Run in the Snow

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First run in the snow earlier this week.  Running trails, now matter how many times you’ve run on them, still look, when photographed, like pathways into adventure and mystery. The changing seasons add to the richness of that mystery.

Changing seasons always make me feel the passage of time, and memories arrive like carloads of visitors.  This is my fourth winter running this trail, but as I look south from this bridge, I see the rope swing I just discovered this summer, where my son and his visiting cousins made some new memories in this beautiful spot by swinging over and over again into the creek.  The rope is waiting for next summer while the snow settles peacefully.  Winter arrives like no other season, so suddenly announcing itself with that first snow.  Running on the very first day of snow is a sweet way to welcome its stillness, its dark short days sometimes relieved by the brightness of fresh snow, and its insistence on patience.

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More Yoga Lessons: Resistance and Creating Space

One important difference between yoga and my running routine is that in yoga, I go to class, and someone tells me what to do for nearly an hour. Sometimes I really welcome that opportunity, a chance to do something that will benefit my mind, spirit, and body, and no decisions to make on my own for nearly an hour. As a person with a job that requires massive amounts of self-direction, laying that decision-making burden down and letting someone else guide me towards good things can be such a relief.

Other times, I find myself resistant, to yoga, to instruction, to moving in hard ways. There’s a funny sign in my neighbor’s yard, which I walk past on the way to work. It says “Do Hard Things.” I always smile, thinking, yep, I’m on my way to do hard things for a good chunk of my day, even though I know there will be rewards in the midst of the challenges.

In yoga, some days, I just show up, but with sort of a bad attitude. I’ll find myself annoyed that the instructor is telling me to do things that I just don’t have the energy for, or that I know my body isn’t good at, including really basic poses like Warrior I (that one has never agreed with me), or wheel–there’s no way my arms are lifting my upper body into that position–or inverted poses that require core strength I just don’t have. Yoga can be humbling in that way. It’s always important to remember that, as my longest-standing instructor always says, “Yoga has no ego.” I need to leave mine at the door, and where possible, recognize my resistance and just breathe my way through it.

But today, oh joy, there was so little resistance! I was in the flow, just like I am on a good run, ready to use even the weakest parts of my body (like upper arms) and just do my best. I enjoyed stretching places that haven’t been stretched in awhile, like the side of my stomach, and my low spine while in up dog. I gave it my best today, and got the reward, which was, of course that lovely shavasana at the end, in which I practically fell asleep. My body and mind felt happy and buoyant, and the stiffness that plagued me during my half-marathon training was gone. Feeling my body’s strength and flexibility throughout made me feel good, and after 50 minutes, I was happily spent.

I think today’s happy yoga time was partly the result of another pattern that yoga has helped me discern, the idea of opening up space so that new things can happen. In yoga, instructors are always reminding us to open up space, across our chest and shoulders, in our hips, in our lungs even, anywhere where we hold ourselves down and keep ourselves tight. I think there’s another meaning there, too, which is about how we do have limitations in terms of what we can expect our bodies or our overall energies to accomplish at any one time. There’s only so much space.

Today’s class is a power yoga class, one that I was doing most Wednesdays during the half-marathon training, mainly because it fit into my schedule. But I was already doing so much “power” stuff in running 9 or 10 miles on the weekends, that my body and mind resisted that much yoga-related exertion for a reason. It was hard to accommodate so much high-energy working out in my body and my psyche. I was trying to create more space than was genuinely available to make it all work happily. I was overcommitting.

Today, I think I enjoyed a deep, strong and long yoga workout because I’ve opened up space: I’m a gentle 3-mile-or-so runner again most of the time these days, and now I can enjoy new things. The same kind of pattern shows up in my life. Now that I’m finally finished writing my book, I’ve got more energy for teaching and a few of the million and one things that a large institution of higher education calls me to be involved with. I even feel like getting dressed in clothes that aren’t workout/writer-at-home clothes. I’ve had to keep going to work even at the hardest times of writing, but sometimes it was such a slog. Now that there’s more space, less of my energy being focused in a single direction, I can enjoy the other aspects of my life more fully.

Oh, that over-commitment thing. We all do it, and even at my age, I often only recognize it when I’m in between large commitments, and on the verge of taking on more! This all makes me think, how much balance do I really want in my life, and what am I willing to do less of to make it happen? These are questions I’ll probably always have, because I’m a busy person who expects a lot of myself.

