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Travel light!

I got into running because I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for twenty years. I’d tried quitting a few times, but nothing ever stuck. I went out January 1st 2010 and ran about a third of a mile in an overgrown softball field along the fence. I felt like I was going to die…but when my heart slowed and my meager breath came back, I felt really good. I felt at ease. Over the next six weeks I struggled with physiological barriers. My joints were not used to the stress, my muscles were weak. I started to see changes in my body and my thinking was less muddled.

I felt like I had hit the lottery. I set a goal: I am goal-oriented and quitting smoking was like my nirvana. I had no higher aspiration than to be rid of the cancer sticks. And what kept me quit? Running. I couldn’t stay up all night boozing and have a good run – had to cut that out. I couldn’t eat loads of junk food and drink cases of soda and run well – I had to cut it out. Running became a teacher. I’m not going to say anything weird like pain was my master, because I also had Master Sleep to deal with, as well as Master Coffee, and Master Banana. I love bananas. After running races and seeing a trove of bananas waiting for me at the finish line, I feel like running the race again just to see more ‘nanners. It’s silly, but it never gets old. Lately I’ve been sticking events in the middle of my long runs, turning my long run into a sort of tempo run with a warm-up, then an accelerating phase followed by an easy taper. In fact, I’ve run my fastest PBs and PRs doing just that. It’s like an anti-taper. In long runs you strip away the easy glucose and get into the trickier fuels. Playing with that threshold is affording me surprising results. After four years of running, those occur with diminishing frequency.

I followed a program for eleven months that had me smashing all projected distance-based goals. I ran my first marathon ten months after I ran my first mile. I started to learn about my body’s natural ability to run. At first I was really excited, and then it took on a kind of mystical charm, a metaphysical aspect. Why was it enjoyable? Why was I continuing to improve? How fast could I run started to become how fast would I run. I became master of my mettle, though there were injuries. I lost six weeks my first year because of a torn meniscus sustained while running the final stretch of a bottle-necked 10K in July, tore it again right after the marathon during the first week of November due to refusal to rest. I had thought I might die during the marathon, and finishing it was like a sort of Freemason graduation. I’d doubted and perverted the idea of my abilities, deformed my spirit with self-doubt.

I based my running off of good breathing. I based efforts upon maintaining good form and breathing. I guess I was an example of chi running. I liked to feel all my tendons and muscles strung over my bones making the same music. A tight ITB band would make a chord with my Achilles and play death metal on my hip joints. If I pulled muscles in my back, I’d have to make it a party and throw stiff necks and hamstring cramps into my jam. I used some yoga, sure, but I was also doing something I heard about from a friend who’d followed a sadhu through India. My buddy had learned to walk with his eyes closed following the sadhu. At some point after about three months hiking with the holy beggar, he realized the sadhu had begun following him. He could sense the world, like a blind person could. I ran with my eyes closed. I would run for a designated distance within sight and relax within the movement. This was some Jedi weirdness. I was using the Force. When I ran with my eyes closed, it was as though I was running on the moon. I felt nearly weightless. I did this for only seconds, but in that darkness was my hidden comfy pace. Once I found it, I based all other runs off of it. It was like my Golden Ratio. The pace of the Jedi runner is the source of my conviction that I could kick Darth Vader’s butt.

Liberated because of the marathon – helluva milestone – I engaged in some brash over-reaching and abandoned my meticulous training program. You’re going to die used to come up a lot from friends and family – a.k.a. people who don’t run – and that was incorrect. I actually was in better shape than I’d ever been. If I could run 18 and 20 miles every week, then I didn’t need to worry about running another hour, slowly at best. It was fear. The night before the marathon I had to face my fear of running The Marathon. It was like a bogeyman. I had to overcome fear. I was running better than I ever had, faster than I was in high school playing soccer. So, released from fear, I went nuts and started running ridiculous amounts every day without resting up. The edge of my ability was sharp, and I shanked myself. I had to learn how to get my body to say “thank you” instead of “shank you”. So, during my first ten months running, I spent six weeks on a bike.

I rarely ever got sick, and I still don’t. I encouraged other people to run, and I still do. By my second year I’d run more marathons, a couple of grueling ultras, and I’d started running for charity. I also ran on a rag-tag local running team called Team Chocolate directed by a chocolatier. I love chocolate! I saw my running as being part of a community. I had moved to another state and – like so many other people – I wanted to meet people and have a social life. Before running, I would’ve been sliding on and off bar stools, running up tabs. Now I was running up mountains, and instead of a head ache at the finish line, I saw extremely happy people with no headaches. I started to see a lot of these same happy people the more events I attended.

What’s special about running is the realization that it’s an end in itself, but it is also a springboard for so many other positive things. People can relate a running experience and filter it through totally unrelated activity. Running is archetypal for activities involving strength of spirit and determination. It increases theta wave production, it boosts my ability to repair and recover from stress. It destroys negative stress response. It made my body stronger. It made me believe running communities were consistently the best places to be with others because everyone was striving to do well. We pick each other up. And when I’m alone, running deep in the world, upon years of training and focus, I have spiritual stirrings where I feel utterly interdependent in this world, active and alive, real, and part of something larger, somber and  cosmic. I come off the end of a long run like an explorer, and the way I do my long runs, there is no difference. Along with distances, I also learned to run human trails, and now I am learning to spot and run deer trail. Running is exploring what you may have, but it is also what you may become. I’d like to be fleet like a deer.

I once read about a Hindu concept called “Karma yoga” where you do something – anything, it does not matter – and if you do it enough with focus you can find a metaphysical or spiritual dimension within the activity, a sort of holographic filter wherein the total experience of one’s life may be distilled through that one activity. The act of running sustained distances employs heavy breathing, focus, and efficiency of movement. This is like a martial art, it is like meditation. It’s Karma, and I offer my hopes and joy to other runners.

Running is my way of honoring the human spirit. I just hit 1,400 miles for the year. The fog is lifting outside, my affairs are in order, and I’ve got some running shoes. I’m training for ____ because that event would be a good training for ____. It’s all good. If I have a bad day, I’ll take it in stride. I’ll just run with it. I used to be surprised how much I could run. Now I’m surprised when people tell me they can’t run, because I know they can. Because I was just like them, but then I put on a pair of running shoes and set my PB at one mile. What’s one more mile? That’s my journey.

I don’t consider myself a runner, just a human, and humans are excellent.