“Getting It Together” On the Run

Surely, the body is one source of a runner’s joys. But I’ve never believed that it’s the only one. Many times, my body has run well, while the rest of me performed poorly.

What does it take to “get it together” on a run? If you pick up a puppet by an arm or leg, you get a jumble, but if you pick it up by the head, the parts fall in place. It’s the same with running – when we put first things first, everything falls in line.

Many things can go wrong on a run, and a frequent cause of problems is out-of-control emotions. Jumpy feelings can easily impel us to run too far or fast.

Many runners believe the master key to running well is the mind. If they have a problem with their runs, they look for the solution using logic and reason. It’s a valid approach, and it works well when we have sufficient data. But if the data are lacking or hidden, we end up with half-answers and “guesstimates.” Not a very confidence-inspiring way to decide what to do.

The situations where logic and reason work well are, in fact, few and far between. More often, when we feel that something’s wrong, we don’t have the kind of hard data that the mind needs.

Last weekend, I had a run that was physically all right, but emotionally unsatisfying. After a four-month layoff with bronchitis, I’ve taken up Arthur Lydiard-style training, and I’m enjoying it very much. My fitness is improving steadily, and I find that running at a medium to high aerobic pace feels right. I’m putting 95 percent of my effort into the run that counts the most – the weekly long run. I also do a session with free weights at the gym, and the rest is short, easy recovery runs and trail hikes with Mary Ellen. At my age, 67, it’s enough.

Last week’s troubled run showed me that getting it together physically isn’t good enough. The run was quite logical. At the start, I immediately upped the effort to my highest aerobic training pace, about 78% of maximum heart rate. Logic told me that I should get up to speed quickly, to make the best use of my time.

Very logical! Yet, it didn’t work. Why? Because I overlooked important data. I ignored the fact that my body never runs at its best unless I give it a reasonable warmup. If I let my body get up to speed gradually, in its own good time, there’s a wonderful sense of harmony and “rightness” that comes at every stage of the run, even during the warmup. Better yet, I find that running with that sense of inner harmony I’m able to make better decisions. That calm, enjoyable but dispassionate feeling is very intuitive – it’s like a steady, unwavering radar signal for my body’s needs.

I decided it was perfectly logical to run 2 hours on hilly terrain. I had run 2 hours the previous two weekends, so logically, I should be ready for the trails. And, in fact, my aerobic metabolism seemed to absorb the training well; but the hills placed an unaccustomed burden on my muscles, which weren’t adapted to the pounding. I finished very tired, feeling that I’d made a mistake. I knew it would take extra long to recover, and my improvement would be delayed. I realized it would be better to press my body “edges” slightly during the long run, instead of trashing it.

This weekend, I got it right. I turned off pure logic and started with a long warmup. I was sorely tempted to speed up, but when I tried a few short bursts, it felt wrong – disharmonious and subtly unpleasant. It was my body’s way of saying “Not yet.” I decided to accept the body’s wisdom and run only as the body told me was right.

During the long warmup, I always worry that my body might not ever tell me to speed up. What if I end up doing the most important run of the week at a very slow pace? What a waste! But, as I hoped, I eventually fell easily into a faster pace. And a bit later, I was able to speed up to my maximum aerobic pace comfortably and stay there for the rest of the run. I finished feeling happy and “pleasantly tired,” as Arthur Lydiard recommended.

Two runs, two results. I can’t overstate how well it has served me, over the years, to give major attention to getting into the right “place” in the heart, especially at the start of a run.

Long ago, I used to believe that the most important factor for good training was to get my thoughts under control. But my best runs have occurred surprisingly often when my mind was completely out of control, very scattered and spacey. I suspect it’s the way a loving and humorous higher power forces me to experience the wisdom of the heart.

At those times, my efforts to concentrate were a bust. Over time, I learned not to waste too much energy working directly with the mind, because it worked better to go deeply into the most honest and sincere place in the heart.

I noticed that when I was able to harmonize my feelings and “listen” for a higher, wise kind of guidance there, my mind followed obediently. My spiritual teacher remarked that concentration is nearly synonymous with intense interest. Positive feelings are deeply attractive and easily capture the mind’s attention.

Earlier, I mentioned that I believe the heart is Grand Central Station for many wonderful things: for “listening to the body,” and for receiving higher guidance from the soul. Frankly, I believe that the best guidance comes from that higher type of intuition. In my running, I find that the higher guidance helps me in ways that go beyond listening to the messages of the body. That guidance has my best interests at heart, and is happy to direct my training in far-reaching ways.

In the first years of our relationship, Mary Ellen and I had a rough road. At one point, when we were exhausted from the struggle and ready to throw in the towel, I asked a wise friend, Asha Praver, for help. I told her that whenever Mary Ellen and I had a disagreement, I could always seem to work it out by driving on the freeway for a long time and chanting and praying. When I came home, my heart would be harmonious and I would be more open to Mary Ellen’s realities.