Today I’m grateful for what my body can do when it’s in the flow, or when it’s resistance, and I’m grateful for the time and space to write and think about this part of my journey. Having just had my annual physical yesterday, I’m also so grateful for my health, and the health of my nearest and dearest. And now, I’m going to open up the space to enjoy Thanksgiving!

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Yoga for Runners and Everyone Else

Yesterday I returned my still very stiff and achey body to the yoga mat for 75 minutes of hot yoga, always a daunting challenge and a guaranteed glad-I-did-it experience. I honestly needed that experience much more than I needed to run. My legs and hips have been causing me a lot of discomfort wince my 13.2 mile run. I think they’re trying to tell me something, something about a little less running, a little more yoga, and maybe a little more rest.

A long session of hot yoga was a good start. I was reminded that I probably have yoga to thank, as much as running, for letting my body teach me more about life. My body teaches me when it’s achy, when it’s stiff, when it’s in beautiful, fluid motion, when I’m trying to take it along with me on long runs or into complex twists that require every single muscle, and when it’s given the gift of rest and quiet breath.

I’m going to take some time this month to write about yoga’s lessons that apply to running (and maybe vice verca) and to life. I was going to write several in this post, but I got so involved in just one that I think I’ll make it a series.

So here’s just one important lesson from my yoga practice:

Let go: Once when one of my favorite yoga teachers had us all in a wide leg straddle, leaning down to the floor, stretching our hamstrings to the max, she said, in a gently commanding tone: “Just let go.” She correctly guessed that we were hanging on to the tightness in our muscles without thinking about it, and that we could use our minds to talk to those muscles and tell them to unclench. And she was right. That stretch, while not easy for me, became easier when I just told my muscles they didn’t need to hang on to that tightness.

Such a simple thing, but I think about it often. I consciously loosen myself when I’m running, especially after reading Chi Running, by Danny and Katherine Dreyer, which takes tai chi and yoga thinking into the running process. Since reading that book, I frequently just start loosening every part of my body I can while I’m in motion, especially my ankles, my calves, and my shoulders.

Obviously the letting go lessons apply “off the mat,” and the good yoga teachers always remind us to use the mindsets we need to be good to our bodies, and take them “off the mat” to enrich our lives. Volumes have been written about letting go of emotional baggage, unrealistic expectations, and harsh attitudes towards ourselves and others. Like everyone else, I still have much to learn in this area. I hope to have many more years to practice an art that doesn’t come easily to us humans. But I love the idea that I can do some of that learning at the root of my presence in this world, by living in my body and learning from it.

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Running and Being

Runner’s magazine recently ran a story on the re-issue of a book by someone I’d never heard of. This book is now moving to the top of my to-read list.

Dr. George Sheehan was a kind of philosopher of running in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. He wrote a regular column for Runner’s World for 25 years, and among his other book publications was a best-seller called Running and Being. Here’s an excerpt:

“Running made me free. It rid me of concern for the opinion of others. Dispensed me from rules and regulations imposed from outside. Running let me start from scratch. It stripped off those layers of programmed activity and thinking. Developed new priorities about eating and sleeping and what to do with leisure time. Running changed my attitude about work and play. About whom I really liked and who really liked me. Running let me see my twenty-four-hour day in a new light and my lifestyle from a different point of view, from the inside instead of out.”

I’m hooked now, really looking forward to reading this book. When it was published in 1978, I was 12 years old, and the last things on my mind were running and being. The re-issue will, as Runner’s editor in chief David Willey wrote, “introduce George to a new generation of readers.”

There’s something very special about connecting with the words and ideas of someone who enjoyed some of your favorite things, perhaps even thought some of your thoughts, so to speak, long before your time. Dr. Sheehan died in 1993, but I look forward to being part of that new generation discovering his ideas that live on.

 

 

 

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Race!

