The Butterfly Effect

This entry was posted by Saturday, 19 April, 2014
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I am not a physicist. I am a writer, runner, and recovering bass trombonist. But that doesnt stop me from thinking that I understand physics. Ive read about a concept called “The Butterfly Effect.” The definition goes something like this: Small variations of the initial condition of a dynamic system may produce large variations in the long-term behavior of the system. It suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can eventually affect the weather in Kansas. Cool, huh?

It got me thinking about how small variations or changes in our lives can have unexpected long-term effects. I used to be an overweight smoker who didnt exercise, but small decisions over the yearslike going for that very first runhave produced large variations in my long-term behavior, helping me become the 45-time marathoner I am today.

That transformation didnt happen overnight. It didnt happen after one run, though many of us expect just that. We think that every run needs to produce some immediate benefit. Whether its supposed to make us faster or build our endurance, the effects of todays run are supposed to take effect, well, today.

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I think thats why many of us like to sprint the last quarter mile of our daily run. We like the feeling that comes from a hard effort. It feels like were accomplishing something. (By the way, that final sprint at the end of a run is a good way to pull a hamstring. Trust me on this.)

What I didnt know then was that there is a Butterfly Effect in running. It isnt the grand gestures and epic achievements that make us runners.

Sure, running for 30 minutes nonstop is great. Qualifying for Boston is great. But thats not ultimately what makes you a runner.

Its the little things we do every day adding up over time that matter. Its not just running one morning; its getting up morning after morning and running. Its not just eating better at one meal; its making better decisions at every meal. Its the small decisions we make almost without thinking that make us runners.

The lesson from todays run may not be important right away. Learning youre more comfortable wearing a long-sleeve shirt even when its not that cold out may lead to the best race of your life years later. Learning that you shouldnt have eaten the Firebrand Salsa on your nachos the night before a long run may mean a marathon PR somewhere down the road.

It may be a function of aging, or it may be a function of maturing as a runner, but knowing I dont have to squeeze significance out of todays run has made running much more satisfying. Todays run might just be a run. I take it in as a point of data on an elaborate matrix. I dont try to assign a meaning to it. I have faith that somewhere, sometime, it will matter.

I run now with enormous confidence that I am doing something good for myself. I run understanding that I may never know where the winds of some running epiphany started. And I run understanding that not understanding is all right.

This will be my final new column for Runners World. Im not retiring, just moving on. Id like to thank Amby Burfoot for giving me the first opportunity to write and David Willey for continuing that vision. Id like to thank a series of wonderful editors for giving life to my words. Finally, Id like to thank each of you for the privilege of entering your lives each month. You have given me a gift that I can never repay.

Waddle on, friends. Forever.

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