Escaping into life

7 11 2013

This morning, between my meditation and my run, I took a few additional minutes to escape deeper into my life. I sat in our den looking into our backyard — the early light still thick, sluggish and monochrome gray, shape and shadow still as one. As I sat quietly and watched, the light gradually sweetened, until everything glimmered in a dull silver, and then the moment I had waited for: the silver warmed into a brilliant orange glow, bathing the big red clay planter on the patio and all around it in soft fire. This lasted one or two precious minutes, and then full sunlight exploded in white across the trees and grass, and the real day was finally, gloriously here.

I called this moment “escaping into life,” and yet I have often been guilty of saying the opposite. Over the years, when people have asked why I run, I don’t know how many times over the years I have responded: “It’s my escape from life,” or words very much to that effect. I’ve heard other people explain their running the same way.

And yet, when I think about it, I already live my life as one long, desperate prison break — always either trying to get away from something I don’t want, or get something I do want. There are many mornings, especially in the first five minutes of sitting zazen, that I realize how twitchy I am — how much I don’t want to be here, doing this. And how often when I’m running, I’m trying to think of anything, anything at all, that will allow me to disassociate from my physical discomfort and pain. “The best part of running is being done” is another quote I’ve heard a lot over the years, including from my own mouth, and frankly it seems more than a little sad to do things with the attitude of simply wanting them to be over.

Which is way I sit zazen – to isolate and recognize that constant vague sensation of dissatisfaction, that restless feeling of continually wanting to escape from life, and try to reconnect with life as it is, what Eihei Dogen called (among other things) “actualizing the fundamental point.” And on my run this morning, I managed to, at least at times, make that escape from the prison of dissatisfaction back into my life. There were times I could fully feel the crisp brilliance of the November sunlight, so different from the heavy-lidded light of August, the simple but profound miracle of my breath coming and going, my legs churning beneath me, my muscles straining, my arms swinging forward and back, the slight, pleasant chill of the air moving over my skin. There are so many of these gifts within reach, and so often we want to escape elsewhere in search of more exotic treasure. But I’ve always found the real gold and silver, if I sit and run with awareness, is right here, right now … even at our high school track, even in my own backyard.

That voice again …

17 10 2013

It’s the racing season and, inevitably among the race reports written by friends, there are a few disappointments among the successes, the days that didn’t quite go as planned. One friend aimed higher than most: achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a goal he has pursued, always with meticulous planning and preparation, for more than a few years now. He is an excellent marathoner, a diligent trainer, and an intelligent planner. This year he finished just over 60 seconds away from the time he needed to qualify for Boston – faster than previously, a wonderful finish of 3:26 and a well-executed race with pretty consistent mile splits most of the way, but still agonizingly short of his dream.

In the immediate post-race disappointment, during which he actually apologized to us for not qualifying for Boston, it was easy – for him and for some others – to overlook the outstanding achievement of having finished a marathon in three hours and 26 minutes. That’s something only a small percentage of the world’s marathoning population have achieved. And yet, it wasn’t what he wanted, and it wasn’t what we wanted for him. All of us wanted more.

Now he is trying to decide (how seriously I’m not sure) whether to run another marathon three weeks from now and try to qualify again. I am sure this has been done, but for most people it’s not the greatest idea on several levels – especially the need for both the body and mind to heal from such an intense effort, and the potential psychological damage for potential future attempts should a second quick attempt not work out.

But I raced for many years, and I understand there’s a voice that’s almost impossible to ignore and nearly as impossible to hold at bay: our egos. When we don’t get what we want, especially if we worked hard for it, our pride is wounded. And the ego, that nagging voice inside, starts its whispering: I didn’t get it, and it hurts, and I don’t like hurting, and I need to do something to stop hurting as quick as I can. In this case, rushing to another marathon starting line seems like the only way to get the voice to shut up.

And yet, you can never really shut it up, because that same voice whispers and whines in many languages: our sons and daughters make life decisions that bemuse and dismay us, our favorite store is out of a particular color in a men’s dress shirt, we can’t get the work promotion we wanted, the last of our favorite beers has disappeared from the refrigerator. Every day, our desires are thwarted and frustrated on a hundred levels, and that voice tunes up again and again. Learning how to respond to it, or not respond to it, is the primary work of Buddhism, and of being human.

