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Thinking about what it means to become and be a runner

So my disappointing long run the other day did turn out to be just a fluke… as I’d sort of thought it was even at the time. Yesterday I ran a perfect 10-miler that left me feeling entirely satisfied and ready to give myself some extra rest and a proper taper over the next ten days before the Whidbey Island race.

I spent some time after that run thinking about running and reflecting on the literal and metaphorical places I have been as a runner.

Off and on over the past few days I have mused quite a bit about the experience of running, about what it’s like to become a runner, to be a runner, and to discover strength, resiliency, courage, and happiness as a runner. I’ve been re-reading old blog posts (on this site and previous more private sites) from the period during and shortly after Kurt’s illness and death. I’m re-reading my words from that time because I’m working on a paper proposal for a conference… which may finally begin to lead in the direction of the book that I want to write about running through grief.

It hurts to look back and read words that screamed forth from my pain. But it’s also very heartening to see that I found sources of strength… and a big source of my strength was the fact that I somehow managed to get out there and run. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

There were plateaus and setbacks in my running ability and in my ability to hold my life together. There were times I thought I was going to rip my heart out of my chest. Then there were times when I knew that my heart and mind and legs were all strong and I was going to be able to put all the pieces back together.

Running has taught me — and continues to teach me — that anything is possible with determination and practice. I had to complete a PhD program at age 53 in order to finally convince myself that I am intellectually authentic. Learning to run since then has been something like a PhD program for the rest of me.

I’m tempted to say that coping with Kurt’s illness and death were the comprehensive exams for that second PhD, but I don’t want to contextualize or diminish that experience. I do wonder, however, if I’d have become such a dedicated runner if it weren’t for what happened to Kurt. Before his diagnosis, I hadn’t begun to challenge myself as a runner. I walked a lot. I worried about injuring myself. I never pushed myself hard to see how much more I could do. After his diagnosis I began to see running as something I could do to help myself — sometimes it was the only thing I could think of that I could do to help myself. It was the only thing that brought me any sort of respite.

After he died, running got me out of the house. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning. It gave me a reason to eat. It put things on my calendar.

Of course, it gave me places and times to cry.

And it gave me reasons to celebrate.

We all have our life challenges, and we all find our ways to cope.

By choosing to become and be a runner, I have found pride — satisfaction — peace — confidence — and a goodly measure of humility.

Life is short. Our days are numbered. How many steps we take, the places we go, the ways we choose to spend the time we have — these things are up to each of us to decide.

As for me, I’ve logged 250 running miles so far this year. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 550,000 steps just since January 1. They haven’t all been steps of sheer joy, but most of them have been pretty good. And they’re all steps in the right direction.

Slow and happy…

One step at a time!

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Things I learned while running today

After all the shouting and divisiveness of election season, I looked forward to my run this morning as a cleansing event. It ended up being exactly that, in a bigger way than I’d expected.

It started out as an ordinary enough run. The temperature was in the high 40s so I had on my new running gloves (with touch-screen-friendly fingertips for easy Garmin operation) and a hat. The sun was in and out of the clouds but the wind was calm, and I stayed comfy for the full 5 miles. I wasn’t going particularly fast, but that was okay because it gave me that much more time to think.

Lately I have been feeling some pressure in my life. It’s been over eight months since I quit my job and I haven’t even started any of the big writing projects I’d envisioned. I’ve run, hiked, and biked. I’ve rearranged some of the furniture in my house. I’ve gradually continued to redefine the logistical details of my life after Kurt. The other day, for example, I finally called the cable company, reduced the super-premium-bazillion-channels package to basic cable (cutting my cost in half), and got that last utility bill put into my name.

I’ve kept myself very busy, and I’ve wondered several times in this blog how I’d ever found time to work. But what have I actually accomplished? Am I truly spending my short, precious lifetime doing and being the things that I value most?

Last night, I watched and cheered as a nation reaffirmed its belief that the world can be a better place, that the future still holds more promise than the past, that together we can be better and more than any of us can be alone.

