Thursday, March 10, 2016

Seeking the calm

I haven’t been writing about running all that much lately, and there’s a good reason for this: it’s going really, really well. How well? I’m enjoying it. That’s how well. Oh, I’m not going particularly fast—half the time I’m not even entirely sure what pace I’m doing because my new Garmin is a bit wonky, plus sometimes I don’t bother to look at it until well after I’m finished. I’m running exactly the way I like to right now: on trails, at a relaxed pace, for a long time, by myself.

This is not always the way I’ve liked to run. There was a time when I hated trails, when I craved speed, and in particular when running was as much about being social as being fit. I think a lot of people start running because it’s an activity you can do by yourself on your own time—no need for a team or even a partner, so no need to worry that you won’t be the same level as the people you’re with. Then a surprising thing happens to some of those people: they discover the joys of running with others. Well, first they become lunatics who obsess about running, and then they find a bunch of like-minded lunatics with whom to share their obsession. No matter how much a person prizes their uniqueness and individuality—and even no matter how much of an introvert a person may be—most people have the need for some kind of social interaction. And when you find a group of people who love doing the same thing you do, it can’t help but add to the enjoyment.

Years ago when I first started training in a group, Saturday long runs quickly became the highlight of my week. Nothing else came even remotely close to the exhilaration I felt going crazy long distances with other people in pursuit of the same goal. We’d struggle together, push through together, celebrate together, and after we were done I couldn’t stop grinning until I got home, at which point I would usually burst into tears. It was over until next week, and nothing else would make me feel anything close to that high. Now, granted, I was going through some stuff back then, stuff that made every high stratospheric and every low an abyss which no light, joy, warmth, or pleasure could enter. That isn’t the case anymore, and as a result what I need—and get—from running has changed.

I run by myself for long stretches of time in part out of a need to remind myself that I’m still here. There was a time I didn’t want to be. I also run this way to remind myself that even though a lot of life is out of my control, I can still get some enjoyment from it regardless. It doesn’t have to be a stratospheric high. It can be the simple pleasure of being outside, unenclosed, your feet hitting the ground, moving you forward. Maybe this is the thing that happens to people after a certain age or after a certain amount of turmoil, whether from the outside world or from within. You seek calmness. The dramatic and the exciting are glittery baubles, but you’ve played with those baubles before, and you know in the end they’re just toys, diversions—and sometimes not nearly so benign as that.

We tend to make abstract ideas into simplistic dichotomies: you can retreat into safety, or you can go boldly forth and seek your passion. But calmness is not the same thing as safety. When you come to the point where you seek the calm, you already know the world is not a safe place. No one is fully protected from its slings and arrows. Your own mind and body can be fraught with peril. No, you aren’t trying to insulate yourself from harm, building some metaphoric wall between you and the world. You are instead perhaps building something solid and steady inside yourself. The slings and arrows may still find you but they won’t be able to go very deep.

Maybe this sounds like a dull life’s philosophy, and maybe it’s really just another “first world solution” the likes of which compels middle-aged people to take up meditation and downsize to tiny houses in the interest of supposedly pursuing a simpler life. Maybe, I don’t know; I’ll think about it while I’m doing my long run tomorrow—or not. I might just think about nothing more than continuing to move forward.

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