Friday, January 6, 2012

My Transcendent Moments as a Runner

In Amby Burfoot’s book The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, there is a chapter titled “The Transcendent Moments of a Runner” which captivated me. He described his six favorite “precious” and “emotional” moments, including running at sunrise, the first race, runner’s high/runner’s “mellow,” cresting heartbreak hill, running with a partner, and slapping hands with kids at the side of the road.

Reading through this chapter, my mind became consumed with my personal experience as a runner. I have had many “transcendent” moments and I reveled at how precious they were to me, even though some of them may not have made it into the pages of this book. But of course, how could they? Certainly runners share many similarities, but within that realm of similarities, there exists much variation. In fact, two people can be running side by side on the same course, at the same time of day, wearing the same shoes and still, they will have two very unique experiences. If we were all exactly the same, think of the boredom that would ensue. So, in appreciation of our differences, here are my favorite “transcendent moments as a runner.”

Runner’s “Mellow” or When My Body Creates Cannabinoids

Burfoot distinguishes between the great but rarely-occurring “runner’s high” and the frequently-occurring “mellowness” that runner’s feel post-run. While I have experienced the runner’s high a few times in my life as a runner, the happiness that I feel after almost every run is so special to me because it is a constant reward for my physical labor. I do not have to wait for everything to magically “fall into place” to feel good—it just happens after most runs, even the easy runs! I do notice that after long runs, however, I feel more than happy. I feel euphoric. I find myself returning home with a probably annoyingly-giddy attitude, though my Husband never seems to mind.

This happiness, or euphoria is our body’s natural response to exercise. I recently read an article that cited a study which found that it may not be endorphins that cause our good feeling post-workout, but instead it is our body creating cannabinoids (yes, like cannibus) to make us feel “high.” Go, body!

Running with Buddies

The people with which I run are more than just “training partners,” they are my buddies. Something special happens when you run with someone else—it’s as if you are immediately bonded for life. The time I spend running with “buddies” is so special to me for so many reasons, but most important to me is the “realness” that exists. When you run with another person, you can’t be fake. You can’t hide beneath your running clothes. It is impossible to lie about your distance or speed. The makeup is off. You get sweaty. You get winded—sometimes you feel like you can’t take another step. And at some point, one of you is going to hack, spit, blow a snot rocket, fart or maybe even vomit. So sure, you might have a best friend that knows all of the intimate details of your life but I bet your best friend has never seen you blow a snot rocket.

Running buddies see the real you and keep coming back for more. There is only one explanation for this—bonding (or insanity). When you run with another person, you are doing more than just training for your next race. Running buddies tell jokes, give advice, share food and water and in some cases, running buddies may even BE your best friend, or at least act like one once a week. Think about it—a group run is perhaps one of very few moments during the week when you are with another living, breathing human being and there is no TV or any other distraction. Your focus is on your running and on each other and when you make it to the end of the run, you have each other to thank.

Trail Running

The very nature of trail running (pun intended) is transcendent. There is something almost magical about running in nature and enjoying the surrounding beauty, so much so that I often find myself forgetting that I am running harder than I ever do on pavement. From the sweet smell of wet leaves to the joyful view of a sun dappled tree canopy, there is much to appreciate when you are running trails.

One of my favorite trails takes me from an open field with a gravel path to a multi-track packed dirt path with lots of leaves and roots, and eventually into a totally shaded area with a single-track path of soft pine needles. There can be no boredom with trail running—from the changing seasons to the various natural areas, not to mention the wildlife, one can encounter on a single run—nature ensures this. There is only the glory of a challenging run in a beautiful environment, which is why I never feel better than I feel both during and after completing a good, hard run through the woods, around the lake or on a mountain.

Achieving Personal Greatness

Notice I did not title this section “Achieving a PR.” Achieving our personal best—whatever is most important to you as an individual—is often much greater than simply running as fast as you have ever run before. In fact, I believe achieving our smallest goals can be even more significant than meeting those massive ones. Of course, runners are always hoping to improve our speed, our distance, our form or our strength. And on those occasions when our training pays off and we achieve a hard fought goal, it is no doubt one of the most gratifying moments we can have. But I would argue that it isn’t those large “bests” that get runners to lace up their shoes and sacrifice day after day—it is the motivation to achieve those smaller, individualized goals.

When I look at my overall running career, what makes me most proud aren’t just the fastest race times or the longest distances I’ve run, but instead the challenging runs in a downpour, conquering the massive hills at my favorite park with fierce determination, and leaving everything on the track where I do my speedwork. These are the battles that we face daily. When you achieve a weight loss goal or successfully complete a killer workout, you have fought against your biggest enemy—yourself—and won. It is amazing to feel self-pride and it is perhaps what keeps us motivated to keep pushing ourselves to become the best version of ourselves. Nothing is more important than that.

Conquering THE Race

Most runners enter races at some point in their life and we “race” for a variety of reasons—to win, to PR, to prove something to ourselves, to motivate ourselves in training, or maybe because someone signed you up unwillingly! And if you race, then you know what I mean by “conquering THE race.” It’s the most meaningful or the most memorable race that you’ve run. It could be your first race or the one you did last weekend. It’s the race where you challenged yourself and succeeded by finishing, or maybe the race that you received your first age group award, or ran for your favorite cause. It can be a 5K or a marathon because it’s not the distance that matters to you as much as it’s what finishing meant to you. You proved something to yourself—YOU DID IT!

I have two of these significant races—my first half marathon, the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini-Marathon in 2009 and my first trail race, the Otter Creek Trail Race in 2011. Finishing the Mini-Marathon was emotional for me because I was running to raise money for Kosair Children’s Hospital and I was so touched by the individual stories of the children and their families that were helped by the Hospital. Also, finishing this race was a huge personal achievement. Though I had been running for more than 10 years at that time, I never imagined that I was capable of actually running the half marathon distance. It was proof to myself that I did have discipline, dedication and endurance, and that was and still is important to me.

My first trail race was another huge personal achievement and the most exciting race in which I have ever participated. I am passionate about trail running and to actually run in a trail race was the pinnacle of my running career.

Whatever your Race is, it will always have significance to you—and not just as a runner. And when you remember it, you’ll always feel the same rush that you felt when you finished it.

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