For the last few days, I have been thinking of an appropriate way to start out the New Year on this blog. The answer came to me on Saturday’s run. Why not write a post that crosses boundaries, I thought, one that explores one of the intersection between mind, body and spirit that I have written about over the last couple of years?
Here’s what I came up with after an average, gentle run on a bright, frigid day in Canastota.
It wasn’t a memorable run, in the way that last year’s Syracuse Half Marathon or 2014’s Rochester Marathon or my first Boilermaker were memorable. It wasn’t even a great run — runs early in the New Year rarely are for me as I work off the excesses of the holidays. But for some reason, today’s six-miler, just an average run over a route I have run many, many times, really embodied all I have come to understand so far about running and spirituality.
It began the way most of my easy runs do. I monitored my pace through my breathing and scanned my body for any aches and pains that could become serious later on. Around a mile in, everything seemed to be going normally. I started to fall into the groove, and my mind was able to let go of my body and let it do its own thing.
It was then I offered up my prayer of thanksgiving. It’s something I do on almost all of my runs, as I firmly believe that giving thanks for what I have is one of the most important spiritual practices I can perform. So I began with giving thanks for my life and my body, that I can run pain free — heck, that I can even run — on such a beautiful day. From there, I gave thanks for my kids, for my partner Tessa, for my family and friends, and I asked for their happiness and health.
On today’s route, I finished my prayer around mile two, and the timing could not have been more perfect. It coincided with the turn off New Boston Road and onto the quieter Beebe Bridge Road. It was here that I finally and completely unplugged, another spiritual practice that has gone hand-in-hand with my running for many years now.
Very early on, I gave up running with music. Like most people, I used it to distract myself from the effort I was experiencing. Now, I want feel my body’s efforts, to be in the moment, to be connected to my surroundings wherever I am. And on runs like Saturday’s, when the sky is a perfect cobalt blue, and the snow is glistening on the tress and hedgerows, when the birds are singing and the world is alive, I feel it intensely and literally breathe it all in with huge lungfuls of pure, clean air. At times like these, my senses become full. I feel the joy of being alive. I am at one with the world around me. I become a part of creation.
But runs are rarely, if ever, all unicorns and rainbows, and this run was no exception. Around three miles in, there was a hill to climb. The Beebe Bridge Road hill isn’t the hardest hill climb out there — a little over hundred feet vertically over about three-quarters of a mile — but it’s enough to get the heart beating and sap some energy out of the legs.
Now, as old-fashioned and as corny as it sounds, I believe there is much to be gained spiritually from hard work and struggle. And running, in its essence, is a form of asceticism. We runners punish our bodies, we discipline our minds, to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. Part of the joy in what we do involves defeating pain. We enjoy our triumphs because we have sacrificed for them. It is one of the oldest spiritual practices in existence, cutting across belief systems and cultures and time. In the act of self-denial, even mortification, we come closer to the divine. And on Saturday, on the Beebe Bridge Road hill, I huffed and puffed and got one more mile closer to enlightenment.
At least, that’s what I like to think.
At the top of the hill, I made the turn onto Route 5. It’s not my favorite part of this route–it’s a busy highway, completely unlike the previous couple of miles. Traffic is a constant presence for a little over a mile. But on Saturday, as always happens on this route, the hill climb engorged my blood with oxygen, and my body finally began to work at peak capacity. I began to move easily. Smoothly. Now I was no longer running–I was gliding, like I was on skates or skis. It felt like I was almost floating on air.
Now, I don’t know what people mean by the runner’s high. I cannot claim to have ever experienced it. But at moments like this, when I am barely conscious of my feet hitting the ground, I experience joy, but a different kind of joy from the one I talked about earlier. This is physical, not mental, joy. This is freedom — hard earned and the sweeter for it.
I turned off Route 5 with just about a mile to go. Now I felt the energy starting to leave my body, slowly, like air from a balloon. But it felt good — at this point, toward the end of many of my runs, I feel like I have purged my body of all my stress and anger. And that, I firmly believe, is the biggest spiritual boon I have gained from this craziness. I know that in the almost five years I have been running marathons, my moods have become more stable. I am slower to anger, and I feel gentler, humbler and more tolerant than at any other time in my life. Simply put, I expend my excess energy on my runs now, rather than in negative or destructive ways.
Thankfulness. Connection. Sacrifice. Joy. Balance.
I can’t say I experience all of these on every run. Just read The Flat-Footed Fox posts from last year and you’ll know that sometimes running just plain sucks. But when it all comes together, when physical activity transcends its earthly limitations, when running and spirituality intersect, these are just some of the payoffs.
I got into running to overcome Type II diabetes, and I am happy to say that it has been in remission for some time now.
I never expected that that I would be blessed a second time in the process.