Anyone who's been running long enough will be confronted by a one-word question from the curious skeptic: "Why?"
My answers usually vary depending on my mood, but the best answer, I feel, is "Why not?" I'm not necessarily trying to be abrupt or dismissive. Frankly, the real answer is long, complicated and much more than the questioner bargained for.
Besides, the more far interesting (and valuable) question is "How?" As in, "How have you managed to keep doing something so boring for so long?"
I think about this from time to time. It's equally natural and sensible to do so; running without self-assessment can be counterproductive, if not harmful. Besides, as your "why" for running shifts -- in my case, from "don’t be laughingstock of cross country team" to "avoid the freshman 15" to "maintain my sanity" to "find the fountain of youth" -- your "how" has to change, too.
Here's how I keep myself motivated these days.
Set goals. Of course, there are ambitious race goals -- PR at a certain distance, conquer a new distance, run in a kilt while maintaining a shred of dignity, and so on. I try to set a goal for every run I do, though. It’s easy for workouts -- complete your tempo at this pace, do this many fartleks, run this many miles in your long run without collapsing -- but it’s much tougher for the random runs.
I recommend setting a goal that has little to do with distance, time or pace. Run past that bakery downtown and see if it’s open on Sundays. Break in new running gear. Try a new route for the first time. (I don’t like to do workout-y runs on brand-new routes, so this works quite well.) Setting a goal like this also has the added bonus of ensuring that you don’t think too much about your run.
Connect. I run alone. It’s my catharsis. But I’m not isolated. This blog is an obvious example of how I connect, as are the outlets I use to share it (Twitter and Google Plus). Joining a running club can certainly help, though here I’m a hypocrite, as I have put this off for years now.
Log your progress. For years, I did this in a monthly planner than my dad got from his bank as a free gift. (And by "got" I mean "took off the counter," but that's neither here nor there.) This year, as I’ve mentioned, I started using dailymile, which has the added bonus of connecting me with other athletes as well. While overall mileage is important, it's also good to log your pace and how you were feeling. Pace matters for speed workouts, but it's also worth logging for other runs, especially since, as you improve, your "slow" runs are going to get faster. How you feel, meanwhile, will, over time, help you pinpoint things such as weather, fuel or time of day that are throwing your runs off the rails.
Learn from failure. We all have bad runs, whether they’re workouts, races or otherwise innocent Tuesday evening jogs around the neighborhood that result in a twisted ankle, tree branch to the face or off-color remark from some moron passing by. I detailed this in the tale of my worst marathon ever, but the point bears repeating: Learn from your mistakes, then set them free. Dwelling on past failures only dooms you to repeat them.
Get back to "Why?" For some, it's a near and dear charitable cause. For others, it's a weight loss goal. For others still, it's a new distance or new PR. For me -- and for some of you, I suppose -- it's because running is so ingrained in your psyche that it’ll never go away.
"Why?" is an important question, it turns out, and for many runners it might be the largest motivating factor of all. But letting "Why?" supersede "How?" in importance is a bit shortsighted. The former is existential, but the latter is pragmatic. The former is sunshine, rainbows and hugs; the latter is a long run interrupted by a storm, a tempo run on insufficient sleep and a race in scorching heat. "Why?" will get you out the door. "How?" will get you to the finish line -- and beyond.