Running. Oh how I love thee! And, Ultra-Running, I love thee even more.
Because. You Saved me. Converted me. Set me Free!
Truly, I used to be a woman who actually cleaned her house on Saturday – often from top to bottom – you know the type, one of those fastidious housekeepers, who climbs up step-stools to wipe off fan blades and gets down on her hands and knees to dust baseboards.
But no more! Now, on a fine Saturday, after luxuriously enjoying my morning java, my sweet-heart and I head for the hills – literally.
We ran for 4 hours this past weekend on the off-road, single track bike trails of Blue Mound State Park. What a gorgeous piece of land! The trails are carved into the hilly terrain and offer spectacular views of the dolomite and chert outcroppings. And I am a lucky woman; I can easily access those trails, only a short mile from my house. (Rather unlucky for my house though, it hasn’t been dusted since we moved in!)
Questioning the Sanity:
Now, if you are like some people I know (or my biking friends), you will say something like, “Four hours? Why, on God’s Green Earth, would anyone choose to run for four hours on a Saturday?”
The WHY is easy: it beats cleaning house (my biking friends connect the dots on this reason). And, well, I’m training for a 50K in May, so gotta spend time on the legs.
The next inevitable set of questions:
Don’t you get bored?
No. Never. Truly, there is so much to see in the woods, and besides, you really do have to stay alert and pay attention, otherwise a root or rock will have you tripping and tumbling.
What do you think about for all those hours?
Hopefully, nothing. I’ve come to realize I love running in the woods for the beautiful mindfulness practice it helps me foster.
Running in the Woods = Mindfulness
Mindfulness, a Buddhist practice and teaching, is about bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.
According to Jon-Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, mindfulness is about paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
I love that definition. On purpose. In the present moment. Non-judgmentally.
By paying attention, on purpose, to whatever is going on, I find myself feeling more alive, more in tune, more thrilled with being in the woods, and part of the woods.
Seven Mindfulness Lessons of Running
Here are seven things I’ve learned to apply to running in the woods, which, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, are the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness practice:
Non-judging: Our minds love to have an opinion about the experience we are having – what is good, what is bad.
For example, it is easy to catch myself deciding the lack of energy I feel going up a hill is bad – instead of simply noticing, “my legs feel heavy right now.”
Patience: Patience demonstrates we understand and accept that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.
For example, I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself as a newbie runner in the world of ultra-running, building up slowly to longer and longer distances; just a few years ago, a 17 mile training run seemed unfathomable, and a 50 miler still seems “crazy”.
A Beginner’s mind: In order to grasp the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what is known as “the beginner’s mind” a mind willing to see everything as if for the first time.
For example, this is a critical skill to hone on long out-and-back runs, or when running loops, where I will see the same sections of the course, again and again. I’ve learned to ask myself, “What is new?” “What didn’t I see last time I passed this way?”
Trust: This practice is about developing a trust in ourselves, and our feelings; recognizing it is better to use own intuition and authority for guidance – trusting in our own basic wisdom and goodness.
For example, I’ve learned to truly listen to my body – recognizing signs of hunger, tuning into different types of pain and what they have to say about what I choose to do next; trusting I’ve trained enough; trusting my muscles and mind will work in concert.
Non-striving: The goal of mindfulness is non-doing – no other goal than that we be ourselves.
For example, running can be a humbling sport. It is the perfect arena for simply being myself – I can’t always guarantee I will run the race I hoped to run; however, I will always run the race I run. If I drop any comparisons, I am much happier with me and my running.
Acceptance: This practice is about seeing things as they are in the present. It is about not trying to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing on our experience, but simply letting ourselves be open to what is actually going on for us.
For example: The blister on my foot, the stitch in my side, the lack of good sleep, the steep, rocky trail – all of these things are simply this which are; railing against them makes for a terrible day of running.
Letting Go: This practice is about letting things be, of accepting things as they are, instead of grasping or pushing for a particular outcome.
For example, race day is a great way to get into the spirit of letting go. It is about trusting I’ve trained enough; it is about dropping comparisons and getting out there and doing the best I can and letting go of any other expectations for myself.
Cultivating Mindfulness for Yourself
Now, you don’t have to run four hours in the woods to purposefully cultivate or apply these seven aspects of mindfulness…. (Ahhh…HUGE sigh of relief!!)
You can practice them as you fold laundry; pick up and straighten the living room; as you mow the lawn and spring-clean the garden beds; as you fire up the grill and prepare dinner. (See….there are much easier ways than a four-hour run!)
Mindfulness, at its core, is a way to pay attention, on purpose, and non-judgmentally, to what you are doing, in a way to help focus the mind to the present moment – to keep it from loitering in the past, or rushing ahead to the future – to simply be.
What is it to mindfully fold laundry, for example?
To simply pay attention to the various fabrics…….
To appreciate the warm scent of clothes from the dryer or wash line……
To accept each fold as perfect……
To let go of needing to rush ahead to the next task?