Pretty late into my run yesterday I went into a meditative-like zone where my breathing was slow and even, my legs were going at a consistent rhythm, and I found myself thinking: I could do more of the same for a very long time. Repetition tends to be boring, boredom itself is boring, until it becomes somewhat transcendent. It is like an immersive emptiness: my typically noisy mind quietens, I stop needing to make an effort to run, and I simply lean into the sensorial experience of running. There is nothing else but me, the ease of my body, and time becoming weightless.
I did not understand what people mean when they say they run for mental health. How can something so self-torturing make you feel better? I thought they meant the physiological benefits that come from running: the hormones. But once I truly got into running I started to understand that it is very soothing and uplifting to experience a seemingly indefatigable body. Outside of running I walk around as though there is a ton of weight on my shoulders. Everything is dark and heavy, my mind and body both feel like a drag. It can be very transformational to experience the opposite of our usual experiences. At a place where I least expect it, I have discovered how it feels like to be tireless.
I ran 8.5km yesterday, outdoing my previous record of 7.7km last week. That run made me fall quite ill, so I thought it would take me a long while to make another distance record attempt. I don’t deal well with my illness episodes and would tend to avoid that particular trigger because of all that associated fear. Once I had an episode triggered by drinking soup from a hot pot, and I stopped eating hot pot – one of my favourite foods ever – for months.
But my love for running has made me defiant. Perhaps I just want an hour a day when I can feel like a normal person with a normal body. Or a body that can carry me to places instead of breaking down at every tiny thing I do. Once my biometrics returned to typical values after my illness I ran a slow 5km to test waters. And another. Then I decided to make an attempt to stretch my distance to see if I would break again.
That’s the interesting thing experimenting with my health. There are so many factors behind the body’s capacity to achieve homeostasis. Something that was a trigger on a bad day may be okay for another. I lived in fear for a long time avoiding all my triggers and treaded so gingerly I was not actually living. I have to choose between the potential of having more relapses and living lifelessly. I think there are people who can thrive on a muted life and be thankful that there is at least a spectrum of living that can be available to them. Sometimes this is all they/we can get, having to cope with chronic disabling illnesses. Being muted is definitely better than living with pain every moment. Maybe I am not psychologically mature enough yet to thrive on a muted life. I am greedy and I still want more.
I was more mindful of my recovery yesterday. I tried to eat more carefully, and after meals I did some walking in place to aid circulation instead of letting blood pool at unwanted places. It seems counter-intuitive that more walking is better than total rest, but that’s what I’ve discovered after some experimentation (partially inspired by this youtuber who ran the day after his ultra marathon to recover). I did feel a bit dodgy in the evening but somehow some active deep breathing seemed to circumvent it?
I thought it would be interesting to compare oura metrics of the day after: last week my body temp was high and respiratory rate was out of the norm compared to today’s metrics, which is within my typical range.
Today my HRV was high enough and stable, whereas last week it went a little berserk dipping really low and going very high. I would interpret it as my parasympathetic nervous system going into overdrive to try to recover.
The biggest factor was that last week I ran on day 6 of my cycle, and I was already experiencing some mild symptoms that morning. My bad, I know. But I wonder if it would have made a difference had I tried to be mindful of my recovery? Or is it just impossible to expect my body to manage both the stress of my cycle and running? I guess I would have to wait for my next cycle to find out.
Longer distance running teaches me equanimity. I know 8.5km is puny for seasoned runners but I have never ventured out of 5 in my entire running life until this year, and I was already struggling with 5. So it feels like a profound improvement to be able to simply take one step after another until I hit my targeted distance.
I could keep doing this – more of the same – I found myself thinking repeatedly while I ran. And it wasn’t dreadful to anticipate more of this same, I felt neutral bordering on joyous. How can something so boring become so stabilising, so enlivening?
I wondered how I could translate this to day to day life. I think about the myth of Sisyphus, that Camus implored us to imagine Sisyphus being happy. I think being happy is a huge stretch, but it would be enough to be equanimous: to remain centered and calm regardless of what life throws at us. More of the same, more of the same – whether it is sadness, weight, loss – we go on.
I find life difficult to endure. I guess that is why paradoxically I like things that require endurance. I don’t have endurance, so I aspire towards it. These days when something bad happens I try to invoke the spirit that comes from running, the centeredness that allows me to take step after step regardless of the underlying mental or physical discomfort.
It is entirely justifiable to have these so-called negative feelings in response to negative events, it is the dwelling that causes extra suffering. I also think it is entirely valid to dwell after profound loss and suffering, but I dwell at everything. And I dwell in the anticipation of potential suffering.
Life is heavy. But I’m pre-bracing myself for more and more weight. In sports it is important to know when to relax and recover before taking huge amounts of stress. Being tense all the time is detrimental. I can’t live every day fretting and fearful.
How do I incorporate the mental attitude I have towards running in the rest of my day? I find it very amusing that I have such incongruent attitudes. I would expect the drudgery of my life to influence my running but somehow it turned out opposite. There is an openness and willingness that exists in my running that exists almost nowhere else. Maybe it is the beginner mindset, that the cynicism has not had time to set in and solidify yet. I have not encountered enough disappointments or setbacks to make me feel jaded about running. Everything seems to tire me out, but that one thing that is supposed to tire me out is that one thing that is reinvigorating.
Can I let life pass through me the way I let the distance under my legs unfold? More of the same, without dread and with subtle anticipation? That the passing of time will become less of a weight but more of a peaceful stillness? That all the narrative will dissipate from my mind and all that is left is a full emptiness?
I don’t really know what exactly it is about the repetitive enduring nature of running that makes going into that zone possible. I seem to be close to grasping it, but it eludes me. It is probably the same element behind the practice of meditation. A secret door that opens up if I’m willing to endure the monotony.
Maybe to run or meditate requires some conscious control of both the mind and the body and yet paradoxically letting go. There is a conscious attempt to reach some form of harmony and rhythm. But I’m always out of sorts and out of sync in my day to day activities. Always fretting, always frustrated, always impatient, always sad, always dissatisfied. My soul is fragmented all over the place, but during a run I am fully embodied. At every stride I am collecting myself all over again, rinse and repeat. Running accumulates power for me, but the act of living drains it out of me.
How can I live in such a way whereby the act of living itself accumulates life force within me instead of dissipating it? I don’t have answers yet again. These days I feel like I’m a beginner at life, to learn how to live a life that is not conditioned and ingrained into me by the effects of society, a life that is not heavy with the baggage of my past but rather light with the freshness of tomorrow mixed in with the solidity of today. Is this even possible?