Wednesday, September 20th 2017

Zen and the art of running

How marathon training taught a yoga drop-out to meditate

BY ALISON DUNN — “Clear your mind,” the yoga teacher advised. “Let go of all your petty frustrations, all your worries, all your cares and let your mind become a blank slate. Only then will you take your consciousness to a higher level.”

Fat chance. There was no way I could achieve enlightenment in Savasana.  My mind was too busy racing through my endless to-do list, my worries and my troubles. I kept focusing on everything that was wrong in my life and couldn’t seem to let go. By making me lie still and focus on my negative thoughts, yoga simply wasn’t the answer.

Instead, I ran a marathon.

I know meditating and running marathons seem like complete opposites, so let me start at the beginning. I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of person. Never particularly optimistic, I always expected the worst and wasn’t surprised when it happened. The darkest moment came about two months after the birth of my second son. Both children were sick with ear infections (the baby so ill he almost had to be hospitalized), my sputtering freelance writing career was stalling, my finances were a mess, my husband and I were at each other’s throats, and the roof on our house almost literally caved in.

Amid all this chaos, a friend sent me one of those “fun” e-mails where you answer questions about yourself. One of them was, “Would you be friends with yourself?” My answer was no.

It made me realize I didn’t like myself. I didn’t like who I had become as a person – a shrill, edgy, neurotic mess. It was time to change.  I sought enlightenment to try and improve my relationships with my husband, my children and myself.

That’s when I signed up for yoga, and I realized what a mistake it was. Instead of showing me the path to enlightenment, it continually showed me where I was lacking. If nirvana was to be found in yoga, I wasn’t going to be the one finding it.

Problems left in the dust

But I’d long harbored a secret dream. A dream I’d talked about for years, but never gotten up off my rump to do anything about. I’d always said to myself, “Gee, I’d love to run a marathon one day.” Sure, one day…

I went for a run. Then another. Then another. I started to see physical changes. So I ran some more. But it wasn’t enough – running for 20 minutes, three times a week wasn’t going to help me run a marathon. I started training. I ran a 10K race. Then another. Then a half marathon. And suddenly, that dream of running a marathon wasn’t out of my reach.

I set a goal race and a goal date. I found a marathon training plan, and I kept running. But what happened next was something I could never have anticipated. I learned to meditate.

Meditation and running don’t usually go hand in hand. The idea of clearing your mind doesn’t exactly go with pounding the pavement and sweating your guts out. But unlike Forrest Gump, who ran away from his troubles, I found I was running into mine head-on. Every time I went out for a run, I came back having solved another problem – or even better, having pushed it out of my mind for good.

When you’re training for a marathon, you’re by yourself a lot. Most training plans call for running at least five times a week, with each run being at least an hour. Once a week you do a long run, where you’re out on the road for two to three hours at a time. That’s a lot of time to spend with nothing but your own thoughts. If you don’t like yourself, you won’t be very good company – and you probably won’t be able to finish the training.

Self, meet self

I had heard from other marathon runners about the benefits of running a marathon. You’ll be fitter, they told me. You’ll be healthier. You’ll lose weight. You’ll be happier. But not one of them told me how good it would be to spend all that time alone with myself. I realized that I’m pretty good company and that I don’t always have to be endlessly analyzing my problems or worrying over my to-do list. Instead, at least while I’m running, I can take the time to just be at peace with my mind and my body.

Marathon day finally arrived, but I already felt like I’d won first place. I was a much happier, more optimistic person than I’d been before. I was a better wife, a better mother and a better friend. Yes, I still had problems, but they seemed far less insurmountable than they’d been before. I figured if I could run a marathon, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. For the first time in my life, I liked myself. I had finally achieved nirvana.

And so, four hours and 16 minutes after I crossed the start line, I crossed the finish line of the marathon. My lungs were on fire and my legs were trembling. My feet were twice their normal size and I was pretty sure there was a loose toenail floating around somewhere in my sock. My body was begging me to stop, but my mind was strong, clear and at peace. I knew I could do it because I had my best friend with me. Me.

When she’s not running, Alison Dunn is editor of Health Local, a website dedicated to health, nutrition, fitness and living your best life. She also teaches journalism part-time to aspiring young journalists.

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