Friday, November 28, 2008


Over the past month, a nagging pain in my knee has forced me to take more time off from running than I have in the past ten years (not counting the time I took off during my two pregnancies, which really wasn't all that much). When the pain started, I would take a few days off, and then give it another go. Rather than improving the situation, the aching spread to other areas of my body, most noticeably, my lower back and my neck. “I think your body is trying to tell you something,” Bryan kept saying. The implication was unsettling.

I run, therefore I am (relatively) sane.

I shuddered to think about the psychological consequences of a week (weeks, even!) without the marvelous endorphin rush that comes from running, especially running in the fall, on the trails. I'll take another day off, I told Bryan. See what happens.

To get a better sense of just what might be causing this discomfort, I went to see an orthopedist. Diagnosis: misalignment. Meaning everything is out of whack, causing a grinding in the kneecap, sciatica, stiff neck, general malaise.

Recommendation: A focus on stability rather than speed. Strengthening the core instead of pounding the pavement.

The English teacher in me could not fail to see the metaphor in this. Many times have I chided myself for my inability to live in the moment, for my preoccupation with going and doing rather than being. As a result, my “core” had shriveled to something unstable and incomplete, in need of nurturing. While I have always thought of running as a sort of zen exercise, I have come to realize that when running, I'm thinking about essays, dinner, cleaning, child-rearing. I insist on being surrounded by physical beauty (trails) when I run, yet in the woods, I barely acknowledge the trees, the streams, the birds, except as a pleasant backdrop.

The initial reaction to this forced hiatus from running was panic. All my hard work! What would become of my body, my brain? Yes, there are other sports, but for a mother who works, it's hard to find anything with such quick and dirty results as running. It's free, I can do it early in the morning, and, if necessary, can do it pushing my kids in the jogging stroller. The perfect activity.

My subsequent crankiness did not go unnoticed. Any runner who has had to take time off understands this feeling: pent-up energy swirling around, looking for an outlet. A walk isn't enough, nor is twenty minutes on the elliptical. Now what?

Stabilize the core. If I'm going to run again, I need to focus now on stability. So on Wednesday night, instead of meeting up with my running group in Wallingford, I went to a yoga class, something I haven't done since I was pregnant with Alexa. At first, it was an immense amount of effort to slow my brain and body down. I had to rush to class because Bryan was a few minutes late and traffic was heavy. The other participants were already seated on their mats, eyes closed, breathing slowly.

And then everything came together. I am by no means graceful, nor am I limber, but if nothing else, during class I was mindful. Yoga is such an exquisite dance, one in which mind and muscles work together, stretching to expand consciousness and strengthen the core. The poses did not involve the same kind of endurance I have come to relish when I run trails, especially hills, but the soft voice of the instructor, the low lights, and the quiet allowed me to silence, if only for a short time, the endless “shoulds.” I didn't need to worry about what I should be doing, or what time it was. I needed only to be mindful: of body, of presence in the moment.

So, for the time being, I am forcing myself to slow down, and to nurture my core. This means that instead of joining my running buddies on Saturday morning for a 10-12 mile outing, I went for a hike with Dylan while Bryan took Alexa to her class at Rascal's gym. As we walked to the trail (how fortunate we are to have trails we can walk to), Dylan noticed a stream beside the road and said, “I've never seen that stream before.”

“Of course you have,” I replied. “We've been by here many times.” And then it occurred to me that, while we had passed down this road on many occasions, Dylan's vantage point was from the seat of the jogging stroller, which is usually whizzing by the stream. So, he was probably right about never having seen the stream before.

On the trail, a trail I know well, I had the same experience. There were side trails I had never seen, because I had always been looking ahead, down the trail, or at my watch. There were backyards in the distance. Dylan pointed out a robin. “They have red bellies,” he added.

I felt the same sort of mindfulness I had experienced in yoga class. Rather than thinking, “I should be running,” rather than worrying about the kind of workout I was getting, I let Dylan lead the way. He paused often to look at moss, or a footprint, or just to rest. I was cold—I had dressed for running, not walking—but I loved experiencing one of my favorite running routes through Dylan. We would race up a hill, only to slow down again to pick up an oak leaf, or to look at how the ground had frozen over the mud. We went home and had hot chocolate while Dylan told Bryan and Alexa all the things he had seen.

There's something to be said for slowing down once in a while, even though, for me at least, this takes an incredible effort. I'm hoping it's a transformation of some sort, this focus on mindfulness, on slowness, on my present surroundings rather than my desire to be in motion. Before I started running marathons, I never wore a watch; I insisted that running, for me, was not about time. I don't run on treadmills, because running, for me, is also about communion with nature. I would rather run in sheets of freezing rain than in a gym. But while I do enjoy the competitiveness of racing, in many ways it has made me too focused on time, and on the end result. I'm always training for something, trying to qualify for Boston, trying to beat my previous times. Maybe, after this sabbatical, running will once again be more about being, less about going.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre" — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer — a holy-lander. (Henry David Thoreau, from “Walking)

1 comment:

Shannon said...

Very well said - - - I like the title of this blog entry. I have just recently discovered how weak my core is. I can run a sloppy 3 miles or hike up a mountain, but when I tried to do pilates and yoga, I flopped on the floor like a sea lion. VERY humbling and enlightening... to say the least. I hope you enjoy your new pursuits - they sound good for you and less taxing on the joints. Your thoughts could use some stillness as well! (boy, my writing ability has crashed since college - I apologize!)