On Headphones and Running

When I was in the fifth grade, I completed a science project on the effects of music on exercise. I rode the brown and white stationary bike that was set up in a corner of my parents’ bedroom and listened to a variety of music on my Sony Walkman with the foam headphones, taking my pulse in between songs, allowing for enough cool down before I started up again. I can’t recall which song made my heart race faster, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it was something by Boyz to Men or New Kids on the Block that got my heart racing more than Mozart.

So when I started running alone again, after spending a semester running with a team, I found that I really did enjoy running to a soundtrack. Eventually, I got an iPhone, and I downloaded the Map my Run app. Having that woman chirp my kilometre splits while I ran along, listening to a playlist that was on an endless shuffle of an accidentally created playlist, kept me aware of how far I had gone and how far I still had to go.

I trained many Ks for my first full with that app chugging along in the background, but when it came time to lace up for the race, I left my phone at home  and just ran. If I had been wearing headphones on race day, like many around me, I wouldn’t have heard a gentle voice say to me as I approached a bank of Port-a-Loos, “Makes you glad you don’t run a 6 minute k, huh? Everyone runs a 6 minute kilometre and these toilets are always jammed up with a line.” I smiled, thinking, whoa, maybe I’m going faster than I thought. We ran together for a while, and then, since I had trained alone and wasn’t used to talking and running, a side stitch sent me waving my new friend, Willie, away.

And then, at kilometre 25 or so, I saw a shock of white hair at the water station and hollered, “Hey! Willie! You can’t get rid of me!” We continued the race together, pushing each other as hard as we could, embracing as soon as we crossed the finish line.


That wouldn’t have happened if I had my headphones on. 


And two years later, when I lined up for my second full, with no music but the sound of the waves crashing against the nearby beach, I started chatting with two women who would pace me for a good 10 kilometres until water stations and fuelling separated us. I met another woman who was running her first full, and we watched in awe as the elite half marathoners raced by us on our left. I met people who had just run another marathon the day before and who were running as fast as they could so they wouldn’t miss their return flight.


Those interactions wouldn’t have happened if I had been tuned out instead of tuned in. 


A friend at a recent 5K asked me if I ever ran with music on. I replied, “When I’m training, yes, but when I’m racing, no. I never know what I might miss.” I’ve run a few times with a local running club lately, which I love for the conversation and post run coffee, but I am not speedy enough for and am unfamiliar enough with their routes to feel comfortable being left behind. So, I’m back to training for another long race, alone with my thoughts and Pandora.


Recently, I was driving on my way back to my children’s preschool from a PT appointment, knowing that I had just enough time to get a 5K in before pickup if I really picked up speed. I looked in my belt and realised that I had remembered my inhaler, but forgot my headphones on my computer desk.


I shoved my phone and key in my belt, started my Garmin and just ran. I concentrated on my footfalls, heard my breathing, and focused on keeping my arms down instead of in the T. Rex position. I noticed people gardening, heard the train whistle blowing two streets over and the laughter of children on the playground.


All things I would have missed if I had been tuning them out. 


Am I going to run without headphones forever? Probably not. If I’m doing a long slow run on a Saturday morning, the kind that takes me through four nearby towns, then a podcast or some pop playlist are going to be my motivation to just get it done. But those early morning runs? The ones where it’s just me and the rising sun, and the farm animals across the street that bleat and moo and cock-a-doodle-doo before the rest of the neighbourhood is awake? Those are the ones where I’ll leave the headphones on my desk and just run.

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