Hello; is anyone still out there? (echoes into the ether)
This space is in dire need of a refresh, isn’t it—so let’s get moving. No time to waste.
Back in May (how far back it feels), I left a story here about running. About my own evolving relationship with it, my questions about why we do it at all, and, in the simplest sense, a trail race. Concluded, closed, done. Box, meet check.
Occasionally, lately, I’ve still been pondering this conundrum of health-seeking in this as well as other spheres. Meaning, not only exercise, but also food, psychological and spiritual practices, relationships, and work habits. After recently exploring this with a friend on her blog, I still am left with the question of why so many people, mostly in the U.S., go to such lengths for so-called ultimate or perfect health.
One easier answer is this: that, on a certain level, we possess a simple desire to be well, to feel good, and to take care of the gift that is the body. It is the soul’s sole vehicle for navigating this world, after all.
Another possibility, more difficult, is this: that, perhaps, we must cope with that age-old problem of mortality somehow. That problem of not just navigating this world, but of how to actually do that. And of course, this past week (or these past months) (or this past year) (or years), this has become that much more potent; when so much is senseless, including how we live and die, running and walking and eating and stretching and so on—they are simple and they make sense.
All that in mind, it is interesting how, sometimes, this cultural concern with health can become borderline religious. Not necessarily surprising—nor is it an outright good or bad thing. Rather, it’s a curious thing, and has the potential to go in dangerous directions as well as beneficial ones.
But of course, it’s only one side of an enormous subject, and there are so many other reasons for being concerned about one’s wellbeing. So the question remains unanswered, which is frankly how I like most questions anyway.
And all of that aside, this long preamble is for an idea that might better be represented elsehow. Thus:
The river is running strong in this rainy season, its rapids gushing, and its movement is so enviable, something I crave. How refreshing would it be, I wonder, if our daily energy and movement were so rampant and wild?
We cannot literally have rivers running within us, as reviving as it would be. Yet that is the kind of momentum we need. And we especially need it in the face of that certain inertia that rises like a wall when spring arrives, as the cold air dissolves and is replaced by too kneejerk of a warming, of a humid overlay.
When everything seems stagnant, how do you find it? How do you choose the movement that works for you? I mean this physically, but also emotionally, and maybe even spiritually, too.
Recently, I started to more deeply re-engage with running, my movement of choice, after an injury forced me to cut back. I sort of forced myself to get back into the swing of it by ponying up for two race registration fees. The shame of getting dropped by the fasties in a 5K is that traumatic.
(Also, aforementioned fees are ridiculously expensive lately! That happened while I wasn’t looking.)
We’re in an interesting place, running and I. For a long time our relationship was somewhat forceful/codependent, i.e. I was the codependent one who needed it, and tried to make something special happen. If you are a runner reading this, perhaps you understand. And you probably also know that all of this is entirely unintuitive considering that, typically, we first start running because it is exhilarating. Because love is really what leads to speed.
Running fast offers something not unlike the sense of power—of autonomy—that comes with the relief of outside air—there is a freedom there.
It does not come as much from recklessness, though, as it does from balance, and from paying attention to momentum and inertia. A body in motion stays in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.
Lately, when it comes to running, pushing myself to the extremes I did before has been, shall we say, unrealistic. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that somethingin me doesn’t want to go there right now. Being extreme is cool, but unsustainable: it’s something we should definitely do, but more so in moments.
There is a strange freedom in going out in the morning to “bound” (jog?) rather than run. Or maybe, in clearer terms, to be out there and simply run instead of race myself. It’s an embrace of that old sense of effort-meets-ease. If it’s still running, it’s for different reasons.
That’s not to say it was easy to get there.
When I was in college and running was more about competition for me, I was like many an athlete in picking up a few unhealthy habits—though mine were more internal. You can get obsessed—borderline addicted—quite easily. This did not crop up immediately; it was gradual, and always mixed in with the more positive side of the sport, so it was tricky to pinpoint what exactly was going on. But I developed this constant vigilance, this layer of stress that wouldn’t go away, rooted in the idea that maybe I was not ever doing enough. Rather than acting on this idea by running too much, I did so by running too hard, and not resting enough—and overall by thinking about it way too much.
That kind of stress can affect your performance as much as physically overdoing it can. You can’t, I believe, always gauge whether someone is overtraining by how she looks, or how many miles she runs per week. If running is a mostly mental sport—90% mental, as one of my coaches put it—then how, and how much, you think about your training matters. And when those thoughts are tainted by anxiety and fear, it’s more than a little bit of a detriment.
These fears were mostly of inertia. I was a sure that, if I did not stay in motion, I would prefer entirely to rest. That if I did not run with as much intensity as my body could handle, I would turn the other way and become unable to pick myself up and go. I couldn’t take a day off unless the calendar said to. I couldn’t take training out of the forefront of my mind, because that would mean I was being lazy. I could not include people in this pursuit of so-called “greatness” and make it fun, because that would mean I was not working.
These beliefs came into full bloom during the tail end of my four years of college track, and it’s easy to see, in retrospect, the emerging pattern: that is, one of need.
I needed it. I couldn’t let it go. You could probably call that an addiction.
When I graduated, this turned into trying to grip my “career” (a term I use rather loosely) with both hands—else it would lose its meaning, and so would I. I fully intended to try and keep racing on my own terms. But in having this intention, I failed to comprehend the strength of the support that had surrounded me before. Nor, I suppose, had I wanted to, because all of this came down to avoidance. Something in me needed to avoid the truth: that I was—am—weak.
By this I mean, when we are human, we are weak. That’s it. When we do anything in an honest or vulnerable way, we show our weaknesses. And this is good. It’s necessary, but it’s certainly not easy.
Sinking into inertia is easy, though. Or at least, it happens easily. It starts with a week of late mornings where your body and mind definitely need the extra sleep, and morphs soon thereafter into two or three additional weeks of, “well, this is still happening, so that must mean I still need it. Right?”
(Rationalization is quick to respond with, “Right-o, my good fellow!”)
But the thing is, falling prey to inertia is about fear, too.
Fear that, maybe, control would slip away again if I started to constantly move again. That injury or imbalance would rear its ugly head again. Or that I would get too attached to movement and be unable, once again, to let go.
That reversal came with its own set of unintended consequences, because, though rest is important, it can also turn into less of a springboard, and more of a trap, or mire.
That’s when I had to wake up, and realize: it’s time to learn to move again. No: to move in a new way.
Not an easy lesson, by any stretch. Fear and old habits are potent. But facing down fear, thank goodness, is even more so. Because the thing is, I do truly love to run, and I am finding that there is more than one way to show it.
Sometimes you find that new sense of movement, and of vitality, by clambering through stupidly wide mud pits at an outdoors festival. Other times, it’s by admitting on the Internet or in counseling that you were once, in simplest terms, an exercise addict. And other, other times, it’s by giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself, and accept yourself, rather than try to be the best at every single thing in every single moment.
No one ever said giving up control was safe, or simple. But I’ve heard it’s worthwhile. And I’m counting on it.
I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.
Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?
Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.
Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.
For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.
It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?
No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.
Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top. There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.
The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.
It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.
The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.
I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.
Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:
Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.
Bryan Park(pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!
And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: