Thoughts on the Run
I am convening at the UUFM on Sunday and have put together a program on running and meditation/spirituality with another fellowship member. I’m giving him the mic for most of the “sermon” time, since I think he has a lot of interesting material to share. However, I have 6 minutes of my own to declaim and thought I might share it with you:
I was 24 years old when I decided to start running. I made this decision for various vain and frivolous reasons and I do not believe that my decision to buy decent shoes and put on garish pink shorts and hit the pavement of St. Louis meant in any way that I had decided to become an athlete. On the contrary, running was something I was going to try out because I was incapable of being an athlete. Of this I was convinced, having both been told it often enough as a young person and having seen the disastrous effects of repeated attempts at sports involving hand-eye coordination, speed, killer instinct, or any combination of the preceding. Since I could not play softball, soccer, pick-up basketball, or even kickball, I figured I needed to do something with my body in order to prevent the weight gain that I was sure would accompany graduate school; as sure as hunching over all those novels and essays would destroy my posture and worsen my eyes.
So I ran. Or tried to. St. Louis is beastly hot in the summer and icily treacherous in the wintertime. I learned what “ozone warnings” were; and I learned to take them seriously when I had to cut a run short because I could no longer breathe. Steadily, I improved from mostly walking to mostly running.
We moved to Berlin and I ran 3 or 4 days a week, my runs giving structure to my days without classes or a regular job. I ran through parks and took mental note that Germans did not run. I was alone on the paths most of the time, occasionally seeing middle-aged men pass me by. I thought about running a marathon and didn’t make it even half way through the training—learning the limits of my body in a new and visceral way. Utah, tee-totalling, theocratic Utah, introduced me to hashing. The Hash House Harriers often describe themselves as drinkers with a running problem. With them, my solitary “activity,” or, if you will “practice,” turned into a group activity. Laughs, silly names, very bad beer. Running as social event. I ran some races. Never fast. I got pregnant and I got slower. Much, much slower.
Every November for the past 15 years I have gone through a running slump. November is cold. The lead-in to Thanksgiving and Christmas too full of social obligations and egg nog to leave much room for a run. It gets dark early in November and the dark days coincide with my darkening mood and I huddle in fleece sweatpants and drink wine to warm my heart. This past year, I decided to counter the November slump with a plan to run a December marathon. My usual practice—my 3 or 4-day per week running schedule that aggregated small numbers of miles into mid-range numbers of miles by month’s end—was upended and turned into more miles at a faster pace, run with a diligence unknown to my “athletic practice” in the past. I had a training plan, broken down into 16 one-week chunks, that told me what to do and how fast to do it and, for the most part, I stuck to that plan. I followed the rhythm of marathon training wherein you up your mileage and speed to a point where it is no longer comfortable, then you scale back to recover, and start all over again, when the speed and distance of two weeks ago no longer seems unmanageable, but rather a distance you have mastered before and will master again. Two steps forward, one step back. Dragging my body along behind my will. My feet hurt. They were ugly. Blisters were involved. Ana reminded me that running was for horses, not people. I totally understood.
Ana teaches me yoga. Yoga and running are the most diametrically opposed activities I can think of. In running, I force my body to do that which it does not always want to do, feels unable to do. In yoga, there is no force—just awareness, compassion, breathing in and out. However, I’ve come to the realization that both my running and my yoga are practices.
Those of you who are runners will know what I mean, and perhaps the yogis, meditators, and tai-chi practitioners will be able to understand this, as well. Last week, Kathleen and Cathy talked about the idea of love, unconditional love, being a practice—something you renew your commitment to each day when you awake—an attitude, a promise to yourself and others to love, be compassionate, forgive, fail and try again in a spirit of generosity. The Japanese novelist and runner Haruki Murakami writes the following, and I think it explains running as a practice: “Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.” (vi) Running is my opportunity to take a stance toward my body—an encouraging, confident, passionate stance. Perhaps that is my philosophy.
I am not a fast runner. I harbor no illusions of ever winning a race, of qualifying for Boston, of wearing the laurel wreath of the victor. Thus, I have found it practical to not be toooooo hard on my body. If the training regimen running a four-hour marathon would kill me, then I will aim for the 4.5-hour race instead, and be happy that I ran it. The act of running it will suffice. Out there, pounding the pavement, breathing in and out, finding the stride and the pace where ease and effort meet in a not-too-uncomfortable junction.
Murikami uses running to discipline and order his day and to achieve the mental and physical endurance and patience he need to write his novels. Orthodox religions, too, use the body to discipline the mind. Kneeling, bowing, covering, bending, prostrating—motions bodies go through to cleanse the body of external distractions and focus on the divine. As I remained unconvinced of an external divine who demands my physical sacrifice, I run in order to cleanse my mind of the static and frustration that accompany so many of our days, to feel my breath going in and out of my body, to see my body as a tool and a temple. Sometimes I solve the world’s problems during the first half of my run, only to forget the solutions as the exhaustion of the last half catches up to me. Thus I run—I hold on fast to this mortal coil, then take one more step and try and outrun it.