I was simultaneously watching cable TV news (yes, I turned on the TV for the first time in weeks), monitoring my favorite political blog, and scanning my Twitter feed. For the most part the tweets in my feed were expressing the same positive emotions I was feeling. Except for this one really annoying person…

You may recall that when I came home from Palm Springs I joined a local group that is doing community organizing for local sustainability. I was very enthusiastic about this group because it seemed to be an opportunity to build my local connections and help make my community a better place to live. However, as I got to know the other team members, some of them revealed themselves as downright apocalyptic thinkers. These people were not merely trying to prepare for climate change, resource scarcity, and the like — they seemed to be determined to hasten the demise of the world as we know it. Rather than build on the goodness that exists in our society and at all levels of government, they seemed to want to tear it all down.

That kind of thinking, in my opinion, is toxic.

I don’t have room in my life for people who complain, criticize, and seek to destroy. No, we don’t live in a perfect world, but there is so much here that is good. Let’s celebrate our successes, no matter how small, rather than lash out in anger over not getting more things done more quickly.

I have often repeated my running mantra: “One step at a time. One foot in front of the other.” In the months of Kurt’s illness, and in the weeks and months after his death, those words kept me going in running and in life. One step at a time. Sometimes an individual step might be weak or wobbly. Sometimes I’ve had to take a step or two sideways or even backwards. But I’ve done my best to keep moving, keep the momentum going. Small steps and sideways wobbles are still progress, and they’re much more productive than falling — or jumping — off a cliff.

I’ve come to realize that the world is not going to collapse overnight, any more than it has any of the many previous times that people thought it would. Civilization actually seems to be quite resilient in the face of crises and emergencies. If I am mistaken about this, I will expect to deal with the consequences in the best way I can at the time. In any case, I always try to keep my pantry well stocked. And I always try to keep moving forward and building on what I have accomplished so far, because I believe that my doing so is my one small step toward making the world a better place. In any case, it beats the heck out of small-minded, churlish rants on Twitter!

I finished my run feeling refreshed, energized, and optimistic for the future. I have plenty to feel optimistic about. I live in the state that voted for marriage equality and legalized marijuana! I am represented by two awesome female senators who are about to be part of the largest contingent of female senators ever! Whatever your political leanings, whether these specific events seem good or bad to you, you gotta agree that the world is changing, indeed.

I came home feeling profoundly grateful for being alive and healthy on a beautiful autumn day.

I wrote a resignation letter to the sustainability group, wishing them well but telling them I could not support their gloomy outlook on the future.

I am giving myself more time to write, more opportunities to be outside in this beautiful world, more freedom to get involved in positive actions to benefit community and society. Most of all, I am giving myself full permission to enjoy my finite life as much as I possibly can.

I’m going forward — one step at a time.

Getting from here to there

Running has been interesting the past couple of weeks. I came out of the half marathon feeling completely strong, fit, and confident. I did give myself a brief break from the long runs, but at the same time I immediately attempted to increase the number of my weekly runs from three to four, and added the new element of unpaved surfaces.

The trail running is going rather well and I’m enjoying it immensely, although I’m not yet running on really challenging trails (I have one planned for this weekend).

I’m not doing so well with my plan to run four days a week. In fact I haven’t yet succeeded in doing that at all. I have managed to run two days back to back (a feat that was impossible for me not so long ago), but after I do that I find that I need an additional rest day. I’ve scaled back on the distances for this week’s attempt to run four days, and that may make the difference.

The sequence I’m trying to train for, which I’ll be doing on the Alaska marathon cruise, is:

  • 3 miles paved/level
  • 10 miles trail/rolling
  • rest day
  • 6.2 miles paved/hilly
  • 7 miles trail/rolling

At the moment, this is looking fairly daunting. I’m beginning to think that I’ll just go out there, have a great time, take lots of photos along the way, and congratulate myself for having the courage to try.

My mind is willing but my body keeps whispering that it’s a little tired. I find reasons to postpone that next-day run and give myself a 1-day break.

