Simple Runner

Running is complicated at first. Only later does it become simple. At the start, there’s confusion: Which shoes should I wear? How fast should I run? How far? What’s up with this pain in my knee? This rash? These blisters? On my daily 15-minute run, should I take extra carbs?

Gradually, by trial and error, running teaches us what matters, and what isn’t worth a fuss.

Some of us develop a taste for running in simplicity. What could be happier or less complicated than a solo run on a beautiful trail?

From the beginning, I tried to shed unnecessary baggage. In the early days, I ran barefoot and shirtless on the beach – if some prankster had tugged down my shorts, I’d have been nude.

Later, when I moved north of San Francisco, most Saturdays I drove to the City for a long run. I’d park my new yellow ’72 VW Bug in Golden Gate Park, hide the key under a tire (no keys! no socks! no jock!), and run 14-17 miles in shoes, shorts, and…well, nothing else. In those days, I carried no fuels or water.

Later, when I ran ultramarathons, I tried to pare the “gear and tackle and trim” of running to the irreducible minimum. On 30-mile training run/walks, I took plain water and electrolytes. If there were major hills, I’d bring a protein bar and consume one bite per hour.

When I was training for my first 50-miler, I read an article in Ultrarunning magazine by Gary Cantrell, an ultrarunner from the Deep South, who warned that by mile 40 of my first 50 I could expect to feel “like a very old person, very frail and vulnerable.”

I found it to be true, yet it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all. In fact, a lovely thing about the ultra distances is how they strip away our superficial self-definitions. After 40 miles, the mind can no longer summon the energy to complain, fret, rationalize, whine, rebel, or wish things were different than they are. So it gives up, stands a bit apart, and observes quietly. And in that irreducible simplicity, there’s a sense of being reunited with the bare and childlike core of our existence. It can be a very soul-satisfying experience.

The world economy is in the tank. And, how will we live, if we’re forced into lives of involuntary simplicity? For myself, I hope I’ll be able to drop the extra baggage without complaint and turn my attention to discovering the riches of a simpler life.

When I write these articles, I tend to inject spiritual content, and I’m aware that it may not be to everybody’s taste. Yet I simply cannot turn my back on the evidence I’ve gathered that spiritual principles permeate every sector of our lives, from the mundane to the sublime.

Consider the earthy example of a running store. There are three in our area, and all offer quality goodies for runners. Yet the “flavor” of each store is unique. One is an old-line running store. The second serves an eclectic clientele – it’s across the street from Stanford, in an upscale shopping complex. The third is a store for trail runners.

I hardly ever visit the second store, because it’s more deliberately eclectic, and I like to give my business to the runner-owners. But my feelings about the store changed radically when I bought my Asics 2140 shoes there, about a month ago. The moment I walked in the door, a young, athletic-looking salesperson greeted me with a smile and a friendly word. He said he’d be with me shortly, and when he finished serving another customer, his attention was lasered-in on discovering what I wanted. And he went the extra mile to ensure that I got it, while keeping up a friendly, cheerful banter.

Guess which store I’ll think of first, the next time I need shoes? Right – the generalist store across from Stanford, where I was treated with friendliness.

The third store is new. If I were the owners, I would look for “people people” like the young man who sold me my shoes, who radiate friendliness, and expansive enthusiasm for helping others.

At our local REI, there’s a woman in her middle years who’s the soul of customer service. She’s friendly, helpful, and good humored. She doesn’t look remotely like a distance runner, yet I would hire her in a heartbeat. I would pick her over a “serious runner,” with a serious demeanor, and a solemnly cultivated self-image who could impress the customers by wearing a Western States 100 sub-24-hour finisher’s silver buckle.

I would train my employees to offer each customer love and kindness first, and technical expertise secondarily. I would teach the staff to respond to technical questions that they couldn’t answer by saying, “You know, I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you, right away.” And if I were a senior staffer, I would forget about ranking my customers by their marathon PR, and communicate to them as people. I would rush to serve, aware of the joys – often forgotten in our Beamer-Lexus culture – of helping others.

If the dark clouds looming on the economic horizon bring rain, I suspect it’s the expansive people who’ll survive. In the early 1980s, I moved from a yoga-based community in the Sierra foothills, where I’d lived for six years, to the Bay Area. I didn’t have a job, and I was nervous about finding work. But I needn’t have worried. I took temp work to make ends meet, and I brought to each assignment all of the enthusiasm and serviceful attitudes that I’d learned in the community I’d left behind. In the first two months, three employers offered me permanent work, because I had the “job skills” that truly mattered.

I once interviewed the employees at a women’s clothing store and boutique in Nevada City, California who practiced expansive attitudes. Each morning before the store opened, the staff would gather to meditate and pray for their customers, sending them blessings for health and happiness. When a customer walked in the door, the employees greeted her and offered her friendship first, practical help second. The store was a huge success – customers often told the staff that they welcomed any excuse to return, because it felt so good there, like being among close friends.

I worked at a bookstore where the staff practiced similar attitudes. The store was a wonderfully welcoming environment – more than a retail outlet, it was a meeting place and community center. One evening, I overheard two customers talking. They were standing in front of a large fountain at the back of the store, and one said, “I thank God for this wonderful store!” It wasn’t the stock, the location, or the “look” of the store that mattered. It was the feeling.

At every level, from the most earthy and material, to the most exalted, the same spiritual principles determine success. Simplicity and expansive attitudes of the heart work at every level.

In spiritual traditions, it’s said that God “watches the heart.” It’s the same in retail and in the training of distance runners. At all levels, whether training, praying or selling running shoes, a simple, expansive heart is a powerful “performance booster.”

What follows could be a separate article, perhaps for another venue than Fitness Intuition. But I feel that it’s relevant to the themes of simplicity, the economy, and training. So, here goes.

