The Soundtrack of a Marathon

Whether or not to listen to music while running can be a hot debate in the running community, but when I started running several years ago, I never even questioned it. It was just a given that I would.

Seriously: Music was as integral a part of my early running experiences as shoes were. About 90% of the reason I started running in the first place was to have an excuse to buy a new iPod Nano, complete with Nike+ iPod kit. My husband’s first running-related gift to me was a mix of running songs from the iTunes store. I loved picking out new tunes and podcasts, making playlists, and developing deeply held opinions on the best headphones.

I could run without music, if I absolutely had to. My first-ever race had a trail segment, and when I read the race website a couple of weeks before, I learned that headphones were prohibited for safety. I think I cried. Then I tried going on some short runs sans headphones and couldn’t believe how hard it felt — did my breathing really sound like that? On race day, I bravely toed the line without headphones … and immediately latched onto a girl running with her phone on speaker. After I finished — faster than I expected, thanks to all that hustling to keep up with my music-playing race savior — I vowed to never run a race with a no-headphones policy ever again.

Then, I started racing triathlons. Scanning the rules for my first sprint, I saw those words again: No headphones allowed. Not at all. Not ever.

No way.

I’d already signed up, and I couldn’t get my money back, so I did the only other thing I could think to do: I quit music cold-turkey.

My First Running PartnersIt helped that I was training with a group at the time. For the first time, I understood what it was like to spend a run deep in conversation. I got through most of my first music-free long runs by chatting with anyone and everyone around me, and I made plenty of new friends in the process (and probably drove some people batty with my aversion to silence).

But what would happen when I had to run alone?

This is the point in the blog post where I’m supposed to say that I discovered a whole new side of running. That taking off the headphones opened me up to the world around me. That I became more in tune with my breathing, my stride, myself.

In reality? It was rough. I had to learn to be kinder to myself. Running without the distraction of music or podcasts opened me up to all sorts of thoughts — and they weren’t always the kind of thoughts I wanted to be thinking at mile 10 of 12. I’m also never going to be one of those zen runners who’s totally lost in life-altering thoughts while I pound the pavement; my music-less narrative tends to be something like: “Oof. Hot. Water? Water. Hill! Can I walk now? Not yet? Really? Squirrel! Water! Pretty! Lake! Tree! Water? Water.”

But when I ran my first two races without headphones, I realized what a different experience it was to tune into the spectators’ cheers, be able to hear the volunteers saying which cups had water and which had Gatorade, and chat with my fellow racers without that awkward moment where someone takes out one earbud and says “huh?”

I still pull out the headphones now and then. Music and podcasts are absolutely crutches for me as a runner — but they’re such glorious crutches! One of my favorite awkward running memories is the time I sobbed while running through the Panhandle listening to a Mike Birbiglia story on This American Life, and I still crave that moment when the perfect running song comes on and pushes me to run just a little harder for the next 3:25.

I crave it, but I no longer need it. So for the most part, these days, I leave the house music-free, hoping the last song I listened to was a good one (because it’s going to be stuck in my head for the next hour regardless). If you ever see me out running through Golden Gate Park, feel free to say hi. It’s pretty cool that I’ll actually be able to hear you.

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