It was a beautiful day for a half-marathon! And we did it!
Here are the running buddies before the race:

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It did not go quite as planned. About 7 or 8 miles in, I got a pain behind my knee that just got more and more wicked and began to radiate down my calf. I’d only experienced it running one other time, on the last long run of this training, the 12-miler. But this time it plagued me. I had no choice but to walk about the last 5 miles.
I was more attached to the idea that I would run this 13.2 miles than I’d realized. I must have tried 5 or 6 more times to run, but every time, I probably made it less than 100 yards before the pain got too intense. Still, it was an excellent run/walk, and we finished!  There were many moments in that first eight miles when I felt so happy and light that it seemed like I could run forever. Sanna, who thought she’d want me to go ahead by mile four, ran with me until I could run no more, and then walked with me the rest of the way. We talked almost the whole time. In our little world, full of fall colors, water, sunshine, and friendly conversation, the miles flew by quickly, and those last walking miles were just like a gentle stroll. It was the most companionable race I’ve ever “run”/finished.

I gave it one more push for the finish line.

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But that was all I had. By the time we left Norwalk, was limping back to the car and have been taking it very slow, and a little painfully, getting around my house since then.
Still, it was all good. Four hours or so of fresh air, getting ready, running, walking, and hanging around for the chicken Q, was a very special way to spend a Sunday morning.
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We also appreciated our support crew. My husband’s work schedule as a nurse is pretty set in stone on alternate weekends, so he couldn’t be there, and neither could my daughters. But my sometimes training buddy Brad cheered me on, and also ran the 5K while we were busy on the half-marathon trail.
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It was all a lovely ending to a season of running. Next, on to the recovery, and the transition back to a less demanding running routine. I think some muscle-stretching gentle yoga is also on the horizon.
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Race Day Jitters and Thoughts on Luck

This morning as I prepare to run this 13.2 I’m up early, and nervous! Or excited or something. I woke up far too early and couldn’t go back to sleep.

Despite all my yammering about how I’m not competitive, I did set myself a bit of a bar for this thing by telling “the world” (a.k.a. the small number of people who read this blog) that I’m going to complete this race. And it kind of adds to the pressure! Still, all in all, I’m excited to go do this thing.

I’ve been thinking about how happy I am that my friend Sanna and I both made it to this point. I wouldn’t be looking forward to the race nearly as much without her. And that made me think about all the luck involved. Either of us could have gotten sick today. More likely, either of us could have developed one of those famous repetitive stress injuries that runners get, which could have stopped our training. Instead, we got lucky. We both held loosely to this goal, and now we get to enjoy that sense of accomplishment, and we’ll get to share it.

So many big goals, or even medium-sized goals in life require things to just happen to go okay.

I’ve thought about this often as a person in higher education. Semesters are inflexible, but people’s lives go all awry over the course of them, and sometimes getting through your classes as a student is just luck—which is why I’m the last person to have strict attendance policies or to deny students an extension on their papers. Life happens! (It’s also true that people with more privilege are at lower risk for getting de-railed by financial woes, heavy work schedules, and by being indispensable supports to other people).

I got my Ph.D. in my 20s. All around me were people who tried that route, but didn’t finish. Sometimes the profession just didn’t turn out to be a good fit for them; they found other things they enjoyed and had the courage to abandon a goal that wasn’t an authentic one for them. In many cases it was also just a matter of luck, and I had the right luck to get through. If I’d had a child with special needs or an ailing parent who required my attention, I might have been called away from the focus of study to attend to other pressing human needs and rewards. I had a super supportive spouse (who has stayed through the long haul, including the long journey to tenure.) I didn’t get sick or have to cope with the illness of someone dear to me; I didn’t get divorced; I didn’t run into so much financial difficulty that the whole thing became untenable.

But those who didn’t finish went on to do some of the many interesting things people do with their lives on different paths, with different goals, with a different configuration of needs. In my life today, I couldn’t be more happy that many of the people who are closest to me have taken paths other than the Ph.D. and have enriched my life with their different journeys. The focus of the Ph.D. journey and the one that followed it had many rewards, but many opportunity costs too, which is a subject for another time.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m on the verge of meeting this much smaller goal of doing this run today. In many ways these journeys don’t compare to each other at all. It takes a gazillion times more investment to climb any career ladder than it does to train for a few months for a half-marathon. But I continue to think of this training as another running journey that gives me perspective on other trajectories in life. There are joys and opportunity costs in each. I know, for example, that when this journey is over, I’ll enjoy having my Saturdays to do something other than run 10 miles or so and spend the rest of the day recovering! Still, it’s been fun!

