Tag Archives: health

On Running #2

I’m not sure when it happened – but I crossed a line somewhere along the way, and became a morning person. I’d regularly find myself sitting by the window, waiting for the sun to come up, watching the steam rise from my coffee, letting the quiet and the wakefulness and the possibility of the day course through me. And then… I would run.

On one of those mornings this Summer, I was about six weeks into a marathon training plan, and halfway into an eleven mile run along the Potomac River. On some runs, I just listen to my own ideas. I think about what I see, or I think about myself and assess what’s going on in my life. But on this particular morning, I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” – going for the meta-experience, forcing reflection into my morning’s effort.

I put on the brakes when one particular line struck me. Meditating on his own training, Murakami shared a mantra he repeats to himself on hard runs: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

There are moments of clarity on some runs, lingering beneath the surface of the repetition – simple truths that bubble up, instigated by a few words, a melody, or some dormant experience.

I started repeating Murakami’s mantra to myself. I pounded the trail, counting my paces. One step, two, three, four.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

A week later, on a tennis court: the “inevitable” pain came, along with the “optional” suffering: a torn calf. I couldn’t stand or walk. My wife had to leave me on the curb while she found a car to drive me home in.

Three weeks of physical therapy went by before I could even think about stepping on a treadmill, another three weeks before I could comfortably log a few miles. I still had a marathon to run.

Running does something to the brain. It lights up cannabinoid receptors, a part of the nervous system that regulates physiological processes like memory, mood, and pain sensation. If cannabinoids sound like cannabis, you’re on the right track. “Runner’s High” is not just shoe company marketing bullshit – it’s science. Running gets you high. High enough that you don’t listen to your body, that you give it a heavier beating than it can withstand, and that you don’t really care.

When I was a teenager in gym class, and we had to run “the mile” – it was death. An entire mile might as well have been a trek across the Sahara. I was not an athlete. Candy bars, soda. Video games and smoking. Those were my things, my highs. Not running. I never let myself go far enough to feel the runner’s high.

I gave up smoking during college, but I didn’t adopt any healthier habits in its place. Instead, I learned to love traveling. It took me a while to connect the dots, but now, when I lace up my running shoes and start going, the relationship is clear. Travel is the essence of running.

A run is a journey like any other – for joy, for necessity, or for any of the infinite reasons people choose to move their bodies from one place to another. The name of the race isn’t an accident: In 490 B.C., following the battle of Marathon, the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens – 26 miles – to announce that the Persians had been defeated. To run has always had a purpose.

A few years after graduating, I was working in an office and a group of colleagues invited me to sign up for a 10-mile race with them. I considered it, and running 10 miles somehow didn’t seem any crazier than the other things I was doing that once seemed inconceivable: being an adult, traveling, having a job and an apartment. OK, I said. Let’s run.

I trained for that race with focus and discipline I hadn’t known I was capable of. That I had never run more than a mile before wasn’t important. I inched my way up, night after night, on the treadmill in the gym that overlooked the parking garage. Two miles, then three, then four. Running felt like an easy problem to solve. The equation was simple. Keep adding.

Years later, I’ve grown as a runner and a person. I finished that race and I’ve run lots of others, of various lengths, in a variety of places. Despite the injury, I crossed the finish line of my second Marathon last weekend.

My memories of different runs stretch across the palette of human emotion: from indescribable euphoria, to complete suffering and misery. Anything can happen as my body nears its tipping point; my knees screaming, my feet black and bruised, and under several grimy layers of dirt and sweat, my mouth twisted into a grimace.

Running is a rush of something… a feeling… what is it? I look up into a beautiful cloudless sky, a breeze shushes Spring cherry blossoms, the right song plays. I jog across a car-free bridge, look up at a skyscraper, at a waving flag, or over to the sea. My skin is freezing, or it’s scalding. An old man passes me going uphill, a child in a Superman costume hands out a high-five.

Everything else stops, except for me. I am in motion, I am motion, and my heart pounds. My feet ache, my mind smiles.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

on 15,000 Steps

Fitbit Dashboard

Fitbit Dashboard

It was only three or four steps to get to the bathroom when I woke up, late, Sunday morning. The grey light trying to force its way in through the blinds, the cat looping acrobatically beneath my drowsy gait.

Since Christmas, I’ve been wearing a FitBit Force on my wrist, tracking every move I make with it’s fancy digital pedometer and accelerometer and altimeter and estimated calorie-burn computer and alarm clock and sleep timer. A trip to the bathroom in the morning becomes a matter of consequence, a record of competition. The conservation of my physique is now the ward of a few megabytes, transferred via low-energy Bluetooth.

The gadget comes programmed to push me towards 10,000 steps as a daily goal, so I’m following its request, making the effort to walk at least five miles as often as possible. I’ve hit the 10k mark twelve times in January. My highest count of 17 thousand came on the first of the year, as my girlfriend and I stumbled through a 5k ‘hair of the dog‘ race, early in the morning.

On a typical day, if I drive to work, take the stairs, pace around the hall, and then come home to cook dinner and couch loaf, five to six thousand steps is an average number. If I wake up on a Saturday and watch four episodes of Breaking Bad, I’m lucky to hit 3,500. Walking to please a robot is my new errand.

This past Sunday, I deposited myself in a reading position, after my morning ablutions, eggs, and trip to the balcony to gauge the temperature. Another day under twenty degrees Fahrenheit would keep me restless without recourse.

I made lunch around noon, and realized I could kind of dance around and walk in place while the water boiled. A minute or two of that was good for seventy five or eighty steps. I picked up another 200 mid-afternoon, when I decided it was high time to run the vacuum cleaner. By five p.m., I was still shy of 2,000 for the day.

Sunset approached and a pile of indoor things sat waiting to entertain me, so it didn’t look like ten thousand (much less fifteen) would happen.

Fed up with my sedation at six p.m., I rousted myself, determined to make my daily effort. I bundled up and set out for a treadmill.The first mile only took me to six thousand steps. I haven’t run five miles in several months, but the wristband gave me my orders, and I followed.

After hitting ten thousand on the treadmill, and rewarding myself with a drink, I looked at the couch, considered my options, and figured what the hell… A late evening trip to the supermarket for bananas wouldn’t hurt my cause.

I stepped out again, into the cold night, my tiny cyborg companion blinking lovingly beneath my sleeve.