Inside the Run: 90 minutes or one moment?

Here is an essay/meditation I wrote a few summers ago, trying to capture the ‘flow’ of a long distance run. It’s a longish piece as a result and likely only of interest to fellow runners.

The trail starts just up the street and for the next 90 minutes, we belong together.
 
It’s my Sunday morning LSD (long slow distance) run, training for a 10K trail race. My destination is about 6 km of wooded up and down trail along the river embankment. I’ll put in about 30 minutes on the asphalt bike paths to get there and another 30 on the return trip.
 
The first 10 minutes are the toughest. Not the toughest physically, to be sure, but psychologically. These minutes before the joints are lubricated, the rhythm established, require the most mental push.
 
Fortunately, I start on a downhill, zig-zag switchbacks into the river valley. I start my watch and kick off. Here, gravity is a great friend. I feel like a downhill skier who only needs one kick out of the chute to propel him to the bottom. 
 
At the bottom, I rein in my pace for the flat valley trail. On a corner, I see another runner behind. With my imperfect eyesight I’m unsure where he’s someone I should know, so I carry on.
 
I’m no pure type A but there’s enough competitor in me that I have to coach myself. “OK, buddy, this is your LSD – slow it down. Let him pass if he’s running faster.” Like a kid being watched by a pretty girl or challenged by a competitor, I feel the surge of adrenalin. 
 
I manage, though, to settle in to my training rhythm. Early on a summer Sunday, the unknown runner behind is one of a very few people I will encounter in a 90 minute outing.
 
My watch beeps for my first walk break and I turn up the slope onto the converted train trestle. I see the runner behind me is now walking too – perhaps on the same schedule of 10s and ones. He continues straight where I have turned and I mentally thank him for the distraction. Those difficult first 10 minutes are in the bank. 
 
Now I’m ready to roll. The watch beeps to end my one minute walk and I’m off across the pedestrian bridge, over the river, up along the north bank. I settle into cruise control. 
 
Past the popular riverside campground, where just a few souls are emerging from trailers and tents to putter with camp stoves or check out the day’s weather. I can give them a report: it’s going to be a hot one, this mid-summer Sunday, and even now it’s pleasantly warm. The sun, near its northern-most trajectory, is already up over the trees on the riverbank.
 
I admit that I don’t understand the attraction of “camping” in this form – a density that exceeds that of any urban neighbourhoods, in quarters more cramped than the smallest apartments. No doubt the campers, as they step out to breathe the morning freshness and listen to the river’s ripples look at me on the trail, puffing and beginning to break a sweat, and say, “I don’t understand the attraction of this jogging…” They will gladly take their camp fires, bacon and pancakes over my ‘energy belt’ with its three flasks of water and one of juice.
 
Waskasoo Park, photo by Ryley Thompson, Flickr

Waskasoo Park, photo by Ryley Thompson, Flickr

Past the campground, the trail weaves gently back and forth, up and down, through mid-summer grasses, bushes and trees. “A Long and Winding Road” comes to mind. Long and winding, in this case, having only pleasant connotations – if this trail just continued to bend and flex, ad infinitum, through the dappled aspen woods it would be fine with me.
 
Lennon’s voice fades. Unlike many, I don’t run with a music, except for occasional atonal humming. I do enjoy the energy boost of live bands and big booming speakers on race days, with their sonic energy boosts.
 
But out on solo runs, music would detract from, not add to, the ambiance. My life already has more than enough media ‘inputs’ – computers, Internet, cell phone, TV, radio. This is my escape from all that. This is my time to be aware of a real world, a real self.
 
Awareness at this moment takes me to that heal scuff I just heard. Run silent, a running coach once challenged a group of us at a clinic. If you’re hearing a lot of shoe sounds you have too much friction at that point of contact with the ground. Don’t land with the leg out front, but have it drop right below your body and power through with a kick up behind.
 
In my case, that right heal can not only be heard when my technique flags, but it can be seen when I take my shoes off and turn them over. The corner of that heal wears more quickly. Over the years I have managed to significantly reduce that tendency, but here it is.
 
Heal scuff. Kick that heal up, drop it down silently, flat.
 
With the right focus, the sound of my shoes returns a light, rhythmic patter, pleasing to the ear. At times, it fades entirely as the nearby river ripples over rock with the age-old soothing sound of light rapids.
 
My contemplative state ends when the river trail emerges from the woods onto a sidewalk under an expressway. I turn, cross the street where a steep access road rises to the expressway and here it is: the escalator!
 
It’s a good idea to plan an escalator into every training run. Non runners might not recognize this kind of escalator – a steeply rising asphalt walkway alongside an expressway hill. Hills require a different kind of strategy, keeping the pace the same but shortening the stride – not trying to take in too much at a time. Conserve energy, forget speed, just chop those legs up and down. Someone gave me this escalator image – just imagine walking up – and it works. Who knew a hill could be seen as a relaxing reprieve?
 
I lean into the rise and work my arms for a little upward propulsion. Leg lift, push down, leg lift, push down. 
 
Running is a series of mind games, in the best sense of those words. Challenges for the brain as it constantly receives signals back from the rest of the body and tries to play the role of leader. An exercise in self-leadership. Challenges that should be fun, that have to be games, if they are to be met successfully. 
 
The escalator takes me slowly up alongside the roadway to the point, near the top, where a trail leads off into the woods. This is immediately a different activity than running on the smooth asphalt. Though the roots and ruts demand more leg lift and a less predictable stride, the soft forest floor more than compensates with its gentle landing surface.
 
