rockets with “Take Me to the Bank”, and I was instantly transformed, energized and back on my game. It was like music doping.

Following that first gasping, near-death experience in the half-marathon, the inevitable happened – I decided to do a full 26.2. As the training runs got progressively longer, my dedication to the iPod only became stronger. During long stretches of my training for the 2007 Myrtle Beach Marathon I was away from home – mostly deployed in post Katrina Biloxi, MS, in my role as a claim team manager. There may be less runner/pedestrian-friendly cities in the world than Biloxi, but I have yet to visit one personally. In all fairness, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was in the midst of a mighty recovery effort following the worst natural disaster in U.S. history – one in which Biloxi was basically “ground zero”, sustaining overwhelming damage, the level of which could not be grasped until seen first hand. So, constructing pleasant ribbons of asphalt trail through leafy greenways was not exactly a high priority. The focus for them was on putting the pieces back together.

As a result of the aforementioned conditions in Biloxi, I spent the last two months prior to the Myrtle Beach 26.2 training on a treadmill. For anyone who has ever attempted a 16 mile run on a treadmill, you know what I mean… it was awful in the most mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly way imaginable. The only thing that made it even remotely tolerable was the iPod.

At this time, the United States Track & Field Federation (USATF) had placed a ban on the use of iPods or other such devices during their sanctioned events – one of which, being the Myrtle Beach race. And so as the race approached, I began to dread having to run that far without my iPod. I had never run more than three or four miles without it, and I wasn’t sure I could keep the demons of fatigue and pain at bay without it there to provide those timely infusions of energy and diversion of thought.

I made it through Myrtle Beach (barely), and following a short recovery period, was thrilled to be reunited with my iPod for the next round of training. I went on like this for several years, putting in countless joyful and mindless miles, happily preparing for other races while likely doing untold amounts of damage to my hearing. Whatever the price, I was a solid iPod loyalist.

Not long after this, I had the good fortune to find a wonderful running partner (and my eventual wife) in Melissa. As we ran together more and more, I used my iPod less and less – only using it during my solo runs, which were – thankfully – becoming quite infrequent. I began to enjoy running without the iPod – not having to worry about keeping yet another gadget charged, not having to put up with the annoying headphone wires, not having to search for new playlist music as the old sets got stale – it was freeing.

Sometime last year, my second iPod finally died and I have yet to replace it. I’ve come to enjoy even my long solo runs free of the wires and loud music. There’s a connectedness that I’ve rediscovered and it’s wonderful. Loud music has been replaced by (I cannot adequately explain to you how nice this is) a welcome silence, broken only by the rhythm of my own breathing, the crush of gravel beneath my feet and the singing of birds. I think more clearly, and whatever problems I might be grappling with pre-run are typically solved by the time I finish.

In 2008, the USATF amended their ban on iPods and now allows the devices in their sanctioned races, unless you are competing for a podium finish (something I have never had the burden of concerning myself with). I think this is a shame. When I returned to Myrtle Beach to run the half marathon this past February, I was taken aback by the ubiquitous nature of the devices. They were everywhere. Part of the charm of distance running is sharing the experience with your fellow runners. This is rendered nearly impossible since the USATF rule change. Hundreds of racers spent 13.1 or 26.2 miles plodding along in their own private little worlds – cut off from their fellow runners and oblivious to most of what was going on around them. As I passed one lady in particular wearing a “50 States” t-shirt, signifying that she had completed marathons in all 50 states, I was intrigued and started to congratulate her, only to be rebuffed by the sight of white ear bud wires. Unreasonably perhaps, this annoyed me. Further, it marked the completion of my iPod journey from non-user, to dedicated loyalist, to dispassionate burn-out, to fervent advocate for iPod-free running.

Sure, my running may not be as fast now – mostly because, post iPod, I’m more apt to stop and read historical markers and I actually listen to my body, pacing myself accordingly, rather than raging through runs hopped up on Angus Young guitar solos. But I’ve rediscovered the true joy of running, which lies in the medicinal nature of it’s simplicity – free of gadgetry and canned motivation. Besides, I just may have earned myself another few years free of hearing aids.

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