Those times when our races don’t work out as planned, all of that emptiness and disappointment suddenly looming in front of us, is when we are often at our most vulnerable. That’s when you should listen especially carefully to that whispering within. Whatever you whisper back, make sure it’s your own voice, and not just the pale echo of your ego.

Big shoes, little shoes, and your shoes

11 08 2013

I can’t begin to count the number of times over the past couple of years that someone has come into the running store where I work, an odd light in their eyes, and told me some variation of: “I just finished reading Born To Run … can I try on some of these minimal shoes?”

Of course, many people try minimal shoes, love them, and never look back. But others aren’t so fortunate. Never mind that sometimes their feet don’t stand a chance of fitting properly into most “minimal” shoes – they will twist and turn their feet every which way, determined to squeeze their sizable toes into a Vibram or a New Balance Minimus, only to finally surrender with a look of abject disappointment. It’s as if the door to the Promised Land has been slammed shut in their faces, dooming them to forever plod along in the gray, yesterday land of big shoes.

Then there are people who do manage to fit into a pair of minimal shoes but return to our shoe department a few weeks later – limping, holding their new shoes in front of them accusingly, Exhibit A for problems they didn’t even know their feet could have.

Now, to potentially confuse the issue even more, it looks like the Big Shoe may be making at least a minor comeback. Yep, big ol’ cushioned midsoles will soon be showing up everywhere, made by everyone from committed small-batch minimal manufacturers like Altra to established, more traditional major players like Brooks. Cush is back, baby.

But why? You read Born to Run, took it as gospel, made the switch to flat, uncushioned shoes – and now these shoes with dizzying stack heights and layers of soft foam are coming back? Is everything we think we know wrong? What’s going on here?

What’s going on is a little market correction, made necessary by an inconvenient truth: everyone is different. Having fit a lot of people in runnning shoes over the last two years, I can say not everyone was born to run – at least, not in flat boards with laces on them. I run in minimal shoes and enjoy them. I also run in the Asics Nimbus, one of the kings of the old-school shoe. Some people run solely in Vibrams and those sandal thingies and are fine with that. Others have never run in anything but the Nike Pegasus for 20+ years, and without even a twinge in their ankle or heel. People may be born to run, but they are, based on my personal experience, born to run differently. And as far as form goes, do a little You Tube surfing — you’ll find some of our Olympic-class long distance runners have pretty questionable (and sometimes downright weird) form, if you go with expert advice and textbooks.

Change to forefoot running or keep heel striking? Minimal or Maximal? As with everything else in life, go with what you know to be true for you, based on your own experience. We don’t all need correction, we don’t all need less (or more) shoe. Ask yourself: Do the shoes I’m running in and the way I’m running bring me joy without causing me problems? And if your shoes and form are doing that, regardless of what shoe it is or how much you may heel strike, why embark on yet another exhausting “self-improvement” project? Especially when changes in form can cause as many new issues as correct old ones.

It’s interesting and potentially helpful to gather information from others, including shoe fitters in running stores and books like Born To Run. But, as some old Zen dude once said, “Do not get caught in that place where you think you know.” The best shoe for you is the one you forget you have on. The best running form for you may be, with all of its deviations from perfection, the form you were born with. Don’t create problems, don’t turn your running into another self-help project. Just listen to what your feet say. You’ll find they’re the only ones telling you the real truth.

Running is not special

1 08 2013

It’s been kind of a busy day off work for me, in that unspectacular way some of your days off may go. In between mowing the lawn, disinfecting the cat litter box, taking an embarrassingly large pile of old running and hiking shoes to Goodwill and several other minor chores, I managed to work in a 25-minute sit. It was an afternoon sit, and I was a bit scattered from all of my random activity. I always notice that after settling into an afternoon sit for a few minutes, I can actually feel the busyness of the world outside as a physical presence, a sort of low-grade hum that I could almost reach out and touch — the hurry-scurry of people and animals trying to get things done, even in triple-digit heat.

