Running on Empty

The weather was so luscious this Saturday here in Indiana that if you were a runner, you probably had to put your tennis shoes on and hit the streets.

Let’s get something clear, I’m not really a runner. I do run on occasion, but it’s not the “runner’s high” I’m after. I do it for the cardio; so I can walk a set of stairs and not be out of breath and embarrassed! For me running is one of those things that look good on paper. So most of the time, I have to force myself to reap the benefits.

In the winter, I run at the gym, but running on a treadmill is nothing compared to running on pavement. First of all, on a treadmill, you don’t have to move yourself anywhere. You essentially run in place and the treadmill moves beneath you doing most of the work. On the pavement, you have to power yourself in a direction. And since gravity pulls harder against you, additional energy is needed for the effort. It’s a bigger bang for your buck.

When you’re running on a treadmill, you can also check out mentally. The treadmill doesn’t have chuckholes, or wet patches you have to look out for so you don’t crash and burn. Neither do you have to pay attention to cars, or snapping dogs that might chase you down. You can just run on and on, oblivious to anything other than the subtitles on the latest Kardashian drama playing out on one of the fifteen TV screens fronting the cardio area. On the streets, a runner needs mental control and acuity; decisions must be made.

So now that it’s spring and the air is warmer, I’ve taken my running outside the gym and onto the streets. This transition is always a shocking event. The first few weeks are like wearing new pointy toe boots that haven’t been broken in. You know they look great, so you put up with the first few agonizing times you wear them.

Like I said, this past Saturday the weather was perfect, so I began my afternoon run south, directly into the wind. It was only a light breeze, but it felt like running through a wall of stiff Jell-O. The first five to ten minutes are always hard anyway, so navigating the Jell-O almost put me back on the curb fiddling with my laces.

Typically, after the first minute, my heart begins to race and my breathing becomes labored. As I try to deal with the shortness of breath, my body begins to complain. “Are you kidding? We can’t run the whole way to the gas station and back! I’m already huffing and puffing. What makes you think we can run there and all the way back?!?”

You see, I’m already so worried about how I’m going to feel miles down the road that panic sets in. My shoulders hunch up around my neck. Breathing becomes a chore and my legs feel like lead. I have to take control, force the shoulders to relax. They relinquish their grip on my neck for a moment and I can breathe again. You see, my body and mind aren’t always in tune on the purpose of what we’re doing here. And why. So this is the point where the deals usually begin.

Deal #1 – If it really gets too hard at any point you can walk.

Deal #2 – The gas station is a “goal.” It isn’t set in stone. If we get half way and you really are dying, we can take a break, walk for a while.

Deal #3 – If we run all the way to the gas station, we can always walk home (if we really need to). It isn’t that far.

The point behind making deals is to take the focus off the end goal and keep my mind in the present. Running, for me, is a meditation of sorts. I have to practice letting go of the negative thoughts, all the thinking about what it takes to get all the way there and back. If I get caught up with the future unknowns, I might just decide against the whole thing and stay home. Instead, if I can deal with how I’m feeling in this exact moment, I can encourage myself to keep going. “See,” I tell myself, “we’re doing okay. Breathe deeper – through your nose, now – relax.”

Once I give myself permission to do what my body needs if necessary, I can relax. Before I know it, we’ve reached the gas station and turned the corner for the return part of the run. The breathing is easier. My heart is pumping faster-keeping up now with the workload and I notice I’m running even faster than when I started.

When something is difficult, it’s so easy for us to talk ourselves out of what we know deep down we want and need. Learning how to clear those negative thoughts by making realistic deals works for me. It helps me get past some of my biggest fears and the obstacles that come with them–in running and in the rest of my life as well. How do you deal with self-imposed obstacles? What kinds of deals do you make with yourself?

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