I ran yesterday morning in a new place, along the spit that frames the harbor. Most of it was completely flat (as you’d expect at sea level) and paved road, but wherever I could I ran through gravel parking areas and sandy paths that wind between the road and the beach. The mix of surfaces was pleasant on my feet. I kept the distance short, only just over 3 miles. The weather was perfect: high 50s and completely calm. As I ran along the spit’s narrow strip of land, I had a close-up view of the harbor, city, and mountains to the south, and of the strait and Vancouver Island to the north. Here is the view to the north.

I came home feeling physically great, and with a mental sense of relief as I had been getting edgy from a couple of days of not running. That’s the ironic part — my mind really wants me to run more frequently. My mind craves the release from all the everyday concerns, stresses, and hassles of life. My mind thinks running is really fun and wants me to do more and more of it. My body seems to agree and has responded remarkably well to the demands I put on it, but only up to a certain point. My challenge is balancing the desires of my mind with the physical limits of what my body can do on any given day. As an intensely cerebral person, I keep having to re-learn that I need to listen more closely to my body.

This afternoon I’m planning an easy 4 mile run along the waterfront on the city side, followed by a local microbrew with running friends. I’ve vowed to run comfortably, have fun, and focus on resilience. What my body and mind need to learn now is the simple discipline of going out the next day and doing it again.

I’m getting from here to there one step at a time.

I have to keep reminding myself that in running and in life, we can’t shortcut the process. We can’t (and shouldn’t) be someone other than the person we are, but we can take those steps to become the person that we want to become. One mindful, careful step at a time, with an eye to the future while also fully experiencing, being present in, and cherishing the quality of each moment now.

I want to believe that this balancing act between present and future is not an impossible ideal.

What do you think?

Work in process

Perhaps I should mention that I have not dropped off the face of the earth. I’ve simply gone into another one of my thought-funks, in which a lot of things are brewing but it’s difficult (or premature) to crystallize them into the pseudo-solid field of Zeros and Ones.

I am angry. I am disillusioned, in the literal sense of having my sense of reality ripped open and exposed before my eyes. I have lifted the veil, looked behind the curtain… and there really is nothing back there. This isn’t that sense of “walking off the cliff” into unexpected depths of grief that I’ve written about here many times. This really isn’t about grieving for Kurt at all. This is more a sense that many of the fundamental assumptions I have held about the way the world works have simply exploded.

We live in a world in which the institutions we have created do not do well by the people who created them and who have devoted their lives to maintaining, sustaining, and striving to improve them.

For many years I have lived, or professed to live, by this well-known Gandhi quote: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I devoted my professional life to trying to awaken others to the power of personal transformation. I honestly thought that if I could reach enough individuals with this message, then I could help make a genuine difference in the world.

I’m now seeing that the world (or at least the portion of the world in which I have lived my life) is not going to change, is not interested in changing, and would prefer to see the notion of “personal transformation” limited to “becoming more effective/productive within the constraints of the existing system.”

If I really, personally, want to see change in the world — MY world — I’m going to have to really, personally, start with myself. I have to reevaluate my relationships to the “stuff” that I love, the things that I believe to be true, the literal and metaphorical security systems and barriers against the world that I have personally erected. I have to dare to be free, and I have to take personal responsibility for what it means to be free.

So now I’m in the process of figuring out what all that might mean. I suppose I overthink things, but that is who I am and expect I always will be, no matter how many veils I end up piercing along the way.

As I figure things out (or not) I may be absent from this blog for a while.

Or I may have another great run and want to tell you all about it.

I did 4.4 joyful miles Monday morning, and 3.25 not-so-joyful miles this morning. I was having trouble being in the moment and running when all around me the known world was collapsing, and I’d only had 4 hours of sleep last night. If it had been a race I would have risen to the occasion, but this morning it was just a slog. So I’ll try again on Friday — and I do always look forward to my Friday runs as they herald the coming of the weekend.

A friend of a friend died of lung cancer this morning. My wounds are still too fresh; this news ripped my heart open again. This was not the source of my current anger and disillusionment; rather, those experiences left me wide open to the pain. If you smoke, please stop. If you truly love someone who is a smoker, please nag them to stop. Life is too short and precious to waste in such a stupid, senseless way. All we have are moments, and I want all of us to live as many moments as possible.