On the Run

(or Left, Right, Left, Right…)

Once upon a time, I fancied myself to be a runner.  Before I had kids, I used to run regularly and it was my exercise of choice.  I preferred running outside, but probably did most of my runs on a treadmill at the gym at work because it was convenient and appealed to my statistics-oriented brain.  I could monitor and track time, distance, speed, calories, all right on the treadmill console.  I kept a running log in a spreadsheet (of course!), charting my progress to run longer and faster and tracking when it was time to buy new running shoes.

I really started running seriously when we lost the baby.  I poured most of my grief onto the treadmill as running felt like something I could actually control.  I could control the speed of the treadmill or how far I wanted to run each day.  I got lost in tracking the numbers and statistics and could therefore avoid dealing with the overwhelming grief I experienced inside but wasn’t able to process.  I loved getting lost in my own head for a while, far away from the torturous real-world.

But then I had to ease back on the running when trying to get pregnant, and I stopped for good once I was actually pregnant.  At first the nausea made it impossible to run, and then later, other pregnancy complications put a definitive end to my running habits.  In the time between when we lost the baby and when I got pregnant, I had worked up to running nearly 20 miles a week.  And what I noticed was that an old pain in my knee, from ACL-reconstructive surgery back in college, had re-emerged.  (As an aside, I always find it interesting when you cross that threshold of something or someone being in your life for longer than not.  For me, I’ve now had a bum knee for longer in my lifetime than I’ve had a fully functional knee.)  I consulted with a specialist, I went on a wild goose-chase to get my old medical records from a university hospital 300 miles away, I had an MRI.  And all of it showed nothing was wrong.  I was just getting older, and probably exerting too much force on my post-op knee.  Once I stopped running with such intensity, the pain went away.

And yet, I love the meditative nature of running.  I find that running clears my head in a way that no other activity can.  I think this is because running requires so much mental energy, especially for an uncoordinated klutz like me.  If I am running outside, there are so many obstacles to be avoided: cracks in the sidewalk, cars, other runners, dogs, geese.  It takes a surprisingly large amount of energy to stay upright while moving at a fast speed and navigating so many things in the outdoors just waiting to trip you up.

I wish I could say that the treadmill is easier, but that is simply not true.  I once tried to carry on a conversation while running on the treadmill, and when I lost my focus, down I fell.  I was so embarrassed that I got up and continued my run.  It was only back in the locker room when I realized how badly I had bloodied my knees.  And since this happened only a few days before my sister’s wedding, I soon found myself at the Macy’s make-up counter to purchase special cover-up designed for burn victims in an effort to conceal my injuries.  I now know better – if I’m running on a treadmill, don’t try to engage.  I really should wear a shirt: “Running.  Don’t talk to me!”

So as long as I am able to keep myself upright, running often puts me into a wonderful trance-like state.  And from there I can clear out the cobwebs and often get some real thinking done.  There is a precious space between the end of a run and when my brain starts firing again, when I experience an actual stillness and calmness, an inner peace.  It doesn’t last long, but it provides a momentary respite.  This is the actual essence of a runner’s high.

I sometimes can get the same experience in yoga.  It’s not as consistent as with running, but it can happen.  At times, I can get so lost in the poses and movement that I am unaware of the passing of time or anything else going on around me.  In those moments when my brain takes a break, I can ground and center myself.  Just for a minute or two, and it is a welcome break whenever it happens.

Another thing I love about running is this – at its core, it is just one foot in front of the other.  Just when you think you can’t go any further, you just have to put one foot down, and then the other, and so on, even with an aching knee.  If you just look at the finish line, it can be overwhelming.  But if you break it down into simple steps, you soon realize that you just have to take that first step, and then the next.  It’s really an apt metaphor for any big project, or even just for life.  In my yoga class the other day, our teacher looked at me and said “you look like you are just trying to get through the day.”  And that was true.  Some days it’s just about a long sequence of small steps and getting from one day to the next.  My beloved camp director lived by this mantra: “Here at camp we don’t live day to day but thing to thing.”

I’m sure it helps to have an idea of the direction you are headed, but maybe it doesn’t really matter as long as you keep moving.  One foot in front of the other.  One step at a time.

A part of me still harbors a dream to run a marathon one day, but even with a “one step at a time” mentality, I’m not sure my knee could withstand it.  And I know I don’t have to run 20 miles a week to make a little space for me to breathe.

So I will just take it one day, one step, one breath at a time.  Moment to moment.  That’s about the fastest pace I can muster right now, but at least I’m moving.

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