I was speaking with a runner yesterday about a recent 10k race. After a difficult week emotionally and physically, she ran her fastest 10k ever. She started the race with the intention of accessing all of her pent up emotion and frustration and unleashing it on the course. But a funny thing happened.
She left the starting line at an aggressive pace. Her first two miles were flat and fast. She knew there was a tough hill at mile 3. The excitement of the race buoyed her until she reached that hill. She carried a full head of steam into the start of the hill, but it was unsustainable. Her run soon become a power hike, which became more of a brisk walk. It was during this stretch that she expected to fall back on her reserves of pent-up frustration to carry her through. But as she started to sink physically and emotionally, she didn’t focus on anger. She didn’t focus on the professional sleights of the previous week or her emotional suffering. She started to think of the support she had received.
Her friends and family were there for her during her most trying moments. Listening, helping, caring. During the difficult days leading up to the race, she wasn’t alone. And when the going got tough on race day, her mind drifted to those people who loved and supported her. That’s when the engine started to turn. She attacked the hill, roasted the downhill, and turned in the performance she’s so proud of today. Her son was waiting for her at the finish line. They shared a wonderful embrace while she was wiping away tears of joy.
Joy is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal. So much is made of the runner’s high, but I wonder how many runners truly understand the role that unbridled happiness can play. Whether you’re squeezing in a 5k on your lunch hour or working through a 20-mile training run on the weekend, you can put the power of joy to work for you. Everyone seems to have different ways of accessing and harnessing positive emotions, but here are some of the methods that have worked for me.
This is something I started putting into practice while training for my first marathon. I didn’t even realize that it was a recognized tool at first. On my longest training runs, I would inevitably go to dark places emotionally. I would feel the grind of so many miles taking a toll on my legs and I would begin to wonder if it was all worth it. “All these weekend hours that I could be spending with family and friends. Or sleeping. If I was this dedicated to starting a business, I’d probably be a massive success by now.” Whenever these thoughts would start creeping in, it seemed to trigger an automatic response buried deep in my brain. I would picture myself in the home stretch of the marathon. Crossing the line with a smile on my face and having a medal draped over my head. These images in my mind were so powerful that I would sometimes feel emotional to the point of tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. Many times a smile would flash across my face and I had no power to stop it. When you’re at mile 14 out of 20 on a rainy Sunday morning while the rest of the world is just waking up or heading to brunch and you’re grinning uncontrollably like an idiot, you’re starting to understand the power of joy.
In the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with reading books about running. It isn’t enough that I spend 30% of my waking life running. I have to spend an hour every night laying in bed reading about it as well. There are many common threads that seem to run through every running book, autobiographies in particular. But the thread that’s important to this conversation is mantras. This may seem like new age silliness to many people, but I can assure you that I am not a spiritual person and I have used a mantra with great success. Sometimes a mantra is a single word or short series of words that people will repeat internally. I’ve heard other people muttering mantras to themselves during races. However you choose to use them, mantras can help bring you back into the moment and elevate your mood. Scott Jurek’s powerful mantra is a great lesson for all of us: “This is what you came for.” We have chosen endurance running as our preferred sport, or hobby, or lifestyle. When the going gets tough, we have to remember who made that decision. Timothy Olson tends to focus on the here and now. Like many runners, he doesn’t stick to just one mantra, but he uses whatever mental tricks he has at hand to power through. One he has mentioned is from Thich Nhat Hanh which says, “I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.” That’s way more than I’ll be able to pull out of my memory banks when I’m mentally exhausted during a race or long training run, but I like the premise.
Whether you’re owning your suffering like Jurek or living in the now like Olson, you can find joy in tough circumstances. Using a mantra to free your mind of negativity is a powerful tool in the runner’s arsenal.
There are several preconceived notions to dispel for many people when they think of meditation. Most envision some sort of religious chanting monks clanging giant gongs or hippies handing out flowers at an airport. The truth is, while some forms of meditation do focus on spiritual awakening or enlightenment, meditation can help you clear your mind. You train your mind to focus more, which means you can begin to zero in on positive thoughts more frequently and hold onto them for longer periods of time. One variation of meditation that I utilize is called body scan. Body scan is about sitting still for a period of time and focusing on every part of your body. When nothing else is clouding your mind, you can truly feel what’s happening in every part of your body. And whether you like to visualize a ball of light traveling to injured areas or you prefer to “breathe into” a tight muscle group, body scanning can be an effective recovery tool. I won’t get into this too deeply. If you want more information, you can download an app like Calm or Headspace. You may not be meditating during a run (although I’m pretty sure there are people who could), but you can train your mind to release negative thoughts. Keeping negative thoughts at bay will free you up to focus on the positive.
And Yes, Runner’s High
Alright, alright. Yes, I’ve experienced it many times. I have felt the endorphin rush, speed burst, energy spike throughout my running life. I would caution you about relying too heavily on such a thing. I experience it less and less these days. It’s also woefully unpredictable. You cannot count on it to pop up when you need it most. While you may burst into song or smile like the Joker for a quarter mile, runner’s high is neither dependable nor long-lasting. For best results, look elsewhere.
At 4am on the morning of the San Francisco Marathon last month, my wife asked me if I was still happy I signed up or this race. “I get to run through the streets of San Francisco for the next 4 hours. How could I not be happy?” Sadly, there are many people who will never know the joy of running. They either decline physical exercise in general, have other priorities, or are physically unable to run. When I think about those people, I appreciate every run that much more.
Do I suffer at times? Absolutely. Can even the shortest run feel like an eternity from time to time? Sure. But I choose to suffer joyfully. I have the ability to run, the perseverance to overcome difficulties, and the determination to finish each race with whatever strength I have left. That gives me pride, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, joy.