“Working in a sit” might sound a bit too utilitarian for what is often construed as a spiritual activity. And yet, that’s what sitting usually is for me: something on the To Do List I need to get done every day, whether I have two hours or 10 minutes. I don’t expect the heavens to open and choirs to raise their voices in song while I sit (although if that happened just once it would be pretty cool). My Zen practice is just that: a practice, like taking a multivitamin, moving through the morning yoga routine, or heading out the door for your (and my) morning run. Nothing special. I’ve sort of given up looking for heavenly choirs at this point. Although I leave a welcome mat out, just in case.

And yet, I think we want these things to be special. It’s Zen! It’s an exotic Eastern spiritual practice! We want that enlightenment experience where the world and all this assorted stuff we’re struggling with suddenly become perfectly clear. And when others ask about our religion, we might privately enjoy saying “Zen Buddhist” — we think it’s not the usual thing, that it labels us as serious seekers on a less travelled path, special people (or maybe for some as weirdos, which some of us also enjoy being tagged as). Labeling ourselves as Zen practitioners might make us feel smarter, more interesting, a sort of intellectual fashion statement.

We want our running to be special, too. When we tell people we’re marathoners or ultra-marathoners, we might privately enjoy the respectful comments we get back, the “That’s amazing, I could never do that” responses. It’s another interesting way to tag ourselves, to differentiate our personal brand. And if you can combine running and Zen, well, how cool is that?

Often running and meditation are just work, sweat, and routine, but we don’t want to see them that way. And when we feel unsettled in our meditation, when a run doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, we can feel like frauds, like we’ve failed somehow. We haven’t, no more so than if we accidentally dump the fresh cat litter on the floor or miss a strip of grass while mowing. It’s just life, and we’re just a little tired or making mistakes like we always do. “Mistakes are part of the ritual,” a Zen master replied when someone said they were worried about screwing up during a tea ceremony. So what if you spill the tea, if you don’t hit your goal time on your last interval, if you sneeze during a sit? You’re just what the ancient Zen dudes in Japan called a “skin bag,” and a sweating, fumbling, sneezing skin bag is going to do things less than perfectly.

Or, as the biggest ancient Zen dude of them all, Eihei Dogen, said in the Training Break posted just below: “To practice wholeheartedly is the true endeavor of the way. Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness; it is a matter for every day.” I love that phrase “not defiled with specialness.” Just putting your full self into everything you do is consecration enough. Or, to make one of those irritating little Zen paradoxes: when we don’t treat running or meditation as special, they become more special.

Hill repeats with Tom

29 07 2013

There is something about hill repeats that appeals to me, something about a daunting but not impossible job to be done, a series of to-dos I can slowly, grindingly check off, finish the last one in an oxygen-depleted flourish and then go home, tired but instantly gratified and feeling good about that slightly flushed feeling, the lingering soreness within.

The hill near my house where I do most of my hill repeats is long, and quite steep. Only one person has ever joined me on my self-imposed circuit: a tall, pale man in glasses, not running but walking up the hill with some difficulty, his legs somewhat painfully rotating forward.

Recently I started to walk partially down the hill and realized he and I were finally, after cursory waves at each other every week for over a year, about to unavoidably meet. He was having even more difficulty than usual, using a cane to help steady and push himself.

“Looks like you’ve lost a little weight?” he said with a smile. This is generally a great way to start off a conversation with anyone, and I instantly warmed to him. His name is Tom and, as it turns out, his unusual gait is the result of a double hip replacement. Yet here he was in a long sleeve shirt and jeans, making multiple rounds of the same hill that I was. The cane was to help him work through yet another hurdle, a recent muscle strain. “I listen to my doctor about walking, but I guess not about leaning over to pick things up,” he said. I wondered if his doctor knew he walked up the hill looming just behind us.

We talked for a little more about changes in the neighborhood and how long we’ve lived there, and then it was time to get back to things. “Sorry about the muscle pull,” I said.

He gave me a wry grin. “It’s all temporary,” he said, shrugging. Then, as I started trotting down the hill, he turned and, with some effort, planted his cane firmly on the road in front of him and started, once again, the long, steep way back up to the top.

“Go straight on.”

