Friday, April 13, 2012

Running as Practice

I’m running more than I ever have before in my life, and I’ve been running (relatively) regularly for 26 years. Ostensibly this increase in my amount of running is to get me prepared  for the Burlington Marathon, but the more I’ve run the more I’ve come to learn that it’s more than that - but before that, my training went through three distinct phases:
  1. Running longer distances at my normal pace. When I first started training, I continued to build up my speed along with distance. This trend maxed out where most of my runs were run at 7:30-8:00 pace. This continued until a major calf injury slowed me down for a few weeks and then...
  2. Running to a training plan. I downloaded a “beginners marathon” training plan, one that told me that I should be running 4-5 days a week, cross-training one day, and resting 1-2 days. I did this for a few weeks before getting discouraged in its robotic nature; it wasn't in tune with what my body or my mind required. So I entered my current phase, which is...
  3. Slower running a few days a week. I now start off as slow as I can and slowly pick up the speed over the course of the run. This has enabled me to relatively quickly achieve distances that I have never done before (my first 20 miler, for example). I've cut back on the number of times I hit the pavement, which keeps me focused when I do run.
While all of this running, has me in good shape for the marathon (7 weeks away!), I no longer subscribe to the current thinking that “every run has to have a purpose.” It's just not how I roll. Planning when and the speed at which I needed to run was taking all of the fun out of it! Now that i'm going out with the only goal being distance or time (to run 20 miles, or to be jogging for 2.5 hours, for example) has been incredibly relaxing. To get all zen on you, this has taught me that the journey is it’s own satisfaction. In other words, while I’ll be excited to finish the marathon (and hopefully beat Eric and Joel & drink their scotch), it’s no longer what I’m running these long distances for. Rather, I’ve fallen in love with the story of the long run, of the sheer ego-destroying time it takes to run 16+ miles (there’s a reason that running makes us stupid).

I was inspired to write this after reading Weapon-Grade Ennui's posting on George Leonard’s Mastery, and his musings on how practice is neither glamorous nor interesting and thus the process can be its own payoff.  Money quote:
“…[Leonard] enjoys Zen parables. … [like] how you have to empty your cup before you can fill it, or how you have to let go of that cup of expertise to grab the quart on the table.

Someone aiming for excellence might roll their eyes at these Zen paradoxes. I am convinced by them. Maybe to get good at something, you have to not care if you ever do. The road is too long to be motivated by a destination you can only imagine and never see. The journey has to be its own satisfaction. I don’t fantasize about seeing my name on a bookstore’s shelves, anymore. I am more interested in learning how to pay attention to all the steps leading to it.”
This sounds about right. All of the writing and pondering and soul-searching that has lead up to my ability to not only run but like running 20 miles has been enjoyable in and of itself. I know this because I am looking forward to continuing my long runs even after May 27th has come and gone, something that was inconceivable just a half-year ago. I’ve liked learning more about my body, my capabilities and my limits, and it’s made me a better person for it.

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