Are easy runs “good” and hard runs “bad”?
In my experience, the best parts of running are hidden in every run – even those runs we slog through with heavy legs and eyes heavy with fatigue.
Conditions are always neutral. The outcome, positive or negative, depends on the sad or happy attitudes of the heart.
Case in point: the 1997 Sierra Nevada Endurance Run, a trail double-marathon with 5400′ of climb. The lessons of that race have endured, revealing that pain can be a passage to joy.
The first miles of an ultra are for warming up the body and greeting old friends. Later, my body labored and my mood deteriorated.
I’d fought off a stomach flu the previous week, and the race pushed me to my limits. Entering the aid station at 34 miles, I discovered that it was out of my preferred race drink. Fearing that the final 18 miles would be a death march, I voiced my frustration, and the volunteers were distinctly not pleased.
Back out on the trail, I felt duly ashamed and resolved to treat the volunteers at the next aid station better. I was relieved to find that they were well stocked, but my heart banter sounded false even to my ears, and it evoked a subdued response.
On the trail again, I recognized that my gratitude had been forced, and I realized that what I really needed to do was prepare my heart.
For the next nine miles, I meditated on the people who come out to these races to help, and who receive few rewards beyond the simple pleasure of serving. Trotting into the next aid station, I said with heartfelt sincerity: “You guys do such a good job – it’s truly wonderful. Thank you very much!” And I meant it. The volunteers were grateful, and I left the station in good spirits, feeling genuine.
Meanwhile, my body had begun to let me down – I was in real trouble. Whenever I tried to run, a muscle in my buttock spasmed painfully and my right leg went numb and threatened to buckle. Fast-walking was pain-free, and I soon found a rhythm that allowed me to roll along almost as fast as I could have run.
As the sun fell toward the horizon, I reflected on the challenges of getting along with others. I wondered whether it’s ever possible to have right relations all the time. Memories flooded in, of deeply satisfying interactions, and how, in every case, I had behaved with restraint and courtesy, honoring the other person’s realities and giving them ample room to be themselves.
In recalled how, in several memorable instances, I had felt, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “The Over Soul,” that “somewhat higher in each of us overlooks this by-play, and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us.”
When I succeeded in stepping out of the way, kindness seemed to flow through me. I hadn’t reacted from personal emotion, or needed to consider how I should act. There was no formality, no stiff propriety, only a relaxed, expansive, wonderfully enjoyable desire that the other person should find the great human blessings of health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy.
In fact, I thought, that’s how my life works – and my running. The best experiences come when I stretch the borders of my awareness, using body and heart. I decided that for the remainder of the race, I would try to expand those positive feelings as best I could, and see where they would take me. If I passed another runner, I would outwardly give them good cheer, and inwardly send them blessings for a safe and successful passage, in this race and in their lives.
I found myself seesawing with a young woman who appeared to be having a tough time. I would pass her and her pacer, and then a quarter-mile down the trail they would pass me. Hours earlier, we had climbed the worst hill of the course together, exchanging labored grunts. Now, fully aware that there was no way I could relieve her suffering, I endeavored to offer words of encouragement and quiet support. In my heart, I tried to offer myself as a channel for the love that I’d felt in other encounters, and in the effort those feelings came flooding back again, and exactly the right words poured out, with no need for careful forethought.
There isn’t much that helps when you’re going through a rough time at the end of an ultra, but one thing does: feeling that someone has embraced your well-being and is offering their help and support with sincerity. It’s a comfort, and it can’t be faked. Not much can get through the fog of pain, but simple friendship always does. As I passed that young woman for the final time, I said, “You guys will be zipping by again before long.” It was hardly a deep sentiment, but it was sincere. In fact, I was enjoying such a wealth of quiet inner happiness that I couldn’t have cared less whether I finished before her. Even my body had responded. The final miles flew by effortlessly, and I was able to run the last half-mile without pain.
Driving home, I reflected, not for the first time, on the reasons people run ultramarathons. In an ultra, petty concerns, worries, and fretful resentments tend to be washed away. An ultramarathon poses a difficult spiritual test: Will I break toward whiny self-concern, or rise above the little self? These are issues of the heart. Like life, or the spiritual path, or the path of a runner, they’re simple, but not easy. In the final stages of an ultra, the runners who’ve passed the test become very simple, stripped down to their essential being, and subtly connected.
Every run poses the same choice. Will we use body, heart, will, mind, and soul expansively or contractively? Whether the body is sailing along with effortless ease, or falling apart pitifully, we’re asked to choose between fellow-feeling, inner strength, and upbeat attitudes, or sullen withdrawal, weakness, and grumpiness. The choice is ours, and it decides the quality of the run. Every “good run” depends, to the greatest possible extent, not as much on what the body is doing, as on the attitudes of the heart.