I used to have a rule: Any run longer than six miles required headphones. I didn’t have an MP3 player in 2005, when I trained for my first marathon, but by the time I’d signed up for the 2009 Cork City Marathon, I was an iPod devotee, spending the Friday or Saturday nights before my long run adding to my playlist and calculating just how many Killers tracks I could acceptably fit into a 2 ½ hour training session. Plugging those buds into my ears and hitting play sent me into my own little bubble, bouncing along with no fear of boredom, oblivious of my surroundings, whether I was skirting a lake gleaming with snowy swans or counting off miles along some generic road. The inevitable slump that I used to feel around seven miles never registered, the heaviness in my thighs from mile 12 seemed to lift, “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll” or “Blood Buzz Ohio” were guaranteed to spur me to new speeds when my pace slackened.
Then one day I forgot my iPod. I opened the glove compartment, and there it wasn’t. I was all set to put the key back in the ignition and drive the three miles home to retrieve my electronic friend. How was I going to get through 14 miles on my own? What would happen when I got to the long creep of a hill that appeared completely flat but made my quads scream? How could I put down more than two hours of my life to a soundtrack not of my choosing? I decided to find out.
And it wasn’t that bad. I’m not going to say that my eyes were opened to the wonders of nature, that my feet felt the pull of the earth spurring me to a new personal best, or that the meaning of life revealed itself to me as I creaked past Ross Castle around mile nine. In fact, I did find myself dwelling on how far I had gone and how much further I had to go and wondering had I always made so much noise as I thumped the path in my Mizunos. So, no, it was not a revelatory experience. What I did find, however, was that the experience did feel more like running and less like going for a run. I was not just ticking another training session off my list; I was conscious of my steps, of the terrain, of the people I was passing, and the sounds around me (even if much of that soundtrack seemed to consist of my unnervingly noisy breathing and the aforementioned thumping).
So now that I am training for the Lakes of Killarney Marathon, I am running completely wireless. My times are definitely slower, as I don’t have “Tubthumping” to power me through the last few miles, and I am feeling every twinge and ache more than I would have with the distraction of a playlist, but I am also feeling freer to explore—not just the place where I’m running, but the space inside my head.