Seven years ago, I entered a five-year period during which I had a terrible time making a living.

It was baffling. I had a graduate degree from a big-name university, I had wonderful client testimonials, 36 years of experience – yet I simply couldn’t find work.

I’d been modestly successful as a writer and editor for Silicon Valley tech companies. But for those five years, the work dried up.

What was I doing wrong? I changed my resume, adjusted my attitude, downgraded my expectations, and applied for as many as 50 jobs at a single company – hundreds, overall. I applied for jobs I formerly wouldn’t have dreamed of taking. But, nada.

Drupada, a friend who’s a Vedic astrologer, gave me a reading. Think what you will, but he’s been accurate in describing the general directions of my life.

He said, “You’re in a period that’s auspicious for pilgrimage. It’s a time to go within and deepen your relationship with God. The reason you’re having trouble finding work is that you’re invisible to employers.”

It certainly felt that way. I filled in by doing gardening jobs for friends who manage the apartment complex where I live. But no sooner would I start a new project than I’d get a call from a potential writing client. I’d turn my attention to landing the job, but the company would disappear. I’d return to gardening and then get another call. No less than 15 to 17 companies expressed a lively interest my services, then drifted away.

My daily routine became simple: apply for jobs, work in the garden, respond to calls, and edit the manuscript of what would become my book, Fitness Intuition.

I had moments of blackness, when I wondered what purpose my life was serving. Yet there were also days tinged with an unusual degree of joy. It was as if the Universe was saying: “Don’t lose hope. You will learn the intended lessons and pull through.”

To make a long story short, toward the end of that five-year period, things got even worse. The landlord, who’d been incredibly patient, announced that I would have to move unless I could remain current and make payments on the back rent. Essentially, I would be homeless.

Ironically, my astrologer friend had predicted that the period following this one would present ample opportunities for finding work. That period had supposedly begun a year earlier, yet there was no sign of an end to the drought. I concluded that God was perfectly willing to tear my Vedic chart to shreds, if it would help me learn needed lessons.

Near the end of the long test, I was meditating one day and had a kind of waking vision. In my mind’s eye, I saw a young man who stood before a rock hut in the Himalayas. The hut was at high altitude, above the tree line, and was made of gray stones laid loosely. The young man had brown skin and wore a simple robe made of brownish-red wool. It was obvious that he had no material possessions, yet he was smiling from ear to ear, and his eyes spoke of a profound inner happiness.

I realized that the man was me, and that the vision was intended to show me that it’s possible to be happy while living simply. All that’s needed is shelter, health, sufficient food, and above all, attunement with the source of happiness within.

As I hinted above, spiritual tests seem to get more intense before they end, to ensure that we absorb the lessons with our very cells. The waking vision signaled the beginning of a new awareness, yet the testing continued for several weeks.

The worst part of having little money wasn’t the lack of material goods – after all, I had food, shelter, and health. Rather, it was the pervading sense which occasionally gripped me, of purposelessness. In my saner moments I knew that I had priceless riches – I had an unbroken faith in God, and that He “knew what He was doing.” I had the company of true friends. And I had deeply meaningful, if unpaid, work writing the book.

I valued these things more than ever. Yet I couldn’t see my way forward. I was 63 years old, essentially unemployable, rigidly set against accepting welfare, and at the end of my rope.

And then my awareness changed – don’t ask me how, but there was a softening into greater receptivity. I wrote an email to my spiritual teacher in which I told him, “I’ve come to understand that I am in this life for just three reasons: to love God, to serve others, and to live simply.”

I expected no answer; my teacher has thousands of students, and his life is full with writing, giving talks, and counseling. In any case, I’ve never liked to bother him with my problems, which always seem to resolve themselves. But I felt that it was right to tell him about my new understanding.

A week passed, and I received an email from his secretary, who told me that my teacher had read my email, and that his simple comment was: “Very good.”

I can’t tell you how much those two words meant to me. For the 30 years that I’d know him, my teacher had proved an unfailing channel of wisdom from my higher Self. In fact, a feature of my relationship with him is that I’ve never had an encounter or conversation with him, however brief or casual, that wasn’t profoundly meaningful. Sometimes a single sentence from him has given me “homework” to ponder for years after. It’s also been amazing to me to observe how much of himself he has given to God – in the modern vernacular, he’s on the job, serving selflessly, 24/7/365.

What happened next signaled that the test had ended, and that I’d been wise not to lose hope. The day after I received the email from my teacher’s secretary, the phone began ringing off the hook. Calls poured in from people offering me assignments. I had such a flow of work that it was actually scary. Since then, by God’s grace, I’ve been able to keep busy.

What did I learn? A key lesson was the extent to which a mechanical view of the world fails to explain how the whole ponderous mechanism works. The atheists, in their proud intelligence, claim that life emerged from the mud. They worship the material world. Meanwhile, intelligent people of faith believe that consciousness is primary, and that first energy, then matter emerged from the consciousness of God. Parenthetically, there seem to be fewer atheists who are physicists than biologists.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, the astrophysicist who introduced Einstein’s ideas to the world, put it like this:

The recent discoveries of science do, I believe, take us to an eminence from which we can look down into the deep waters of philosophy; and if I rashly plunge into them, it is not because I have confidence in my powers of swimming, but to try to show that the water is really deep. To put the conclusion crudely-the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.

Now then, I haven’t seen God, but I’ve gathered a certain amount of evidence that argues for His existence, and I’ve begun to think that when problems assail us, it’s wise to avoid thinking too much, and instead, while taking every possible practical step, open our hearts to the Infinite Source. It hasn’t failed me in my life, and it hasn’t failed me as a runner.

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