Running and the Balanced Life

In my long-ago life as a staff photographer for Runner’s World, I loved to shoot the famed Dipsea race.

It wasn’t the elite competition that made the race special for me. It was the achingly gorgeous trails of Mt. Tamalpais.

View from Mt. Tam. (Yours truly in his ultra training days.)
View from Mt. Tam. (Yours truly in his ultra days.)

I shot many photos with a wide-angle lens. I loved to take pictures of solitary runners surrounded by this wonderful environment. In the middle of the photo you’d see the tiny figure of hardy runner, lost in his thoughts as he loped along a  one-track trail – and around him, acres of meadows and copses of trees, on hills that sloped steeply down to the Pacific 2000 feet below.

What Hawaii is for a runner’s body, the Mt. Tam trails are for a runner’s soul. It’s a place to sweat out the bad and inhale the good. The slopes of Mt. Tam send mind and heart streaming on vistas twenty miles north and south. Those trails are a preview of heaven.

On a long-ago day, I stood on the banks of the creek at Muir Woods, taking pictures as the runners crashed through the stream or trundled across the narrow wooden bridge during the Double Dipsea.

A male runner stopped and stood stock-still in mid-stream. He lingered there for a moment, looking knackered, then sighed and bent to the waist and dowsed his cap, shuddering as he poured the cold contents over his skinny shoulders.

“I ran 15 miles yesterday and the day before,” he gasped, exhausted but proud.

At work the following morning, I mentioned the encounter to Joe Henderson, the magazine’s founding editor.

Joe said, “Oh, yeah, his marriage just broke up. Sad case of a runner who got obsessed and ran too much.”

The man was proud of his running, but he wasn’t happy. How much damage can a runner sustain, before he recognizes the need for balance? (A lot.) A runner who’s obsessed can’t bear to miss a single day’s training. He over-values running and under-values everything else.

I risked that fate, until my significant other gave me an ultimatum.

I was running ultras, and my weekend long runs – 7 hours was typical – were killing our relationship. It took four days to feel semi-human after the long run. After a particularly brutal climb up Mt. Diablo, Ishani laid down the law – I could stop being a zombie for five days of the week, or she would hit the highway.

I’ve never been happier than when I began to observe running’s most inflexible law: the need for balance.

In my other life, I often write about meditation and spirituality. I’ve been helping promote a wonderful film, Finding Happiness, about a yoga-based community in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City.

The film’s fictional story follows investigative reporter Juliet Palmer, a New York-based magazine journalist whose editor assigns her to write a feature on the Ananda community. The “actors” are the real-life community members who talk to her about their lives. Juliet is played by actress Elisabeth Rohm, who starred as assistant DA Serena Southerlyn in 85 episodes of Law & Order (She’s currently filming American Hustle with Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro, and Brad Cooper.)

Elisabeth’s life is unbelievably busy, with multiple movie and TV engagements, a commitment to be a good mother to her young daughter Easton, and managing two businesses.

Lis (on right) during filming at Ananda Village, with Virani, former deputy sheriff who runs the Ananda community's goat dairy. (Click to enlarge.)
Lis (on right) during filming at Ananda Village, with Virani, former deputy sheriff who runs the Ananda community’s goat dairy. (Click to enlarge.)

In a recent LA Yoga interview, she described how she balances her hectic life: “The beauty of acting is that every character you play will reveal something about yourself. Each part you play helps you deal with demons or loss or insecurities. You work up until a certain point, and then you just have to let go.”

Work hard – and then let go. It’s the answer that running pushes us to learn: be balanced. Anything else can’t be sustained.

Elite runners know about balance. Many of the Kenyans take as long as a month off every year, “to get fat” as one of them put it. Bob Kennedy, the first American to run a sub-13:00 5K, was deeply committed to balance. He monitored his feelings, and like the Africans, wasn’t afraid to take a day off when his body told him it was un-prepared to run.

Schedules are made to be broken. When we don’t balance our lives, our running gets out of whack as well. We end up standing ankle-deep in a stream, wondering how our happiness drained away.

Lis and friend at “Yogoata” Dairy, Ananda. (Click to enlarge.)
Lis and friend at “Yogoata” Dairy, Ananda. (Click to enlarge.)


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