Very quietly and tentatively, almost reluctantly, Asha said, “If you could ask in the moment…”

It was the best advice she could have given. Since then, whenever I’ve felt the slightest disharmony between us, if I’ve remembered to ask in the moment, we’ve miraculously been able to find a resolution. But it required an intense effort on my part. I had to offer up every ounce of my personal feelings of hurt and anger, and pray with dynamic self-offering: “I will do ANYTHING to create harmony between us. Please guide me.” It was a question of moving my energy to a more disciplined, receptive, selfless place.

I remember the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman who, years after World War II, met a former Nazi officer who had tortured her sister in a prison camp during the war. When she saw the man, her heart shrank within her, and she could only pray, “Christ, I can’t love him. You must help me.” She then felt divine love flow through her, and she was able to forgive the man. Her victory came by being willing to come to Christ in a childlike spirit and ask for help.

I believe that spiritual practice is the most practical approach to life, and to running. When I first met my spiritual teacher, I used to peer into his eyes and try to absorb his consciousness. I had read somewhere that it was a good thing to do. But his eyes were like marbles, impenetrable. There was simply no “leakage” of energy for me to absorb.

I’ve noticed the same thing with other advanced souls. Their energy and attention is directed inward, absorbed in their relationship with God. I’ve known my teacher for 35 years, and I’ve found his advice and guidance to be unfailingly reliable. He has never shown the slightest personal investment in having me act or think in any particular way. Every bit of his counsel has been given impersonally, for my welfare. And to the extent that I’ve followed, I’ve thrived. From this, I’ve realized that he is continually offering himself to God within, to serve as His instrument to help others.

In the mid-1980s, I commuted to work at an engineering firm in San Mateo, California. Occasionally, I would leave early in the morning and make a detour to the beach in Half Moon Bay, where I would plop a boogie board in the water and spend an hour communing with the waves.

It was more than a surfing safari. On the way to the beach, I would chant and try to open my heart to God. Then I would stand on the beach for a minute before entering the water and pray for guidance and protection. One day, after praying, I looked out to sea and saw waves breaking over a rock a mile from shore. This was unusual and indicated that a large swell was approaching. So I sat down on the sand and waited. Sure enough, after three minutes a series of enormous waves broke a quarter-mile offshore. They looked to be 15-20 feet high.

The next day, I returned to the beach. But my singing was distracted, and my prayer before entering the water was shallow. I looked up and saw waves breaking over the same rocks, but I entered the water anyway.

I got caught in a powerful current, and it took a long time to get past the breaking waves. This was during a period when I wasn’t running. I was overweight and unfit, and when I broke past the last row of waves I was exhausted. I then looked up and saw a giant swell approaching rapidly just 50 feet away. I yelled a quick prayer and dove for the bottom.

The water was six or seven feet deep, but the wave sucked most of the water into itself. I lay on the bottom in two or three feet of water, dug my fingers into the sandy bottom, and hoped for the best.

The wave crashed over me, but I was able to remain flat and not get swept up by the backwash. I rose gratefully to the surface, gasping for air, and saw a second wave rapidly approaching.

There were three waves in the set, and after the last one passed I lay on the board completely knackered. I never again neglected to pray before entering the water.

When I started running again, I made a habit of praying before every run.

I’ve always tried to make running a spiritual practice. Yet, even now, 40 years after I first started running, I’m not terribly good at it. I find that during every run I have to start all over again as a beginner. Every time, I have to go back to the basics and practice as a humble first-timer. I have to find that sincere part of my heart and ask for guidance, and carefully cultivate an openness to receive and a willingness to follow.

My teacher said, “At the inner end of the human nervous system, the mind, interiorized, communes with God.” My practice of meditation and prayer is a powerful help to me as a runner. It helps me interiorize my energy and find my way into the heart. In my spiritual practice and my running, the more I am able to turn my energy inward, the more enjoyable and rewarding the run is.

I’m doing my long runs on Sunday afternoons now, after a morning spent in spiritual practice. I get up and meditate for 45 to 60 minutes, then go to choir practice, then chant in the car for an hour, then meditate and pray during Sunday service.

It sounds like a long, difficult discipline. But, really, it isn’t arduous. In fact, it’s rather like running, in that every step takes me closer to a place where I want to be. I love to sing, and I love to breathe deeply and slowly for a long time during meditation, and bring energy up into the heart. When that happens, I find the wonderful feelings, thoughts, and attitudes associated with the higher planes of the heart coming easily. Those states of mind already exist. As a spiritual counselor once told me, “Fathomless depths of love for God lie hidden in the human heart, waiting to be uncovered by the teacher’s liberating discipline.”

I’m not a very spiritual or devotional person, but when my heart gets energized, I find love for God rising naturally in my heart. It’s all a question of energy. And my spiritual practice makes it easier to get into a similar place when I begin my long run.

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