Running, mindfulness and life lessons

Jogging in Academy Park by Rosa Dlk 009

I love running. It’s a passion I stumbled upon when I was a child, almost casually, by mindlessly following some schoolmates of mine, the way you do it when you’re 9 years old and, even though you still haven’t figured it out consciously, all you want is to feel like you’re part of a team.

I wound up taking it way more seriously than the friends I followed there – the way I always do – so I quickly moved to the competitive level, entered the track and field team and stayed there for 5 or 6 years.

Those running years taught me a lot, gave me (few) great joys and brought (many more) disappointments. I wasn’t a prodigy and my perfectionism was probably already building up, so almost every competition started and finished with me repeating myself that I wasn’t enough.

Still, the memories of the training sessions with the rest of the team and with my amazing coach are something I get back to with love and affection every time. I loved sharing the same uniform as my fellow team mates, I loved anything that required some technical skills, such as high jump or shot put, I loved the tartan track and the smell of grass freshly cut around it, I loved running.

I loved it to the point that, about 20 years later, once the worst of my anxiety-driven breakdown was gone, I had no doubt about what sport to pick, in order to get some confidence back into my physical abilities and to drag me out of my house, defeating laziness, at least once a week.

I bought a new pair of shoes, got myself some warm sportswear and started running again on a cold december sunday morning.

It’s been a couple of years so far. No matter the weather or the sporadic wish for some idleness, once a week, mostly on weekends, I get dressed in my Decathlon outfit and go out running.

There are no races, except for the charity runs I join from time to time and there’s no more competition, except for the one a perfectionist girl always brings within: the one against myself.

The context in which I run has changed, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed; to some degree I’m a different person too. I’m older, that goes without saying. I’m not 9 years old any longer, I’m 33 now. That same old thought of not being enough still resurfaces every time I put my shoes on, I guess I’ll have to take it with me forever, but now I know that it’s just a thought, I know that it usually lies to me and I know that “enough” is exactly who I am and where I am at any time; I still have to practice a lot on this last one, but I know how it works now. And that’s a good start.

I’ve learnt much of what I know now thanks to therapy and partially thanks to therapy I discovered mindfulness last year. And mindfulness indeed gave me my latest insight few days ago, exactly during a running session.

For all my life, I’ve been running with the main objective of saving my energy for the last two or three yards. I am an excellent sprinter, but an average distance runner. Having to compete both in short and long distance races, when I had to run the latter, my strategy was always the same: go as slow as possible for the almost the entire distance, wait for the last 3 yards and then burst into the fastest sprint you’ve ever seen. As anyone can easily imagine, that strategy didn’t pay off much.

I’m starting to believe now that such a method wasn’t only a running style for me, I have to admit that I’ve lived most of my life with the same approach. Shyness, insecurity, perfectionism and few other amenities have made me live my life with the constant habit of being too cautious, of running slower than I would actually be able to, like driving with my handbrake always on, of working hard and successfully in environments I know and feel quite confident in, such as school, university, or in the office, but avoiding risks and uncertainties anywhere else, in my personal, emotional and sentimental life, most of all.

A couple of weeks ago, on a saturday afternoon, I put my running shoes on and went out for a new training session.

I know my pace; I know I have to run my 6k, so I usually start slow, saving my energy as I always do. This time, for reasons I can’t really explain, I started at a pace way faster than my usual one. I was basically running as if there weren’t a defined distance that I had to cover. I ran, without caring much about how long I would have endured. I ran, ignoring the voice telling me to slow down because otherwise I would have run out of breath soon. I ran caring more about what my body was telling me, instead of paying attention to my mind’s chattering and lessening me. I ran mindfully, I guess.

It turns out I endured that pace longer than I could have imagined. It turns out I improved my personal best, running my 6k three minutes faster than usual.

It’s not much about the athletic performance of course. It’s way more about what that little experiment can teach me about the way I want to live my life.

The slower I start to run, the slower I end up running. Approaching my race with the attitude of someone who wants to save her energy because I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the finish line makes me run at the pace of someone who doesn’t have enough inner resources to finish the race. The faster I start to run, the faster I conclude my race. Approaching my race with the attitude of someone who’s ready to spend much more energies than she thinks she owns makes me run at a pace I wouldn’t imagine myself able to keep up to.

Out of the metaphor, the more I trust that I can push myself into new experiences without listening too much to my thoughts telling me that I can’t make it, the more I accomplish amazing results. The more I change my suspicious and cautious attitude into an open-minded acceptance of whatever may come, the more I get to live new, surprising and enriching experiences.

So here it is what my latest running sessions have taught me: whether it is simply running or leading our own existence, from time to time that little voice telling we can’t make it is going to lurk into our head and possibly find some space. It will tell us to slow down, to stop, maybe to not even try it. That’s how it works sometimes. It’s not about hushing the voice, but listening to it, smiling at it and start anyway, go on anyway, run faster anyway. The worst thing that may happen it’s a failure, not a big deal after all, especially if you weigh it up against the sense of freedom that comes with realizing you’ve just overcome your limit.

I don’t know what my old coach would think of my introspection on my run and my life. I like to think he would be proud. I certainly am.

 


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