I ran my fifth marathon in September. I’m proud of that, but this post is more about what happened while I was running it than it is about the race itself. As a setup, though, you should know that running is as much a spiritual endeavour for me as it is a physical one, and that its benefits to me are myriad and wide-reaching. It’s like my church, and it has saved me just as much as any conventional religious experience might have.

Music serves many of these same functions for me — it is a mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical pursuit that enriches and challenges — and I can’t imagine my life without it.  However, although I’ve done my fair share of distance running, I’ve never listened to music during a race. Lots of people do, of course, but the etiquette still dictates that one should not. People who are thoroughly ear-budded may miss race-specific announcements, say the purists, and runners distracted by music may not be as attuned to the subtle messages their bodies transmit during the self-inflicted torture that frequently is marathon running.

Well, perhaps. But what I decided was different about this race was that relatively few people had signed up for the full marathon distance, and that the majority of this distance was taking place outside of any urban environment. Pounding along country roads with the receding dots of faster runners as my only visible company might get lonely, I thought, so I decided to take some music along, and jam-packed my phone accordingly.

Race morning was cool but not cold, overcast but not raining — ideal running weather, actually, and once the pack thinned out and we full marathoners were pretty much left with our thoughts I was glad to have my playlist for distraction and inspiration.  If you haven’t had the complicated pleasure of running a marathon, allow me to share that — for me, at least — Mile 17 begins the approximately five-mile-long section of existential crisis wherein this stupid decision to take up distance racing is deeply questioned, followed by thoughts like “Running is crazy,” and “I’m never doing this again as long as I live.”  Inspiration is not only welcome at this point, but pretty damn crucial, in other words. And luckily, it came — in the form of a great song at the perfect moment.

Like I said, the morning had been overcast, but at Mile 17, as I found myself at the top of a small hill with a vista of farmland in various states of harvest before me, the sun broke through and lit up the world with gold. And right then a song I loved started playing, as if it had been cued to some kind of divine soundtrack — right at the point where the heroine wins the prize, gets the guy, and is slow-clapped down the gauntlet to the podium. My heart swelled and I forgot the pain in my legs and lungs. I spread my arms wide, not caring if anyone was close behind to see, and I ran down that hill feeling like the universe had blessed me with wings.

God, that’s the power of a song, isn’t it? The right song at the right time makes the gears click into place, the colours brighten, the rightness of our place in the world become clear. You can’t grab for it, though — a song gives what it gives when it chooses to. Music is a gift, whether we make it or hear it, and the right song can make any of us feel like our “heart[s are] gold, [our] feet are light,” like I felt that September morning on a country hilltop.  I wish moments like this one for all of you, as much as I wish more of them for myself.

Here’s the song I mean. Listen to it while doing something you love, OK? For me.