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Some Thoughts on Competition

I’m about to run a “race” tomorrow, but to be honest, I’m not very interested in being a competitive runner. I actually don’t think of it as a race as much as my own 13.2-mile run, the culmination of, and tribute to, months of training, on a beautiful trail, in the company of other members of the often quiet crowd that is the running “tribe.” What I love about races, no matter the distance, is the energy and adrenaline I feel from being around other runners.

I admire athletic competitors, and the more I get into my running, the more I can appreciate them. Sometimes I watch the track athletes on the university track near my house, lifting their knees high, doing sprints, or just jogging around at ease in their lithe bodies. Competition, a desire for personal achievement of a better time, a better performance…all of that motivates the genuinely athletically driven and gifted people of the world, who dazzle us with the beautiful possibilities of the well-trained human body and the mind, focused on better, higher, stronger, faster, more intense, more alive. I appreciate observing those athletes who compete in high school or college, or who run races like the one I’m about to run in order to win, or to get their personal best time. It’s all pretty inspiring.

But all this isn’t really what motivates my running. Sure, during a race, I sometimes get the urge to pass someone who seems passable. Getting out in front of that person becomes a short-term goal in the midst of a long run. And yes, I’m glad I have a respectable, mid-range time in my age group when I run 5ks in my community and the results are posted online. And I would be happy to get something close to the times I got in my last two half-marathons.

Still, running is an intense hobby for me, but not something to add to my many arenas of drive for self-improvement. It’s a really important thing I do to have a life outside of work and family, to connect to my body and mind alone or in happy companionship, to be close to nature, to maintain my physical health, to enjoy feeling in shape and learning what my body is capable of, to make it possible to continue to be a passionate devotee of eating good food without putting on too many middle-aged pounds, and to manage my anxiety. It’s hard to imagine my life without running, which anchors me so I can do everything else I do as a family member, a professor, and in all the other roles I play.

But I get enough striving for excellence in the rest of my life. Everyone who knows me knows that. When I took the Gallup Strengths quest test a few years back, one of my top five strengths was “Achiever,” which basically means productivity obsessed. In the Gallup organization’s explanation of strengths, “Achiever” is the only one I’ve found that includes the basic message: “and you just have to live with yourself,” meaning, this may be a strength and all, but you’re the kind of person who needs to be productive every single day, and you can drive yourself crazy with that.

Productivity for me isn’t always about work. I’ll arrange my Saturday chores around some kind of quality time with one of my children, organize a gathering to bring people together who rarely see each other, or make elaborate meals…things like that. And then there’s work, where I just finished writing a book, and in the middle of it, took on other projects, like team teaching a course with a colleague in another department. In a word, I’m busy—a LOT. My to do list is endless, and there always seem to be ways I push myself to be better at things, whether it’s parenting, teaching, or lending my time to causes I care about.

Achievers, I suspect, are driven by a lot of insecurity, at least if I’m any kind of prototype of this group. I grew up with the weight of generations of angst about the wolf being potentially right there at the door any minute. I’d say that anxiety and the desire to please drive a fair amount of the (feminine-socialization-enhanced) productivity extravaganza that is my life.

But running is something else. For the most part, I don’t have much to prove to myself or anyone else with running. I never invested my identity in athletics. Though I was a swimmer in high school, I was in maybe in the top third (barely) of the pack on a team that was at the bottom of the pack in our area. I was only in that top third because I loved to practice so much that I went to optional morning practices plus afternoon ones. The singular achievement I remember was beating my own time (1:14.99 for the 100-yard backstroke, if I recall), not besting any particular competitor or winning any particular race.

As a middle-aged runner, I don’t even care much about my own time, much less besting others. I just do it because I want to. Yes, the smart observers will notice that it’s kind of a productivity thing to train yourself to run 13.2 miles and then go race. No argument there. I’d say that I’m just using my strength to give myself more space in my life to do something that brings me pleasure, and if it happens to feed my need for constant productivity, well that’s okay too.

I treat enough of the rest of my life like a race that I don’t want to bring that mentality into my running. If anything, I’m trying to bring what I learn from my gentle approach to running, and to myself while I run, into the rest of my life. So, with that, wish my luck on tomorrow’s “race.”

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