Need less, desire less

Need less, desire less

Clare Gallagher

• 4 min read

This past fall, I trained for my first road marathon. I was stoked. After watching so many friends race road marathons in the past years and hearing my mom's stories of her road marathons, and of course, being a Molly Seidel fan, I was so excited to embark on my own.  

Within weeks of focused training with my coach David Roche, I could feel my body getting fitter, the miles ticking by more easily. Flow came on every long run. I found myself settling into a run-focused lifestyle, caring about my bedtime, putting my feet up more often.

And yet, I didn't slow down mentally at all. I continued to rack up a long "to do" list, never satisfied with what I was "doing." A part of this mental rat race was almost constant consumption of information. This has been an evolving habit for me in the past few years.

Read headlines, check social media accounts, text friends, plan the weekend, send emails, listen to podcasts on 10-minute drives, listen to podcast on  30-minute runs. It was constant. It was too much.

On one four mile easy Friday run, a mileage respite before a big weekend, I was listening to a podcast, Bad Blood about the Elizabeth Holmes trial of all topics. A half mile from my house, running on a quiet neighborhood road, I fell. Hard. I tripped on the lip of a sewer hole in the middle of the road as I tried to read a yard sign – Boulder had a contentious local election –  while listening to the podcast.

Sprawled out on the road, I inventoried my body. Ugh. I could feel my left knee had taken some of the fall. This knee has broken my fall two other memorable times in the past year: back in January keeping me out for a month, and at mile 35 of Western States making the race less than ideal. I removed my earphones and cried as I walked home, holding my palms up to lessen the blood seepage. A walker starred at me "Are you okay?" "Yes," I smiled, tears rolling down my cheeks.

The story is not very interesting from here. In short, whether from the fall or my subsequent haphazard training, I developed some minor tendon problem in my tib anterior. This sidelined me for most of the rest of the year. I didn't race the road marathon.

What is interesting is that this injury time and a simultaneous breakup forced me to slow down. I stopped listening to music or podcasts on runs. I ate breakfast in silence, staring out my window. I read a variety of Thich Nhat Hanh's books. I went to meditation at a local Buddhist center for the first time in eight years. The last time was my senior year in college when I practiced regularly. I swam laps for hours, loving the monotony of the bottom line.

That trip on the sewer lip was a breaking point of filling my brain, my days, my time with too much. And not enough quality. So, in the past few months, I've stopped habits that weren't serving me. I stopped multitasking as much, like listening to distracting podcasts and using Instagram. So much of our time is spent consuming. What am I consuming? I've started to ask myself more. Also, what do I think? I realized that I cannot form opinions on complex topics if I'm spending more time on social media than books.

In my desire to simplify, I looked for examples of people who'd successfully honed their digital consumption. Lorde the pop star is a shining role model.  When asked why she doesn't use social media, she answers: "I did it because I felt like my brain wasn't working very well anymore. It was horribly difficult. The hardest thing I've ever done." And why did she do it? "It's the experience of reading about the world all the time. I felt like I didn't have time to decide how I felt about anything. I would be like what does everyone else think? And that would be some version of what I think. Now I just give it a bit more time. But it's very, very difficult and I'm truly only doing it because I'm trying to write songs and was wasting a ton of time."    

Obviously, I'm not Lorde. But I, too, have benefited from not wasting as much time on social media. I still look at screens, but what I'm reading or researching or has begun to feel more intentional, higher quality.

In the same vein as Lorde, my friend Niko applauds how much the internet has given us. We can learn so much online. But he admonishes funneling so much brilliance and creativity into these cookie-cuter formats created by tech monoliths. I relate to this. I felt like my brain was losing some of its edge by creating content for a little square. In turn, I've found myself with more time to read, talk to close friends, and learn about my passions like how to build a freediving setup or how to really care for blisters. Even though I was fit last fall, now, I feel good.

Lastly, while reading a phenomenal novel set in Hawaii, Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport, this passage screamed at me. Spoken by the protagonist, Pono, to one of her granddaughters in a dream:

“YOU ARE ENTERING MIDDLE LIFE. NEED LESS. DESIRE LESS. MOST THINGS, AFTER ALL, ARE NOT WORTHWHILE. WITHDRAW FROM THEM. TAKE JOY IN STRUGGLING WITH THE LAND. BE TRUE TO BLOOD. ALWAYS FACE THE SEA.”

Now, I'm hopefully not quite to middle life and I don't face the sea at my home in Boulder, but the bulk of the advice still holds.

On my runs these days (I've thankfully recovered from my tendon injury), I'm leaning into the simplicity of just me, my body and my surroundings. It feels good to face the drone of hours of being in my own head. It reminds me of when I started ultrarunning back in Thailand in 2014. I would run for two, three or even six hours at a time with just my retro running pack and my surroundings, often endless jungle roads.

Even though 2021 ended with a DNS, it restarted a path of simplicity. And I've never felt happier!