23 07 2013

Our granddaughter recently turned two, and she’s still learning to walk. She was born with a milder form of cerebral palsy that has affected her left hand and the motor skills in her legs. Cognitively, she’s amusingly sly and creative in that familiar two year-old way; personality-wise, she has an eccentric sense of humor and an iron will, and keeps an amazingly even keel.

Part of her learning to walk is the time spent with her physical therapist, who has apparently fallen in love with her and recently screamed bloody murder at a vendor to get a custom walker delivered months sooner than it would have been otherwise. I was able to witness her using the walker recently. It’s pretty simple: just strap her in, step back, and let her get to work. Her mouth tightens, her face furrows in concentration, and her legs begin to move, one in front of the other. Her steering could still use some refinement, but her pace is quite impressive. How wonderful to live in an age when this kind of help is available. In the morning, she will slide over to the walker, pat it, and demand “go, go, go!”

Go, go go! How easier that going is for some of us than others. There is no denying she gets frustrated in the walker from time to time; it’s hard work for her, and she can get annoyed with circumstances. But she keeps pushing her legs forward, making them work, down the sidewalk, across streets.

Recently I was listening to some of John Cage’s Freeman Etudes – incredibly complex miniatures for solo violin. It would be hard for most people to call these pieces music; they are basically minutely notated acrobatics contests that some of the world’s most accomplished violinists have found almost impossible to play. For Cage, they represented what he called “the practicality of the impossible,” his response to the notion that many of the world’s social and political problems are impossible. In their own way, and in small doses, I find them fascinating listening – the soundtrack of struggle.

My two year-old granddaughter is composing her own Freeman Etude, daily demonstrating to her family the practical impossible. When a run doesn’t go smoothly, when exhaustion or a muscle strain keeps me from hitting a goal pace or that final hill repeat, or just whenever the universe slams and shudders, I will try to keep that tiny, determined face in mind, those little legs furiously working beneath her as she go, go, goes. As the old woman of Taizan said when asked for directions by the monk, “go straight on.” You go, granddaughter.

Sage advice

22 07 2013

Okay, I’m doubting that’s the first time yoga instructor, triathlete, coach and author Sage Rountree has endured someone playing the “sage advice” card when talking about one of her books. Her latest, Racing Wisely, looks very interesting judging from the generous online samples posted by her publisher. (I wonder how many people seriously ask themselves even one of the questions on Sage’s race questionnaire before making a personal and financial commitment to a race.)

Sage’s athlete-centric yoga books and her comprehensive take on the role of recovery in training and racing are all worth getting to know. I mix and match different yoga routines from her books every week.

Not Finishing

21 07 2013

A friend of mine attempting the Vermont 100 Mile this weekend posted a message to Facebook this morning that he was unable to finish. “Stopped at mile 70 with stomach and achilles issues,” he wrote. His post prompted a long string of replies, mostly people expressing sympathy, get well wishes, and many sincere words to the effect of “go get ‘em next time.”

He had finished many races before, some quite spectacularly. I was a member of his support crew when he completed the Badwater 135, arguably one of the world’s toughest road races, for the second time – and significantly faster than his first attempt. I had witnessed him not finish as well, dropping out with other injuries or stomach issues. And I remember not being able to finish some of my own races – how it felt to slowly, reluctantly come to the realization that there was nothing more to be done that day, fumble with the number safety pinned to my shirt, hand it over to the race director as others continued to run by, and say “I’m done.” Then that long, often exhausted drive back home or to the hotel afterward, knowing you had not been able to finish.

DNF. “Did not finish.” It’s often treated as the most dreaded phrase in the running vernacular. Many times the races you don’t finish are the races you have to travel for, the ones you spend the most time, effort, and money training to finish. You follow the training guides, you heed the advice of mentors and friends, you take care of yourself, you plan your nutrition and hydration down to the half mile markers. And something twangs. Something beyond yours or anyone’s control. And the longer the race, the more likely it is to happen. When you do manage to escape the uncaring laws of probability, it’s cause for real celebration.

