I recently came across this piece I wrote nineteen years ago. At first I thought I might edit and revise it for my blog, but then I decided to share it as is (including my reference to running without a walkman). I originally wrote this in 2004. It still speaks to me and I hope it speaks to you!
Running on Inspiration
Runners and non-runners alike will attest that people who run great distances can be a source of great inspiration. In my experience, running provides a perfect “incubation environment” for creative thought.
I am an unlikely athlete, a creative type, who initially took up running to stay physically fit in high school. I started running 1-2 km and morphed into someone who puts on my sneakers most every day and has just at the age of forty completed my first full marathon. At first glance my story might seem to be a bit of a cliché, but I’ve been running for a little over two decades. My attraction to the sport (my creative persona winces at that descriptive) is twofold. Over the years, running has kept me physically fit and helped me to manage stress. Running has also inspired some of my most creative thinking and ideas.
My conscious awareness of this additional benefit of running grew gradually. In my first career, I spent seventeen years in the consumer goods industry as a product developer and marketing exec. In order to balance my busy career, family demands, and personal fitness goals, I often ran at lunch time. Repeatedly, my most creative ideas for products, packaging design, and marketing approaches would “suddenly come to me” during my lunch time runs. I found myself literally bounding back to the office full of new or clarified ideas. I heard myself saying time and time again “I thought of this idea while I was running”. And I began to notice that if I had spent time on creative efforts and activities prior to these lunchtime runs, that my mind would be focused on those creative issues and challenges during my run. My creative thinking was enhanced by the repetitive, seemingly mindless activity of running.
Not only that, but I often took inspiration from the visual “snapshots” that I encountered on my runs. My work at that time was steeped in colour and fashion trends in home décor and my job involved developing names for colours, descriptive marketing copy, as well as product and packaging concepts. Something as seemingly insignificant as a pattern of pebbles or leaves on the ground or laundry on a clothesline on my daily running route could trigger a chain of thoughts that would unfold into a brilliant idea during my run.
I should probably point out that, in twenty-two years of running, I have never used a walkman while running. I have never felt the need for this distraction.
This past summer I moved on from my demanding executive position and took a bit of a hiatus, working part-time while exploring new career options. I also trained for my first full marathon. I followed the training schedule in John Stanton’s book Running: From Start to Finish. I ran the longest continuous runs I’d ever done. These 20-32 km runs on Sunday mornings took me 3-4 hours, yet they were neither tedious nor gruelling. Time flew. Mostly because, thanks to following John’s plan, I was in good shape to handle these distances and wasn’t fatigued from over training during the week. (A mistake I had made training five years earlier for my first half-marathon.) As a result, I didn’t need to focus my mind on finishing these training runs. My body went into automatic pilot and my brain literally took off.
My mind raced with creative ideas during these long distance runs. No longer solely focused on generating ideas for commercial purposes, I was free, for the first time in my adult life, to contemplate creative concepts purely for my own personal explorations. The morning sunlight, wildlife I encountered, roadside foliage, patterns of rooftops and fences all became inspiration for future paintings, ideas for photography projects and story ideas for creative writing. Because I had so many hours at one time to focus without interruption, I could examine creative ideas in great detail. My ideas flowed freely, one bleeding into the next, building on each other and then breaking apart to form new ideas, twisting and turning in as many or more directions as my physical path led me. Some of these intuitions I have followed up on, some I’ve left at the side of the road, and others I continue to “run with”.
Long runs are optimum, but I find now that I can pick up and continue on with ideas from run to run, similar to getting back into a good story when you are reading a book over a period of days. My creative muscles are “honed” and I am able to exercise this type of creative thinking even during shorter runs. I’m not a scientist and have only my own experience to bring to the table. However, I really believe that the effect of the repetitive nature of the act of running, and the meditative even trancelike state that runners experience, combined with cues from the inherently ever changing visual spectrum, available on even the most mundane running route, can optimize the free flow of inspired, creative thought. Once your body is fit, regular running, of any distances will free your mind to observe, meditate, muse, and explore. Concentrating on one’s own thoughts uninterrupted for any extended period of time and regularity is a luxury. In a world obsessed with multi-tasking, running is the perfect “sport” to exercise not only your body, but your creativity.
Me relaxing post run circa 2004.
Photo Credit: Unknown.
Dated technology references aside, running has been a great source of inspiration for me for over 40 years! I’ve run one full and five half marathons over that time. I've kept up my running while working as a Director of Exhibitions for a renowned art hotel and then as Visual Arts Manager and then Program Director for an arts an mental health organization. And now, self-employed in my coaching practice, I still run. I still love how it gets my creative juices flowing. I don’t run everyday like I used to but I still run two days a week. Plus I walk every day and I'm an avid cyclist. I consider moving my body in these ways to be integral to my creativity. It’s part of my process. It feeds my creativity.
What feeds your creativity?
Me stretching for a run earlier this summer.
Photo Credit: Madelyne Beckles.