For miles and miles we run
Through rain, snow, wind and sun
In no way lazy
Thinking that chafing is fun
About a month ago, as we were walking down a road in Galway, Joe looked ahead saying “There’s a brother.” And as we passed by, he gave Joe “The Nod.” For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it is a very slight, swift lift and lowering of the head while maintaining eye contact, like the tipping of a hat without any hand gestures. The gentleman did not give me a nod, only Joe. This is because it means “Hey, we seem to be rare around here, my people understand your people, and perhaps we have overcome an obstacle and intend to keep on at it.” Of course this led to a discussion about why white people don’t give each other a head nod, but then I realized, runners do something very similar. No matter your race, if you are out running and pass by another person who is too, it is likely that you would give each other a “Runner’s Wave,” which is a lackadaisical lift of the forefinger, middle finger and thumb as the arm raises in its natural stride, while maintaining eye contact. I believe this communicates the same message as “The Nod”: “Hey, we seem to be rare around here, my people understand your people, and perhaps we have overcome an obstacle and intend to keep on at it.”
Oprah has been quoted saying, “Running is the greatest metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it.” I agree with her statement on many levels and believe that running teaches life lessons in a sneaky way. While it’s true that dedicated training increases speed and endurance, as in life, it’s not always that simple. First of all, you have the weather. Yesterday I went for a 5 mile loop, and with the wind at my back the first half, I thought, “Look at me go! Only three weeks of training and I already feel this strong! Marathon here I come!” Only to reach the half-way mark where the wind was suddenly jarring at my face, and that strong feeling was replaced by, “Holy crap, my legs feel like bricks! I think I’ve only taken three steps in the last minute. How can I possibly finish a half-marathon?” As in life, sometimes nature works for you, and other times against you- I suppose that’s the lesson, it’s up to me to decide how I’m going to respond. Well, I quickly had to change my thought process, and power through the last two miles. What else was I supposed to do, just stop and stand there getting knocked around by the wind? Or allow myself to feel miserable the entire way back and just be okay with it? No thanks! Running teaches attitude adjustment.
Then you have injuries. Just when training is going swimmingly, as you start to increase miles and run a little faster without having to stop quite so often, an odd sensation emerges from your heel, hip, ankle, shin, back, toe, arch, calf, hamstring, you name it! Did you know that runners are more prone to injury than football players? After years of running, I certainly believe it. I’ve experienced stress fractures, shin splints, calf strains, hip strains, iliotibial band syndrome, chondromalacia patellae, and most recently plantar fasciitis. And every time, it was because I did not listen to my body. Most recently, I ignored pain in my heel as I was confidently striding on a treadmill kicking the man’s butt next to me, and ended up having to drop out of a marathon, and spend the following year mending my foot. I grew antsy and depressed having to give up my goal and focus on icing and elevating instead. Now, when I’m running and feel a strange twinge, I stop and stretch right away, and take a few days to rest. Running teaches you to listen to and take care of yourself. And it teaches patience.
Besides the weather and injuries, there are also potholes, puddles, dogs, dog poop, cars, stalkers, sandwiches and powdered donuts. Each step must be carefully taken in order to avoid such catastrophes, and the only way to do that is to remain in the moment. As any runner would tell you, this can be challenging because it’s such a wonderful time to “space out” or let go of any nagging thoughts (we’ll get to that lesson in a minute). But a simple run can be affected by many different external factors if one is not attentive. You might step in dog poop, making for a stinky run, or a puddle, adding extra unwanted pounds wet shoes tend to warrant. While cars do not care about runners, dogs and stalkers certainly do. During high school cross-country practice, my teammate was chased by a dog which finally bit a half-inch into the heel of her shoe. Another, while running alone, noticed she was being followed by a creeper in his slow-moving beater, until she sprinted to a gas station and called the police. I once had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich thrown at me from an apartment window as I ran by, and my sister Gina’s friend had a powdered donut chucked in her face as she was running through an intersection. Running teaches the practice of living in the present moment. Actually, it demands it.
One particular moment that I was definitely “living in” occurred during a district-qualifying track meet. Before the race, I received some sound advice to run the first lap with my elbows out, not to intentionally knock-out my competition, but to protect myself against the herd, especially as we rounded the corners. Well, I did that, establishing my position among the group, and set a personal record in the 3200. Only to be approached by my coach minutes later who told me I had been disqualified for elbowing a fellow runner on the first lap. My senior year of track was done-zo. I felt bummed for a while, and ever since have been much more careful about throwing elbows. Running teaches acceptance of mistakes, and to learn from them.
Accepting weirdness also comes with running. Commonly found in abundance at cross-country meets or road-race finish lines, this “weirdness” obviously stands out in the “normal” everyday world. I’m talking neon hexagon-patterned short shorts, men attaching bandaids over their nipples that have been bleeding through cotton t-shirts, folks bent over rubbing vaseline atop the chafed skin of their inner-thighs, a herd of race finishers roaming aimlessly with dazed eyes while wrapped in what appears to be a large amount of foil (this is actually a space blanket). At night, as you drive home through your neighborhood you might spot something off the side of the road wearing a yellow reflective vest bent over grabbing onto its ankles: runner. In the grocery checkout line you may overhear a conversation that goes: “Oh yeah, on Saturday I’m planning a nice long fartlek” (a workout involving continuous speed intervals): runner. Running teaches respect and appreciation for individuality (weirdness).
