Running has great utility: it promotes fitness, therapy — of the mind and body — and often builds community. Though, strip away the routine, rhythm, metrics, monotony and you often discover a deeper purpose. For unlikely distance runner Alex Takacs, its purpose is both ritual and remembrance.
Takacs, the owner of a private dental practice in Philadelphia, once “took pride in not being a runner.” The night his wife, the progeny of a family of runners, gave birth to their first of two daughters, everything changed.
During the 24 hour labor, Takacs received a distressing call; his best friend was in the hospital and wasn’t going to make it. At the very hour when he should be experiencing elation, Takacs had to navigate the heart-wrenching news of losing someone close to him, just 33 years into this young life.
The tragedy moved Takacs to embrace the fragility of his own mortality. Running soon became a way to honor his friend’s memory by continuing to push beyond his comfort zone, “squeezing as much out of each day,” as possible and training for life’s daily, unpredictable and unavoidable challenges.
In 2017, Takacs started running, a couple of miles a time, before completing a virtual marathon during the pandemic. On the one-year anniversary of his friend’s death, he notched 33 miles. Today, one marathon, three 50 mile races and a 100 mile race later, he’s transformed his body and mindset.
Tell us about the experience of training for the 33 miler.
Alex Takacs: I had done a marathon before that on my own and I [was] getting physically sick and throwing up during it. And when you're doing something like that for the first time, [you think], “Why am I doing this, I never want to do this again.” But I was determined to do the 33 miles. The training wasn't that intense, compared to what it would evolve into. I was running 40 to 50 miles a week and just gutted it out. I was very green; I didn't have water on me for the first 20 miles and I was getting dizzy by the end. It was an introduction into the headspace this stuff takes you into.
When did you decide a 100 mile race was your next goal?
Alex Tackas: After the 33 mile and 50 mile [runs], I liked the wellspring of confidence I was getting. [It was] the confidence to know that throughout the day, things were gonna go wrong, but I have to keep pushing through because it'll get better. That really was translating to my life in a way that I wanted more of it. The next thing up is 100 kilometers, which is 62 miles. There’s no 75 or an 80 mile race, so the progression becomes 100 miles by meeting people who have accomplished it. These guys had a certain cold bloodedness — a quiet confidence that I really admired.
You talked about taking pride in not being a runner. How has that changed?
Alex Tackas: One of the things that I've really gotten into along with running is meditation. I try not to identify myself with running that much. I'm very proud of the things I've accomplished. But I don't really identify myself as a runner, because it could be taken away in an instant. I could go out tomorrow morning and sprain my knee and it’s done forever. I'd rather not make it a part of who I am as a person. It's really a vehicle for self development and self growth.
What have the combination of running and meditation taught you?
Alex Tackas: The idea of not having a finish line. The mind will never be fully settled. We'll spend our whole lives meditating and on the attempt to get there, but you'll never get to a point where the work is done. It's not about completing something. It's about doing hard things, so that in your daily life, when inevitably, hard situations come up, you're more apt to cope with them.