I started writing this post two weeks ago, so now “a couple of weekends ago” = one month. I’m having a really hard time finding the space and energy to sit down and write, but I’m still determined to keep at it.
M and I found ourselves in the car alone a couple of weekends ago after meeting up with his parents halfway between our houses. Our children climbed into their grandparents’ big red truck and headed out for a week away at grandparent camp, and we headed home for a quiet week, just the two of us. We chatted for awhile, I tried to read a bit, we alternated between radio stations, trying to find something decent to listen to. We managed to dial in a public radio station, and I was pleased that the show playing was On Being, and the intro was just starting. The show started, and Krista Tippet introduced the subject of Running as Spiritual Practice, and I was completely hooked.
In the intro I heard Ashley Hicks, co-founder of Black Girls Run, recount a conversation with a fellow runner in a store. She was expressing her nervousness about an upcoming race and he told her something that has stuck with her ever since – the blessing is outside of your comfort zone.
I’ve listened to this episode four times now. I keep going to it when I need to unwind from all the normal things that I plug into my ears – news, politics, social justice issues, the noise of day. As I listened to it that first time, in the car, I kept saying to M – This. This is it. That is exactly how I feel. That’s me. That could be me. Over and over again, no matter the speaker. I could relate to a piece of each of their stories. I took away a thought or a phrase from each one of them, and they’ve been weaving themselves through my head since I first heard them.
Last week we had record high temperatures, soaring into the 100’s every day – sunny, cloudless, oppressive. It took a toll on my running schedule. Even I’m not crazy enough to run at 5:30pm when the heat index is 115+. Instead of running, I griped about not running. I complained about the heat; I posted pictures of the thermometer in my car each afternoon for emphasis. I griped some more. My car’s leather seats were too hot, my skin melted upon contact. Our show at the Muny was too hot, the thick air hardly stirred.
In the meantime, I was monitoring some posts and keeping up with articles and discussions around the miserable conditions inside our medium security prison in north city. The facility is not air-conditioned, and temperatures inside were recorded as high as 115. Protests were being planned for Friday evening, and I saw the signs that many of my friends were making to carry there. I began to feel the heat in a different way, the kind of relentless heat without respite. I had respite. I’ve always had respite. I have to choose to be hot, to sweat. I can avoid it, or at least minimize it. It’s not a sentence, just a bridge between one comfort and the next. A string of comforts so long that I’ve lost track of where the line starts and ends.
Mike Stavlund spoke in this piece about spending all day at work, dressed a certain way, trying to look put together and not a mess. Then came his “after work” – a time and space where none of the above mattered. The heat, the sweat, the mess – it was welcome. It was his own space to be as un-put-together as he wished. I get this, this is a big part of what running has become to me.
I spent years and years and years telling myself that I didn’t have time to exercise. I didn’t feel the pressure to do it – I was healthy-ish, and busy enough with other things. Any drive to be more active was usually tamped down as the day wore on – I was too tired, I was too busy, I should spend more time with the girls, I should clean more, I should tackle those unfinished projects. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too humid, too windy. I don’t have the right clothes, I’m not signed up for the right class, I look ridiculous, I’m not strong enough, I’m not fast enough, I don’t know where to start, I don’t know how to fit it in.
I looked for a sliver of time that wouldn’t really matter. I found it in that “after work”. If I typically leave work around 5:30 and get home sometime before six – what if twice a week I left right at five, stopped at the park on the way home, exercised for twenty minutes, and walked in the door at the same time? It felt like found time. I scheduled it on the calendar. Walking felt too small in this found space. What if I ran? I couldn’t really run, so I ran in 30 second sprints, heaving and panting between them. Bit by bit it grew on me. I claimed this space as my own – my “after work” before the rest of me takes over. I choose this time, at the hottest, at my most tired, stomach rumbling for dinner that is still a couple of hours away.
It’s good in and of itself.
Roger Joslin speaks about the act of putting on running clothes as a ritual. It is similar for me. Putting my bag together in the morning is my promise to myself that I will keep later. When I look up from my desk around five and see the weather, putting on my shoes is the tiny hurdle that I jump over, moving me from waffling on the outside conditions and settling into the weather extremes, whatever form it takes that day.
I try to schedule these after work runs at least twice a week. In recent years, I’ve also found myself with an open ninety minute block of time on Sunday afternoons while E is at youth group just a few blocks from my favorite park. It’s very tempting to fit my grocery run in during that time, or run some errands nearby, or even just grab a cup of coffee at the shop on the corner and relax for a few. But I’ve grown to love the practice of this longer run on Sundays. Some days I’m able to work in 7-10 miles; other days it’s less, as I meander more and stop at traffic lights.
Sarah Kasawinah talks of the spiritual practice of running – I will straighten out my arms and think “thank you god, this is beautiful”. I find myself practicing my gratitude on these longer runs. The beauty of the park is overwhelming, the people I pass along the path have become my friends. I whisper gratitude for their presence. I thank my body for its work. I thank my work for challenging me. I thank the sunlight for lighting my path. I thank the seasons for letting me lean into them, I notice the changes each week, and I’m grateful for the chance to see them in real time. From the piece again: My body can do things; my body can be trained to do new things. I express my gratitude that I can practice resting through running. I find a rhythm without a clock or a map and although I’m moving, and sweating, and breathing, I’m at rest. Everything on the inside ends up on the outside. Soon enough I’ll shower it all off, the salt, the dust, the worries, the doubts.
I am fearless. I can stretch myself. I might not know how to do the work, but I know how to lace up the shoes for it. I step out of my comfort zone as a practice now, a ritual that has changed me in so many different ways. Ask me a question, to do something new and scary, and I’ll list a hundred things I don’t know, a hundred reasons why I can’t. But watch me put on those running shoes anyway. The blessing is outside of my comfort zone. The beauty is in the ritual. The practice is the gift.