Running and Being

Running and Being

Mary Campilongo

“In a very real sense, it’s necessary to ’embrace’ cancer. That is, to accept it without immediately trying to put your own agenda on it. I learned that most things become problematic when we resist them. Resistance keeps you stuck in a small box of uncertainty and fear. When we resist the circumstances of our lives we are essentially saying no to reality. By making a conscious decision not to resist this circumstance in my life, to not put my own agenda on it, I was able to move towards a more expansive approach to dealing with it.”

Sometimes things don’t work out as we would like them to. Sometimes they don’t work out very well at all. You come to workouts, looking forward to doing a dozen quarters at pace, only to discover that each one gets progressively slower and harder. Your hamstring starts pulling. You have all these hopes about your workout/your race but it turns out your physical limitations are more intractable than you thought. Your discipline to reach a certain fitness level hasn’t materialized, or you keep injuring yourself. It’s all very disappointing but that’s just your running.

Life is sometimes even worse. You finally get what you want at work/in your career, or in a relationship or lifestyle, whatever it is, but there are still ‘problems’ that you had assumed would go away “if only” this or that happened. Or you gradually realize that the thing that you always wanted is never going to happen: having a child, or a loving spouse/partner, making peace with a difficult parent, finding creative expression, or financial freedom. It’s not that there aren’t lots of good times, it’s just that the disappointments oftentimes seem so large.

We wouldn’t reach adulthood if we hadn’t learned to cope with disappointment.

It’s absolutely vital as you wouldn’t be able to function at all. But, there are still the responsive reactions we have in living with the various disappointments that come along: sadness, depression, worry, irritability, moodiness, anxiety, lethargy. And not just every once in a while but sometimes many times in the course of a day or week, sometimes in small ways, sometimes big.

Do you recall what was inscribed on the portal above the gate to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy? “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” It’s the same in running in that I will sometimes exhort my runners to remove the ‘hope’ from their running. The importance of this is simply: Hope can often be false hope, a disguised refusal to be with things just as they are in the moment. And when you reject the moment that is arising just because it is unpleasant (not having the outcome you desire), you are rejecting the only moment you have in which to be alive, the only moment in which you can feel and act. If you are lost in disappointment about the future or the past, you are not fully present in the moment and neither can you attend to what is necessary. Oftentimes we cling to the desire for the positive in life (in our running) while being filled with an absolute aversion to the negative events that occur. And certainly is it frustrating when, despite all your efforts and hard work, you don’t get/achieve what you want, or if you do, it doesn’t continue to satisfy you, or it ‘goes away.’ Whenever you are identified too strongly with your needs, there will be an accompanying feeling of dissatisfaction. Whatever the outcome, it will be unsatisfactory because when your mind wants your body to be able to do something, and the body can’t do it, you identify with that desire and that is why you become frustrated and disappointed. In reality, what I’ve learned is that none of that desire and especially identifying actually helps you in your running. And so it is that I will sometimes ask my runners to remove the ‘hope’ from their running and just run. Stop trying to get something out of this. Just (f-ing) run!

I think that sustaining a present/here-and-now mental state/focus during competition (and training) makes the natural expression of talent and skill far easier. That is, a present-centered focus is fundamental under pressure. I read a quote once that said, “During battle, thinking about the future lets fear beat you; thinking about the past lets anger and frustration beat you.” Maintaining a moment-by-moment focus during training and races helps in reaching peak performance.

Some confuse this present-centered focus with an ‘inward’ focus and that is incorrect. Being aware is one thing–being ‘self-conscious’ is another. I had a runner once who always ‘choked’ during races. And the reason this kept happening is because too much of her attention was focused inward. The more you can get ‘outside of your head’ the better you will typically perform.

Wouldn’t it be great if life proceeded from one moment of perfect happiness to the next, or each time we got on that start line, we popped another PR? But, for most of us, this just isn’t the case. And so, we must proceed by another path. And sometimes it is a path through our own personal hell, where we encounter moments of pain and feelings of loss and confusion. Given that this is so, you can either live in denial of the truth of your experience or obsess on your pains and disappointment(s). Or you can consciously accept, even embrace life/your race not working out, can choose to consciously embrace your disappointment and pain as ‘teachers’ because life and these less than ideal outcomes/races are not in themselves disappointing. They are simply a series of moments to practice being with life as it is.

The strongest runners I know (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the fastest) are the ones who have the strongest and most resilient minds. Many athletes tend to have a ‘one-dimensional’ approach to their training. That is, a compartmentalized, almost robot-like approach focused solely on times and distances and intensity. This works for some, but not for all. This is so commonplace though, that getting an athlete to try a different approach when this one doesn’t work any longer is often very difficult. In running, as in life, you have to remain flexible. If we’re constantly thinking about the past (the last interval) or the future (the next race/interval), we are not fully present. In order to experience life (anything) we have to live each moment. Life is not happening in the past. That’s a memory. And neither is life happening in the future. That’s planning. The only time we can live/run is now, this moment. And, as simple as that sounds, it is very difficult and most of us have to learn this.

I recall all too clearly after a couple of very big races/events being ‘lost’ in disappointment. I had confused myself with a desire and so identified with it that it caused me to suffer. Not that the physical or emotional pain that accompanies disappointment is unreal, only that pain arises, has a certain duration, and then passes. Lingering disappointment is simply an unwillingness to accept what is because what happens is that it becomes transformed into a ‘story’ instead of just one small event. No matter how disappointing (or even horrible) it was, it is over now. Let the experience go. Allow it to have its death in the flow of time. In running, as in life, there is no need for hope, for all that is to be honored and cherished is here, now.

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