Through tall pines along the escarpment, the trail rises and falls, bends and twists. The air is glorious, the light full of all possibilities.
 
“To me, running means freedom, but you need the discipline to gain the freedom. Find nice places… use your runs as ‘devotions,’ a time to be thankful for life’s beauty.”
– Doris Heritage, world cross-country running champion
 
Green, green, green. I could devote myself to appreciating the nuances of old and new in the undergrowth.
 
The path rolls up, down, up again near a residential subdivision, back down through the bush. About three kilometres later it emerges on an open hillside and a street crossing. I’m at 46 minutes, just perfect as a turn-around point. With the muscles all warmed up I  should be right on 90 minutes if I head back.
 
I walk a few moments extra while enjoying a foil pouch of ‘energy gel’ – it’s amazing how satisfying such a small concoction can be at the right time – and finish my second water flask.
 
Then it’s back into the run, back into the woods. A few minutes in I come up on a man and a calm golden lab, out for a stretch before the heat of the day hits. The lab, a bit advanced in years, is a walking advertisement for those who would say “dogs make everything right with the world.”
 
Even though a runner fears breaking stride (perhaps it’s the fear of not being able to get started again), I can’t resist pausing to pat the gentle head. My hand on the warm brow connects directly to memory of a true runner – my recently departed Dalmatian who should still be here today, were it not for a heart valve that gave out.
 
The lab’s gentle energy is more than enough to buoy my own.
 
After the two encounters, the trail is once again all mine and just as spectacular in this direction as it was the other. The watch beeps for a walk break, then again to resume, and soon I emerge at the top of the escalator. As everyone knows, escalators are even more fun to run down than up. I allow my legs to churn away as I hurtle down the hill, thinking (as always) how much fun it would be to be able to run at this speed on the flat. 
 
At the bottom, though, sanity returns. The sidewalk veers onto the river pathway again, where the sun is now higher and the air noticeably warmer. I settle into a rhythm. Working towards the quiet stride, steady breath. 
 
Breathing in… two…three. Breathing out…two…three.
 
Meditation gurus teach walking meditation. They should also teach running meditation. All the ingredients are here: a body busy in repetitive actions that require little conscious attention, a calm environment without distractions. A focus on the moment.
 
Just this breath. Breathing in… two…three. Breathing out…two…three.
 
Just being.
 
“I’ve always felt running is a form of meditation. Running enables us to stop our lives…”
       Nina Kuscsik, women’s winner of Boston and New York Marathons
 
Of course, as with other forms of meditation, as soon as I think “I am meditating,” I’m not. Still, the meditative moments are treasures. I’ve never felt much that I would describe as a ‘runner’s high,’ unless this qualifies. Call it a runner’s calm, or a runner’s moment. Strung together, those moments are a delight.
 
On a more earthly plane, I’m back to the campground, where now more breakfasts are underway among the folks rustling among their tents, trailers and motorhomes. Is that pancakes I smell? Maple syrup? Mmmmm.
 
The breakfast fantasy sustains me into the city centre area, where the trail dips below two traffic bridges and back onto the converted train bridge. The boardwalk of 4×4 timber has a delightful spring to it, the flex pushing up through my muscles to return some of the energy spent on the unforgiving asphalt. 
 
Now on the south side of the river, the trails are, still, all mine. From time to time over the years I have run with groups – a training group here, Saturday morning running club there, or just friends and associates when traveling – and every one of those runs was enjoyable.  
 
But as a confirmed introvert I mostly run alone. A simple test for introversion is to ask what a person does to get energized – seek out other people, or seek out solitude. I’m in the latter minority. With runners, the simple test would be ‘if you had to choose between always running with other people or always running alone, which would you choose?’ 
 
Entering a wooded stretch, I enjoy a short downhill where, in six or eight strides, my friend gravity quickens my pace and pulse again. On the flat, I shorten my stride but try to keep the turnover pace up. Here, late in a run, it’s easy to falling into a plodding and shuffling stride that is both inefficient and psychologically tiring. 
 
The last kilometre. The legs are aching in a good way, the sweat dripping from the peak of my cap, and I’m feeling the growing sense of accomplishment that comes with a good training run.
 
“The answer to the big questions in running is the same as the answer to the big questions in life: Do the best with what you’ve got.”
       George Sheehan
 
For these stretches where any remaining distances can begin to look daunting, I have my own little mantra. “Just git there,” I chant to myself. Just keep the legs moving. Shut out those aches and pains. Just git to the end.
 
And here I am. Home just another two minutes up those steep switchbacks, and I always enjoy the challenge. I have 89 minutes “in the bank.” Of course I can do one last hill. Turn on that escalator! I’m ready to ride!
 
Up, down, up, down, I churn my way to the top, to the marker where I launched myself off. I click ‘stop’ on my watch and walk while draining the last of my water and squeezing the sweat out of my dripping cap. It’s not hard to tell where that water has been going.
 
The watch asks if I want to “HOLD TO STORE.” That would be wonderful, to store this outing. Beyond the training value, beyond the calorie-burning, I dare say it’s been the perfect run.  Sunlight, oxygen, trails, trees, challenges, successes. And a dog or two for good measure. What more could I ask?
 
I will store the time, yes, but the next run will be a new run. And that’s the beauty.
 
 

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