Friday, March 2, 2012

Running with head space

Running isn't fun. It's not interesting or mentally engaging. That's why I always hated it, and why I love it.

Some runs are scenic, especially on a warm day, but that's just more incentive to stop and take it in.

On a run there's nothing but your thoughts. My thoughts haven't always been the most pleasant companions. Being absolutely beholden to those 'bad' thoughts in the past, sustained running felt pretty much impossible because I couldn't devote sufficient energy to obsessively fighting them; it made me feel nauseous.

So I always preferred - needed - exercise that offered an opportunity for flight - consuming me with distraction and pulling my mind outward.

Basketball is good. It's fast-paced, continuous and competitive. Tennis, on the other hand, offers more time to think and get caught up in doubt, which will kill your game whether it's irrational OCD stuff or regular doubts about your ability. A natural game is the best game, thoughts just get in the way. It's very much a mental game, like golf. I suck at both. I'm not too bad at basketball, or at least play closer to my potential; it's more instinctive and adrenalin based.

But running ... running offers virtually no mental engagement; it's an entirely insular experience, where all those doubts, questions, uncertainties, silly thoughts and feelings that come and go can thrive if you let them. So I never understood how people run to wind down.

I guess it's about getting away from life's demands and luxuries - no Facebook or Twitter, email, phone (tucked away at least), television, or chatter of a busy world. Maybe an iPod or a running buddy. But there's only so much talking you can do on a serious run, and music is for focus or help tuning out (for me anyway) not distraction; sometimes I don't want it, or don't want the distraction of lyrics - I must be the only person who gets around The Tan listening to The Dirty Three. Inevitably the mind comes back to your own thoughts and feelings - strains and lung capacity and the desire to stop and walk.

Two years ago I couldn't run more than about 1.5km continuously. The thought of running the full 3.8km of The Tan track seemed impossible. One day, after some encouragement and advice from a random girl in a bar I suddenly ran the whole 3.8km of The Tan. My first thought was: 'Crap, now I have do this every time.'

Training run through Albert Park
Another day some months later, I started running to and from the track rather than walking, turning it into a 7km run. Sometime later it turned into 7km circuit from home to the track and back. Stepping up wasn't actually as physically difficult as expected - I tend to run conservatively to make sure I've got enough in the tank to finish. Mentally, though, I kept thinking about how far there was to go and how I couldn't wait to be finished. It doesn't help.

Last year for some reason I did the 10km run in the Run Melbourne. It was daunting - doable but difficult. After just under an hour of physical strain and restless mind, despite the high of achievement, I was adamant I would never run further, and wasn't too keen on running 10km again. It was too long more so than too far.

But, of course, at some point over the Christmas break I got talked into doing the 21km this year. All it really took was the suggestion from a running buddy and encouragement from a cute girl at work who did it last year - I'm a sucker for peer pressure. It took until my next run to regret the decision.

Fittingly, I'm raising money for Headspace. I haven't raised any yet, but I should. Not just because they do great work and I wish they'd been around when I was in my (age-defined) youth, but also because they sent me a great, free running singlet.

I've upped the training to a couple of 8-10km runs a week, even christening the singlet on a 16km run last weekend. And something's changed. Maybe it's been gradual, I'm sure the mindfulness I've learnt through yoga has helped, but I've actually enjoyed those last couple of runs. Not just the naive pre-run anticipation and the post-run relief and pride, but - at least parts of - the actual run itself.

To be painfully cliched, I think I found my head space. It feels damn good, liberating even.

Increasingly, running is as close to meditation as I can get outside of yoga. Giving attention to passing thoughts requires too much energy, so I have to let them go and am getting better at it all the time. At the finish line you have yourself a physical high and a clear mind. And along the way you free your mind from the normal constrained though process, letting a natural subconscious flow to take over and all sorts of corners of the mind to be subtly, quietly explored - this is sometimes when the best thoughts and ideas pop up.

The best thing about running for me is that it's as much, if not more so, about breaking through mental barriers as pain thresholds - not just a simple simple test of mind and will, but a way of improving them.

This is, basically, why I choose to run.

So my greatest fear about running 21km has not been how the body will fare, but how I will occupy my mind for (hopefully only) two hours. It will absolutely be tough, but I'm almost looking forward to it now.

One of my mates doing the run is talking a marathon next year. I've sworn that is one thing I will never do. But, I wonder, someday if ...

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