Smile, and the World Runs with You

The look of suffering: one of running’s 7 deadly sins. (Photo via

Fresh off a six-mile run, I got an email that made me wince.

“If running is so good, why do you seem to be in so much pain while you’re doing it?” asked a neighbor who’d passed me in his car and waved merrily while I was staggering up the last hill, apparently complete with ugly face.

I replied,  “You saw me on mile 6.  I was positively euphoric on miles 2, 3 and 4.”

This was true.  The first and last miles of any workout are often the hardest.   Besides, the test of any experience is not how we feel while we’re doing it, but how we feel after it’s done, so whatever discomfort we experience during a run shouldn’t matter.

But that said, I still committed one of the seven deadly sins of running:  looking to the world, or at least everyone who passed me that day, like running equals suffering. This is wrong on so many counts.

First, it makes the agony even worse.  To indulge in full-body suffering, all the way up to our facial expressions, does nothing to generate the positive energy we need to power our bodies back home without a walking “break” that turns into actual walking.

Beyond that, whether we like it or not, we’re all ambassadors for the sport every time we run down the road in sight of the sedentary public.   People tend to like people who smile; they tend to dislike people who frown. And one study said the feelings translate beyond inviduals, to whole groups.

The people who pass us don’t know or care if we’re on our first mile or our 10th.  But if they see a runner looking like Rocky in the last round with Apollo (“What’s keeping him up, Phil, I don’t know!”), they’re not likely to think, “Gee, that looks like fun, I should give running a try.”

Instead, our gritted teeth and contorted expressions make them think Neil Armstrong was right when he said, “I believe the good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to use mine up running up and down the street.”

Personally, I think everyone who can run should run, and those who can’t run ought to walk as fast as they can, as long as they can, every day. The world would be a nicer place if everyone was flooded with endorphins. So I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from running, even inadvertently, by a temporary pained look on my face.

The “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” in the 2011 Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Will King via Reddit.)

But the non-running public already thinks we’re loons for galloping around public streets in shorts when it’s 32 degrees.  It’s only more evidence for the commitment papers if we do this while grinning like jack o’ lanterns.  So we can’t look too happy, either, unless we happen to look like the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.

Running calls for extremes of body and spirit, but temperance of facial expression. No matter how miserable the blisters, or how positive our negative splits, we must strive for a pleasantly neutral expression, one that asks, “Wouldn’t you like to be a runner, too?”


I'm a single mother of four who has been running injury-free for 27 years, astonishingly without ever losing any weight. I'm a writer and editor near Boston, and author of "Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner."

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  1. Yes, I’ve always hear that phrase: ‘you never seem happy running.’ And if you look around, you can see why non-runners would say this.

    Some of my responses are that it hurts so good, and that my face is squenched up on the outside because of the extreme kaleidoscope of emotions I’m experiencing on the inside.

    If you compare running to some of life’s other most famous highs: Do these people have smiles on their faces?

    One of these highs I am thinking of shall remain unmentioned.

    But another example I can give ( having a history of addiction) is that I have seen the faces of many many folks getting high on various substances, and their face doesn’t look like they are enjoying themselves. But just ask them and they’ll describe an overwhelming experience going on inside of them that is not equivalent to what you see on the outside. It’s as if all the wiring in their body is on overload. (of course, with substances, the highs spiral downward over time, while with running, the natural highs build on themselves and grow over time.)

    Okay, that’s a lot for a comment. Got to go run now. And if I’m smiling while I’m doing it, I must be doing something wrong and I’m probably pretty miserable.

    1. Points well taken, Mark! You reminded me of a line from Dean Karnazes’ “Ultra Marathon Man” — “If it comes easy, if it doesn’t require extraordinary effort, you’re not pushing hard enough. It’s supposed to hurt like hell.” True of stuff other than running, too.

  2. This is a really interesting question. When I think about it, I think I usually just assume the passersby who see me running, especially when really pushing it and giving some ugly face, just think I’m batshit crazy. In fact, thinking about this made me realize that, at least in my own head, running separates me from my contemporaries: late 30’s haus fraus. I think I’ve just calloused myself to that feeling of difference and of not belonging that I think I lay it on thicker – immersing myself deeper into the experience of training hard and not giving a darn what anyone else thinks.

  3. Ha. I love the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy so I am glad he made an appearance in your post.

    I happen to be one of those jack-o-lanterns people are filling out commitment papers for. I can’t tell you how many times people (sometimes complete strangers) remark to me on how happy I look when I am running. Hmm, maybe I should be working harder? 🙂

    1. Sometimes we have to have “joy runs” …. like “joy rides” only on foot. I had one yesterday — no timing, no sports bra (the horror!), not even a hair scrunchie … just had the urge to get out the door and run, and so I did it, with no preparation. And yes, I was smiling! I think those runs, however rare, are the real reason most of us run… we suffer through the consistent hard work in exchange for the occasional easy run that’s just pure fun. pretty good tradeoff, I think.

  4. Here is a little more support for smiling: – “A study at the University of Kansas – a state where people tend to smile (except in the winter) found that smiling reduces stress. Participants in this research study who smiled were less stressed doing various tasks than those with neutral facial expressions. Stress levels were especially low in those with genuine smiles. Even those who forced a smile during an unpleasant task seemed to have lower stress levels.”
    So smile for your marathon pictures, I mean, who doesn’t want a picture that makes it look like that race was easy?