Every summer I run several times a week along the country roads that have known me since babyhood. I can read them with my eyes closed. I know where I have to dip my head to bypass low hanging branches and where I can count on a breeze from the incoming tide. I stopping running for years, and it feels good to be back.
Running teaches me, clears way for thoughts that needed a space to be born. There is an education to be had along this path, and I am reminded daily that the lessons of running and the lessons of life are one and the same.
1. Don’t give up too soon.
It takes a while to find your groove. Don’t quit too quickly, even if it feels like misery, even if you hate every step along the way. Stop too early and you’ll miss all the magic. Give it some time to ripen, wait for the ease to find you. And it will. If you give it enough space and you are on the right path, the ease will always find you.
When effortlessness hits you’ll smile in spite of your burning muscles and throw your arms wide to catch the breeze. That’s the sweet spot, right there, where things get juicy and delicious.
Don’t forget to breathe. There is nothing in life not made easier by breath. Those cycles of inhale and exhale are more important than we think and not near as automatic as we sometimes believe. There will be times when every breath is an effort, or where you’ll be so caught up with your struggle that you’ll forget to take the air all the way in.
Find your way back to your breath. No matter where you are in life, your breath is your center. Honor it.
3. Keep your eyes on the middle distance.
Look too far ahead and you get caught up the difficulty of upcoming terrain. Keep your eyes too close to your feet and you miss important things ahead. In the immortal words of Ani Difranco, “When I look down, I just miss all the good stuff. When I look up, I just trip over things”.
The middle distance is best; far enough ahead to keep your eyes open for potholes and oncoming cars, but not so far that you get intimidated by the hill on the horizon. Don’t get so far ahead of yourself that you miss what is right in front of you, and don’t get so caught up in right-now that you’re not prepared for what’s coming.
4. You won’t be climbing forever.
There will always be hills to climb. They will seem to last forever. They don’t. Your legs will scream and your heart will be pumping like mad and you’ll want to collapse in a defeated puddle on the side of the road. You’ll think you can’t make it. But you will. Those killer hills will be followed by gentle valleys, or straightaways that give you space to run full tilt.
When you’re on a hill you can’t see what is on the other side. Don’t even try. Just know you won’t be climbing forever.
5. Appearances can be deceiving.
Never put too much stock in what you think you see. That huge hill may be a gentle climb that won’t even stress you. That gentle slope might be a bitch of an ascent that will kick your ass. Sometimes the horizon hides the biggest challenge of your life. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, life will throw you a curveball.
Rely less on your eyes and more on your heart. Whatever is coming and however it looks from a distance, you already have what it takes. Don’t worry too much about what you have not yet reached; it’s probably not going to be what you think anyway.
6. It’s all a mind game, baby.
You think this is all about your body? The strength of your quads? Your cardiovascular health? How much protein you ate for breakfast? Your body is the easy part of the equation. It’s really all a mind game, darling. Let this sink in for a moment and you’ll really start to move. You think your burning leg muscles are your biggest challenge? It’s really the power of mind, spirit and heart that will power you through the rough spots.
You want to sprint that hill you think you can’t sprint? Change your mind. You want to change your relationship? Your job? Your eating habits? Change your mind. You want to change your life? Change your mind.
7. Lead with your heart.
Proper running posture is important. Head up, shoulders back, chest high, arms pumping front to back to propel you forward. What this really means is leading with your heart.
Your heart will lead you into things, and if you pay close attention it is your heart that will lead you out. When your legs give out, and your mind is tired, when you feel like you were crazy to ever begin it is your heart – your perfect courageous heart – that will carry you home.
8. Do it in the rain.
Last week I was already running when the rain began in earnest. It was the last hill of the last mile of my run. Big fat drops hit the pavement and bounced back up against my legs. Mist rose off the road and swirled around my legs. And even though my heart was pounding and my legs burned, a grin spread across my face. I swear my heart cracked wide open in that one, perfect moment.
There’s a whole lot you should experience in the rain. Singing. Dancing. Making Love. The rain brings life. Wakes us up. Quenches our thirst. We spend a whole lot of time and money trying to keep from getting wet. Sometimes we need to just get over it and let the rain drench us until we realize what a miracle we are living.
9. Be your own motivation
There will come a day when you are running up hill. Against the wind. Your phone will run out of juice and you'll have no tunes to pump you up. A car will drive by and drench you from head to toe with dirty water from a giant puddle. You’ll get a big ole’ stitch in your side. It will appear the world is working against you. There will be nothing on the outside that you can pull from to power you through this. The only thing you have is you. You’ll have to stoke your inner fire from gut to heart until you feel your intensity build from within.
There will always be moments where external motivation dries up. Know that everything you need to cross the finish line is already inside of you.
10. Know when you have something to prove.
Sometimes in life you’re chasing the burn, other times you’re aiming for ease. On Monday you may be sprinting for first place and on Tuesday praying just to finish. Do you run through that painful stitch in your side or stop and lean into it until it eases? Do you push yourself to go faster, longer, harder – or do you just satisfy yourself with moving the way your body wants to move? Do you keep fighting the fight, or just curl up with your tears and some hot tea?
Sometimes you have something to prove, sometimes you don’t. It is helpful, before you begin, to know which space you’re in.
11. Be your own DJ.
I always exercised to music with an edge. White Zombie. Nine Inch Nails. Eminem. This summer I made my customary soundtrack and hooked up my headphones, ready to rumble. But something was missing, the music was not connecting me to the experience. So I switched it up, entirely. Twangy country mixed with Coldplay? Vintage Shakira following Tegan and Sara? Whatever, it works. Everything in life needs a soundtrack. Your monotonous desk job. Your workout. That crazy clusterfuck of love triangle in which you’ve entangled yourself. The right soundtrack makes everything flow – it clears your mind, energizes your body, heals your broken heart.
Don’t be afraid to edit your soundtrack (read: friendships, lovers, office space, the voices in your head) as needed. Life does not always call for the exact same beat.
12. One foot in front of the other.
Running, love affairs, building a business, healing a heart, shattering expectations, climbing mountains, getting your groove on, surrendering with grace. First place finish or slow and steady – the process is the same. In the end it’s always a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, until you reach your home.
Ultimately it always comes down to this: it’s just one foot in front of the other, baby, all the way home.