And when you don’t finish, when the old, dark lords of the universe trap you and don’t let go, it’s no cause for despair or for beating yourself up. Because there are no real starting lines or finish lines. We begin where we are with every step, every breath. Will there be another starting line, another finish line? Just breathe in, breathe out, once, slowly. That’s a start, and a finish. And, in its own way, a miracle. “Everything is a miracle,” Picasso said. “It’s a miracle one doesn’t drown in one’s own bath.” Recognize and enjoy the miracles you can manage to make happen daily. Train for the others, accept what the days give you, and rejoice if you can truly feel all of the satisfaction and pain that comes your way. Starting, finishing. What are they, really? Shadow markers in a freewheeling universe. The real joy is in the being.

The real runners

4 07 2013

I recently told a friend I had retired from racing in January of this year. “That’s a great decision,” he said. “Those who run without racing are the real runners, in my opinion.” He meant well, but I’m not so sure. Racing isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, an inauthentic expression of running. What is inauthentic is when we consciously (or perhaps not so consciously) bring something other than ourselves to our running or racing: making it a way to hopefully get attention and impress others, to escape from a personal crisis, to find yet another outlet for shopping (running gear!), or part of our latest agenda to somehow “improve ourselves.”

Running and racing are, in their purest forms, simply different expressions of our authentic self. We should run or race not simply because we need the endorphin rush, we’re trying to cheat old age, or because we have otherwise hopelessly trapped ourselves in it, but because running and racing are part of us. Anything else, and our running/racing becomes just another way of trying to escape who we are, rather than celebrate who we are.

I realized this winter my own involvement in racing was no longer about expressing the joy of my innate competitive spirit (even if I had only been competing largely against myself), and had instead become just a way I liked for people to identify me. Step by step, mile by mile, make running an act of freedom, not slavery. No matter your age or ability, let your running and racing be real. Let them be you.

Redemption or relapse?

27 05 2013

From time to time, I see stories about people addicted to drugs or alcohol who have discovered running as the antidote to their addictions. The most recent story I’ve seen is about Walter Barrera, whose path from drug addiction has led from his first 5K to longer and longer runs, more and more mileage, and an upcoming attempt at finishing the Leadville 100, one of the most punishing 100-mile races in the world.

As depicted in the article, Walter’s life story is harrowing and, on one level, he is to be admired for facing down his demons and finding an escape hatch from his hard past and his drug addiction. On another level — and the article does at least attempt to address this issue — is he merely running away from his demons, rather than truly confronting them?

The story mentions a lot of what are, for me, warning signs: the sense that a daily run must be finished no matter what, the urgent necessity of not only finishing the run but logging it in a record book and comparing it with past efforts, the feeling of personal failure if a specific run or a week’s mileage totals do not go as planned, and — perhaps most troubling of all — a lengthening series of nagging injuries. Is Barrera merely trading one crippling, enslaving addiction for another?

It’s easy for any runner to fall into that kind of trap to some degree. The point is not that you can’t be competitive, but that you have to be aware of the shadowy side of your competitiveness and, as the sutras say, “guard the sense-gates.” When you lose sleep over an upcoming training run, when you grow bitterly angry and frustrated if this week’s interval workout falls short of last week’s, when you take off on a 20-mile hills workout knowing full well your right hamstring could really benefit from an extra day or two of rest, when you snap back at your significant other or children if a race or run doesn’t go your way … be aware, back off, and realize that once was once a joyful, healthy activity could be heading down a darker path. It’s always helpful to ask yourself at those times: why am I doing this, exactly?

Every choice we make about running can affect not only our next day’s run but possibly our running for the next year or even years to come, our general attitude about running over decades, our interactions with our family, and our own sense of self. And once the run’s over, our life problems are still there, waiting. We can run for our health, we can run meditatively and positively expand our connection with ourselves and our world, but we can’t simply run from our personal challenges by trying to exhaust ourselves past the point of feeling them.

Perhaps Barrera is encountering his problems while on the run, and engaging with them constructively. I hope so. It’s certainly possible to do so through running. On the road and on the cushion I finally came to terms, real confrontation, with my father’s death. But I also know it’s possible to simply hope to outrun the issue at hand. No, your issues aren’t stronger than you. But they can be much stronger and more persistent than you might be willing to at first believe.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 119 other followers