Rescuing the Run

I wrote this years ago. In fact, I edited it for the book. But in reviewing the original, I like it better. Here it is.

I’ve continued to use the heart rate monitor for all of my training runs, with consistently interesting results. Yesterday, for example, I ran 3 hours 45 minutes wearing the HRM, and had a very interesting experience.

I began the run feeling very good. In fact, I had not run for about four days, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when the body fairly lept into the run, like a dog that’s been let out of the yard. By the time I reached Arastradero Preserve, though, I knew the body was very tired. For four or five nights, I had slept little, and the topper was a night of little sleep followed by a sugar binge to keep awake at a meditation at Asha and David’s, followed by yet another night of just four hours’ sleep. During the run, the body showed the effects of sugar and sleeplessness: as I climbed the long hill at Arastradero, I was really struggling.

I forced myself to pray to my teacher, asking him why this was happening, and what I could do about it. After descending to Alpine Road, I felt much better and decided to jog through the long Alpine Loop through Portola Valley, rather than take the short way home. All along, I continued to watch the heart rate monitor.

Initially I had tried to keep my heart at about 128-135 beats per minute. (My aerobic training zone is 120-140.) But by the time I left the village at Portola Valley, I was definitely aware that whenever my heart beat at 130 or faster, I felt bad; whereas if I held my heart rate at 124-128, I felt wonderful, even though my legs were feeling beat-up and I was clearly very fatigued systemically. It was a feeling of deep harmony. Psychologically, it was a feeling of profound “rightness,” as if the body were announcing that yes! this is the right way to run today.

I reflected that on other days when I was feeling well-rested, it would have been extremely easy to keep my heart rate at 130, or even 135 or 140, with a very similar feeling of deep, inward harmony and rightness. This, I felt, was truly what “listening to the body” really means. Very often, when coaches use that phrase, it means watching out for physical symptoms of overtraining – taking your pulse in the morning, etc. And yet, today, it was not just that the body was giving me warning signals, but rather, it was doing something much more valuable: it was saying, “Yes! Good! This is the right thing to do.”

As I finished the last big hill of the loop, on Sandhill Road just west of the freeway, I was feeling so inwardly harmonious and joyful that I was powerfully reminded of the effects of devotional chanting, and the sweetness of one particular chant in particular. So, as I jogged slowly down the hill toward Stanford past the office buildings on Sandhill Road, with the early commute traffic speeding by, I loudly sang a few verses of that chant, and I noticed that my voice, my heart, and my brain were full of the unforced sweetness of the melody. This told me something. I didn’t have to force the chant; it just flowed. And that told me that I really was feeling harmonious inside. It wasn’t just a mental state. It was real. You can’t fake the music, because if there’s tension and conflict, it’s immediately apparent in your voice which becomes thin and tight and uncertain.

Another thing I noticed was that when my heart rate was in the harmony zone, I was able to find inner spiritual communion more easily. When I went a little too fast, it became nearly impossible, what with my deep tiredness, to do anything but focus blurrily on pushing the body forward. My thoughts, at such times, became ragged and distracting. Whereas when I eased up and let heart rate fall back into the zone, it was easy to keep my attention gently and happily at the point between the eyebrows and the forehead. Then, my thoughts became calm, almost to the point of disappearing. I thought this must be some kind of alpha-rhythm brainwave state, because it was clearly distinct from ordinary discursive thought. It was more of a thought-less awareness, where I could call up thoughts if I wanted, or let thoughts subside and pure awareness prevail.

After the run, I was profoundly tired of body, but my spirits were very good. Now, as I report on these experiences, it occurs to me that countless times in my life I’ve seen how my teacher has used whatever instruments were at hand, to help his devotee. Not only will he use heart rate monitors and chanting; he’s willing, and quite able, to use the extremely limited resources of this exhausted brain and dispirited heart. In every case, his guidance shows how those drooping instruments can be turned in a positive, expansive direction.

I don’t know how people are able to live without that guidance. It is so basic to everything that is worthwhile in life: to know that there’s help available as close as our prayers, and that it always has our best interests at heart, and that it is available as often as we call upon it, even in the most trivial matters, so long as our call is sincere. God wants our freedom, and will use any opportunity, however seemingly insignificant, to help us find it.

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