David Hume for the Long Run

Deep into a long run, minutes slide into hours, subtly dissipating altogether to leave you unmoored in a heady temporalessness. This is running at the best of times. But there is also running at the worst of times: when calves cramp in a cruel conspiracy against your desire to drive forward, or oxygen seems to elude the space around your nostrils. Even when nothing is going wrong per se, there often comes a time when things just feel difficult. And when that happens, an insidious thought creeps along the corners of your mind: “Can this run please just be over?”

Today I discovered a powerful mechanism to combat this physical and mental fatigue, one that doesn’t even require the athlete’s deus ex machina, “willpower.” Around mile twelve of my run, I invoked the inimitable David Hume. Hume was on my mind, because I had just re-read Sarah Kareem’s excellent book Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder (2014), in which the skeptical philosopher is a central figure. Kareem begins the book with an endearing anecdote: after reading Hume for the first time when she was a teenager, she would practice his extreme skepticism while walking to school and try to convince herself — just for a second — that when she took the next step, the pavement would no longer be there to meet her foot. Because Hume, you see, believed that the “constant conjunction” of everyday events was not rational. Just because your foot always has hit the ground when you took a step forward doesn’t mean it will next time. Hume makes you think about the radical contingency of everyday experience.

I attempted to distract myself from the fatigue in my legs by thinking about how utterly bizarre it would be to live one’s whole life in such an earnestly skeptical state (which Hume, for the record, did not advocate). I began to imagine myself falling into nothingness on the next step, because the trail wasn’t there after all. No good. That was a rather terrifying and multivalent “trippy” sensation while running outdoors!

But then I realized that Hume could actually help me out on this run. “Experience cannot establish a necessary connection between cause and effect,” so, just because my experience told me that running longer would hurt more, it was not rational to expect that such would be the case this time. My endorphin-suffused brain lit up at this thought. I began to play Kareem’s game with a twist: trying to convince myself — just for a second — that the next step wouldn’t get harder, but easier!

Perhaps it was getting lost in thought about the problem of inductive reasoning, or maybe my body just levelled out with the right balance of water and nutrition, but the next five miles did get progressively easier. In fact, I finished feeling pretty darn good at a sprightly pace. So, thank you, David Hume, for helping me enslave reason to my passion for running.

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PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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