What I think about when I think about running.
Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a book about his experience of being a marathon runner called ‘What I talk about when I talk about running.’ I love his writing and I love that book, a slim volume that is an intimate peek inside the mental kimono of a complex man with a beautiful mind. I just completed my first half marathon, and found the experience to be mentally and physically profound. No matter how many run alongside you, like all things in life, you are on your own, and as you are pushing your body to its limits, you also get to spend some intimate time with your mind, and you need to be ready for some of its opinions and obstacles.
I had the best, most diligent intentions about training when I booked in 6 months before the race. Then I did nothing. Nothing. Not one training run, despite carrying my trainers to destinations around the world to deliver on my road to hell paved with intentions (no shame or pride, just pure acknowledgement). I had signed up to walk the course, so I wasn’t super stressed about my total lack of training, and was pretty much just looking forward to completing the 21.5kms in picturesque Queenstown, New Zealand with some pals by my side. I’m renowned for undertaking stupid physical and psychological challenges without adequate preparation, or consideration of the consequences. Vipassana, 30 days of fasting in Thailand, the Point to Pinnacle, a month in a monastery in Nepal, underestimating my capacity to withstand severe physical and mental pain is definitely a core competency.
While I hadn’t done any running training I hadn’t counted on the spiritual training I had done as being so significant in the half marathon experience. Everyday this year, I’ve done yoga. I decided as the days ticked over from 2016 to 2017 that if I was to be a yogi, I had to have a more consistent asana practice, so set a 365 day challenge to myself to try and grind in some new neural pathways. In parallel, I have 539 days and counting of a daily seated meditation practice under my belt. How might these help in a half marathon? I’m glad you asked.
While yoga isn’t a cardio stamina building activity like running, it builds core strength and muscle through resistance. Having a daily practice means that day in, day out, those muscles are building. At the same time, flexibility is increasing, and limbs are being stretched, all of which means that hips, legs, ankles and feet are in good shape for when you were to, say, run for 21kms. The other integral part of yoga practice is breath management. Through pranayam you are keeping your lungs oxygenated and are better able to unconsciously manage and regulate your breathing while you run.
Body aside, without doubt the most critical part of any endurance endeavour is mind control. It is here that you win and lose, and wow what a difference it made to my half marathon. I very consciously went into the run as a joyful experience that I had chosen, not something I needed to struggle or fight. I’d already surrendered to it being whatever it was, and that I was going to be happy and grateful. I was surrounded by 10 000 other humans all undergoing their own struggle, and I had the opportunity to be present to their suffering and connect with each of them as they or I passed each other on the track.
In the middle of the extreme beauty of the South Island, you cannot be oblivious to the sun, mountains, river and sky, the hypercolor hurts your eyes. Armed with all of this, and a three hour opportunity to chant mantra and keep my focus on being in a meditative state, there was no better place for my mind to be. When it got hard, and it did, I had all of these tools ready to go, and I was just so grateful and happy to be exactly where I was. A day or so before the marathon I had been re-reading Ram Dass’ commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and had been particularly struck with a chapter on giving things up. I’m a fan of austerity and the idea of releasing things we are attached to, and as I was running along I thought about this concept of what we need to give to gain.
To complete the half-marathon I had to give up sleeping in, having brunch, being comfortable, having pain free legs, being faster than others, perhaps the ideal of finishing injury free. It was freeing and empowering – of my choosing. I kept looking for more and more things I could give up, and relished the relinquishing. I listened to my body and ran when I felt compelled to, and power walked the rest. I ran a lot more than I thought I could, and that was an exciting unexpected result which, you guessed it, made me full of joy.
Hitting the finish line at 3:15:06 was a delight, and a few tears of exhaustion and sheer relief were shed. I completely credit the discipline of meditation with being able to manage my usually whingey and are-we-there-yet mind during exercise, and am beginning to see the meditation muscle getting stronger. My legs weren’t exactly steel springs, but they were primed for marathonasana. I’ve already signed up for next year and can’t wait to do it all over again. This time some running training might actually happen.