The Difference Is the Heart

I’d just finished a 30K in Sacramento. I was standing at the results board, grinding my teeth and thinking: “There’s NO WAY that guy would have beat me for third if I’d done hard speedwork the last six weeks.” That was 14 years ago. I was 51 at the time.

A woman was standing next to me. Another woman walked up and greeted her, “Oh, HI! How ARE you? It’s so wonderful to see you! What race did you run? How did you do?”

“Hey, it’s wonderful to see you, too — it’s been too long! I ran the 50K, and I placed third.”

“That’s WONDERFUL! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!”

I was chuckling softly. I thought, “Okay, the universe is telling me to put on a dunce cap and go stand in the corner.”

It wasn’t hard to discern the lesson. I’d been grimly plotting revenge on the over-50 guy who’d burned me for third, and here were these women, opening their hearts and having a lot better time.

Three years ago, I was running in the hills at a relaxed pace when a young woman passed me. I turned with a smile to greet her, but she motored silently past, her face set in a grim rictus of triumph. I could feel her trying to suck my spirit dry. I thought, “What a victory. I’m 62 and I’m jogging at 70% of my max heart rate, and she’s pretending she’s winning a race.”

In my book, Fitness Intuition, I describe how I countered that woman’s negative energy. I’d just been reading Mark Allen’s Total Triathlete, by the six-time Hawaiian Ironman winner, and I remembered him saying that you can’t let other athletes “steal your energy.” Okay, I thought, I’ll try that.

I sternly focused my attention, and 15 minutes later, when the woman passed me going the other way, I was so rigidly interiorized that I was barely aware of her outwardly. But I could still feel her predatory energy as strongly as before. In grimly “defending my energy,” I was, in fact, focusing on her, and I hadn’t succeeded in preventing her from getting under my skin

I realized that the only way to shake free of her negativity would be to pour positive feelings through my heart.

I began to pray for her. At first I was just grinding out the words mechanically, mouthing the prayers, but with fierce energy: “Bless her! Bless her! Give her health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy!” Before long, the meaning of the words became real and a flow of love took fire in my heart. There was such power in that love that I no longer felt any need to defend myself. I was “defended” in the love that was flowing through me. I knew I had “won.” I continued to pray, no longer for her, but for everyone I passed, because the experience was so joyful.

Which shows, I guess, that guys can get it right sometimes.

In 30 years of running, one of the most useful things I’ve learned is that the channel through which the body tells us about its needs is the heart. Whenever I close my heart, I find it a lot harder to “listen to my body,” as experienced runners and coaches recommend. If I want to know if it’s all right to do speedwork, for example, I can ask my heart. And if I listen sensitively, my heart will tell me what my body is prepared to do.

Here’s another valuable thing I’ve learned: The goal of sports is joy. Some people define joy as triumphing over others, standing alone on the victor’s podium admired by all. But other people aren’t satisfied with such a self-focused definition; they’re looking for a joy that’s more all-encompassing, a joy that permeates their whole being – body, heart, will, mind, and soul.

Those women, meeting at the finish line and greeting each other gushingly, knew something important about running. They knew that joy comes by expanding our hearts. Standing at the results board, they were experiencing more joy than I was. The universe was reminding me where real success lies, in running and in life.