I’ve never been much of an athlete. Oh, I enjoy physical activity like hiking, swimming, boating, etc., but I’ve never really been interested in team or competitive sports. I did enjoy running cross-country in the 10th grade, but we moved and my new school didn’t have that sport. I tried out for track at my new school, but the coach made us run wind sprints in 20° F. weather. I burned my lungs in the frigid air and spat blood for the next two weeks. Enough of that.
I remember having to pass an annual fitness test when I was in the U. S. Air Force – a mile run in under some time that I don’t remember now. I do remember practicing once or twice the week before the test just to make sure I could do it. I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi at the time. I remember practicing running on the county roads near our apartment and having to dodge poisonous snakes (water moccasins) and once a small alligator. I can’t say that I enjoyed it at the time, and my distaste has pretty much stuck with me all these years.
But I do enjoy high-mountain backpacking, 3 or 4 days at a time with nothing but a few fellow hikers, and the trail in front of us. My love for that goes back to my boyhood days and I’ve never grown tired of it. The only problem now is that my hiking buddies (my children) are now adults leading their own independent lives – not much time for a few days off the grid in the wilderness. Over the years we (2 or 3 or us) have hiked portions of the Wonderland Trail – 93 miles on the flanks of Mount Rainier in Washington State, near where we live. I have vivid memories of those trips, and I often daydream about particular moments – scenes, emotions, shared insights – on various sides of the mountain. I had a past life on this mountain, and it is fair to say that I still have a love affair with it just as I did all those years ago as a Native American shaman. The mountain (Mt. Rainer) is as sacred to me now as she was then.
But I haven’t yet finished the west side of the Wonderland Trail. I keep hoping that one day (before I’m too old) I will find a hiking partner to make the 4-day trek, the steepest and most difficult part of the trail. And so every year I find myself going for a “training” run around my neighborhood – only a mile – just to keep my legs in shape for that final back-country hike – someday.
I still don’t really like to run, but I do it – once or twice a year – just to see if I can still muster enough strength and stamina for the real thing. Last year I ran 3 times (a record!) during the summer months and managed to lower my time each run. My first run was actually faster than my last run the previous year – I really felt good about that. Maybe there is steam in the ol’ boiler yet!
This year though, I really wasn’t up for the first run. I decided not to push it and just go for a leisurely trot to get the ol’ joints loosened up. The time: 10 minutes and 42 seconds. Not bad for the first run of the season, and I really didn’t feel winded at all – hardly broke a sweat. Next time I’ll try a little harder.
Two weeks later (I’m really getting into this training thing) I brought my time down to 10 minutes and 8 seconds. Great improvement, but I was really puffing hard at the end and my legs felt like lead. I waited another week and was sure I could beat 10 minutes. I started off faster than usual, taking only 5 steps per breath rather than 6, but started wheezing to get 3 steps per breath within 2 blocks. Everything went downhill from there. I was really drained at the end and just couldn’t get enough oxygen even five minutes after I returned home. The time: 10 minutes and 36 seconds. Terrible! I was really beginning to question whether this was worth it.
This time I waited over three weeks to run again, but I didn’t want to repeat what happened last time. I decided that the most important thing was that I feel good. If I needed to slow down or even stop, I would do it. I wouldn’t keep checking the stopwatch I carry – every time I turned a corner. I’d run down the hills and on most of the flats, but I would just walk up the hills to catch my breath, maybe even more than I usually do. I clicked the stopwatch on and started off from my front door. But something was different this time.
I told myself that the only thing that mattered was that I feel good. And then “My Guys” (as I call them – they have no gender, but some have more masculine and some more feminine energy) in Spirit chimed in.
“That’s right! Just run when you feel like it and walk when you feel like it and don’t worry about the time. Relax. Trust. Just do what feels good, OK?”
I was a little surprised by their interjection, but decided not to argue. I took long, easy strides – 6 paces per breath – and didn’t slow to 3 paces until I turned the corner at the end of the second block. I knew I could maintain 3 paces per breath on the flat and down the hill, so I just trotted along, thinking about what “My Guys” had said. I turned the corner at the bottom of the hill and saw a lady coming toward me with her dog. I smiled at seeing them, but decided to cross the street to avoid them even though it meant extra steps. By the time I was able to cross back, I had gone two houses further than usual before I slowed to a “power walk” up the hill. It is the steepest hill on my route, but only half a block long. I glanced down at the stopwatch in my hand: 5 minutes and 28 seconds. It crossed my mind that I only had about 4 and a half minutes more to run the last third of my route in 10 minutes. It seemed unlikely though as I only had a 2-block flat to run and another block-long hill ahead of me.
As I reached the top of the first hill, I had to cross the street out of my way – again – to avoid a lady tending her flower bed next to the sidewalk. I don’t like to startle nice ladies by sneaking up on them and possibly scaring them. Any thought of breaking 10 minutes now seemed out of the question, but I trotted on, just enjoying the cool morning air and the bright flowers sparkling in the sun. Before I realized it, I had gone 2 houses past where I normally start to walk up the last hill. I began pushing against the clock with my “power walk”, puffing at 2 breaths per pace. The clock! I thought about looking down at the stopwatch.
“No!” they exclaimed. “Just relax, trust, and do what feels good. You can look at your stopwatch when you get home.”
“OK”, I thought. I was mightily tempted, but their words rang through my brain repeatedly, edging out my inclination to peek at the watch. Then, one house before the top of the hill (where I usually start running), I had a really strong urge to begin running the last 60 feet up the hill. My legs started slowly, but I felt good, and hit the crest of the hill at top speed and flew the last ¼ block home to my front steps. Click! I looked at the stopwatch. It read 9 minutes and 58 seconds. Wow! I broke the 10-minute barrier and took 38 seconds off of my previous time! And I wasn’t gasping for breath like the last time either. I smiled at the thought. It all FELT REALLY GOOD.
I decided to cool down before I showered and soon lost myself in working on something – I don’t remember what. By the time I got into the shower it was 2 hours later, and my thoughts turned back to that point 2/3 of the way on my run when I looked at the stopwatch and read 5 minutes and 28 seconds. I remembered thinking that I only had about 4 and a half minutes left to finish my run in 10 minutes or less. Wait a minute – 4 and a half minutes is 4 minutes and 30 seconds + 5 minutes and 28 seconds = 9 minutes and 58 seconds – exactly what my stopwatch read when I finished! I couldn’t believe it.
I “heard” a soft chuckle over the running water. “What did we tell you? Just relax, trust, and do what feels good. But be careful what you ask for!” I could feel them grinning. “My Guys” love a good joke, especially when they are trying to teach me something.
Update: It has now been over a week before running again. No arguments this time, not even with my Self. I just relaxed, trusted, and did what felt good. Result: I knocked another 8 seconds off of my time, and I did it without killing myself in the process. And that FELT REALLY GOOD.
So what did I learn? Sometimes when you push against things, things just push back – only harder. I can’t yet say I’ve made a constant practice of relaxing, trusting, and doing what feels good, but I’m trying to do so as each day progresses. I really think it will pay off for me in the “long run” (no pun intended). I’m beginning to think that “training” isn’t about time and distance so much as it is about learning to enjoy the activity for its own sake – just for the sake of FEELING GOOD. And maybe there is something more to be learned there as well, but that awaits another, deeper layer of understanding – and perhaps another story for another day.
Will I get to finish hiking the Wonderland Trail one day? I don’t know, but “My Guys” seem to think so. If and when it happens, I’ll be ready, waiting, and eager to go. Until then, I’m learning not to argue; just relax, trust, and do what feels good.
What about you? What have “Your Guys” been trying to tell you lately?