Running can be a fabulous way to see a new place, or to see an old place in a new way. When traveling, I always pack my runners because there are so many interesting things about a town or area, that I otherwise wouldn’t notice from a vehicle’s window. In Spain, I’d set out with my buddy Ellie as we synchronized our steps along the beach, smelling delicious tapas being served, listening to families laughing and splashing in the waves, and feeling the hot sun on our skin. While trail running in Portland, Joe and I found a place called “Cartlandia,” an outdoor food court serving up the most delicious varieties of cuisine from around the world. Back in Seattle, my favorite place to run was Greenlake, and even though I’d run countless laps around that lake, there was always something new to find: a family of turtles, an old friend, leaves that had changed color, a crew race, a woman pushing her bulldog in a baby jogger. Here in Limerick I’ve discovered an abandoned stone fortress, new restaurants, where the dry cleaners is, tennis courts, neighborhoods, a perfect spot to stretch next to a big open field, tulips blooming on the University campus. Running teaches discovery of the new and exploration of the ordinary.
Besides getting to know territory, running is also a way to get to know people. On a run, you can really develop a bond with someone, so you’ll want to carefully choose your running buddy. You wouldn’t want to run six miles up hill in the wind with someone who’s going to complain about it the whole time, would you? Or with someone who’d keep a shoulder’s distance in front of you the entire way? (I broke up with a boyfriend over this years ago. It told me all I needed to know about what our future was going to be like, the fact that he had to win our leisurely runs.) My favorite running buddy is my brother, Paul, because he is exceptionally talented at noticing interesting things along the way, cracking jokes, and maintaining a positive attitude. One summer, we were near delirium while running on a trail in the mountains of the Okanagon county in Washington State, and as I was trying to distract myself from the chafe occurring on my upper legs, I saw a cow and said, “I wonder if cows get chafe?” In less than half a second, Paul responded, “There once was a cow named Hank. He had chafe. It was a Hankcowchafe.” You might find that a bit farfetched (handkerchief, hankcowchafe, whatever), but after several miles on a hot day in the mountains, it cracked me up. Running teaches the importance of carefully choosing one’s company.
Though it may be more entertaining to stride with a partner, solo runs offer an opportunity for reflection. Here’s a scenario: I leave our apartment and start out running alongside a strip-mall. As I glance at my reflection in the shop windows, and at my shadow right there next to me, I have two options: I can either critique my form, my weight, my speed- or I can acknowledge that person for their dedication, determination and spirit. Choosing the later, I am practicing positive thinking. Leaving the strip mall, I am now on a gravel trail surrounded by green. I think of family. Of friends. Of my marriage. Of my dreams. And I pray, “Thank you, God, for all you have given me- all of the people, experiences, talents you’ve blessed me with. Please show me in some way where to go from here, what to do, how to live. Please take care of my husband, my parents and family, all of my friends, and keep them happy. Thanks for listening.” As the trail ends, I am back on a sidewalk rounding the block and feel as though I’m in some sort of trance. A common phrase among runners is: “LSD, the high for me!” No connection to the drug, it stands for “Long Slow Distance” which results in “runner’s high.” The bright green trees, the sound of a lawnmower and children playing at recess, the smell of freshly cut grass, the taste of crisp air, and the feeling of my breath as it’s synchronized with each step. Meditation has lead to that euphoric state, runner’s high. A happy feeling from head to toe due to being fully conscious and present, and scientifically, from releasing endorphins. Approaching the final stretch, I let out one last burst of energy and gradually slow to a walk, feeling purposeful, accomplished, humbled, and just plain content. Running teaches the power of positive thought, prayer and meditation.
Recently, an article was published on ESPN’s website about a man named Fauja Singh. At age 89, he ran his first marathon. He is now 101 and still running. Though it’s undeniable that this man must have set a Guinness World Record or two, it cannot be proven without a valid birth certificate. Fauja was born in a village in India in 1911, and as with my own husband, who was born in a village called Tamasane, in Botswana- birth certificates were not a common practice. No matter the Guinness drama, running has saved Fauja’s life. A few years ago, he witnessed the death of his son and asked, “Why, God? Why him? Why not me?” As he became depressed, the villagers of India worried about him and eventually reached out to his children living in London, who insisted he move there to live with them. But the depression had somehow crammed itself in Fauja’s suitcase and planned to remain with him in London. So, he joined a group of Punjab runners, expats living in London. He found peace in running, and soon became a public figure. Whether or not Fauja’s name appears in the Guinness Book of World Records, he is enjoying the benefits of running while shuffling laps around a park near his home. And so, running teaches the most important lesson of all: It is never too late to take charge of one’s own life.
I suppose that’s my cue. Time to power down the laptop, lace up the old Asics and head out the door, ta-ta!