The Existential Dilemma of Running

Jeremy Sharp, PhDpurpose/meaning/existentialism, sport psychology Leave a Comment

Running is one of my passions in life. I caught the running bug about five years ago when a friend challenged me to run a local 5k. I “trained” for about two weeks by running as far and fast as I could each time out, often running through pain from the previous day’s run. As an aside, do not train for your first race this way. Check out the internet (especially the Runner’s World website) for any number of better plans. But I digress. After the race was over, I overheard a couple of people talking about a  “half marathon” a few months away. Now, I’d heard of marathons – those endeavors undertaken by the fanatical and sometimes insane. No way would I ever do that (I’m currently training for my third marathon – shows what I knew). But a half marathon sounded like a nice compromise…challenging but not torture. So I decided to run the first one I could find (with appropriate training this time!). And this was my discovery of running, something that I can’t imagine not doing now.

Which brings me to today’s post. I went back to South Carolina for my brother’s wedding at the end of June and naturally packed my running shoes. As I prepped for my first run in the very hot, very humid climate (which reminded me why I like running in Colorado so much) I made sure to put on plenty of sunscreen. But there came a point during the run where I found myself feeling REALLY hot and started wondering if the sunscreen was actually protecting me at all. Which got me thinking about how often I just assume that things will “work.” In this case, it was the sunscreen. I followed that thought train for a while (it was a long run) and arrived at the frighteningly naïve assumption that my body would always just “work” when I wanted it to, namely when I wanted it to run. Then I thought of the time that I was injured and couldn’t run for a couple of months, and THEN I thought of the possibility of never running again due to some other injury.

Talk about existential dilemmas. In just a few short years, running had become many things to me: certainly a stress relief and a way to stay healthy, but it had also become part of my identity. I am a runner. People who know me know that it’s just what I do.

At this point I was thinking hard about sports psychologists/therapists and the crucial role that they play for athletes, particularly college athletes, as they work through the emotional pain of injuries. It breaks my heart to think about these young adults who become injured, sometimes permanently, and lose their primary identity in the process.

While I don’t advertise myself as a sports psychologist per se, I frequently work with clients on existential dilemmas and loss of purpose. And this is what we’re really talking about, right? It may be losing your identity as an athlete, or an engineer, or seeing your kids grow up and feeling lost now that you’re not a full-time parent. Whatever form it takes, loss of identity can send any of us into a state of depression over what we’ve lost or anxiety about a future without this identity. It can be easy to pull away from other activities or disengage from relationships that were previously meaningful. The challenge is to stay present to your experience and recognize that meaning and identity can be found in any number of places. Athletes may take up a different sport while rehabilitating the injury, newly unemployed individuals may volunteer or rediscover old passions, and older parents may find time to reconnect with their partners or themselves after dedicating so much time and energy to children.

Above all, I remind my clients (and myself, during times when I feel “lost”) that value as a person and self-worth don’t disappear with a loss of purpose or identity. You keep these things no matter what, through the searches for meaning that all of us go through.


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