We returned from an amazing two week trip in Europe this week, and along with some bargain-priced Desigual dresses from Barcelona and Hunter boots from Scotland, I brought a very sore back (apparently, walking 20,000 steps per day with a bag on my shoulder and a heavy camera requires training, oops). I know that the worst thing you can do for a sore back is languish in sedentary pity party mode, so I have taken some tentative runs.
I find that the challenging training days – when I am hurt, or feeling blah – are an excellent chance for me to practice mindfulness. As I push through mental and physical discomfort and self-doubt, I think of the kids and adults I coach, who have real and/or perceived challenges to overcome in order to reach their goals. The tough days remind me of how much I take for granted on the good days. But even on the days that I feel great physically, and mentally motivated and focused, those first couple of miles of each run can feel awkward or downright uncomfortable. Now, with my back issue (which includes a sore hip flexor), I am even more uncomfortable – which means, I have an even better opportunity to dig into my mindfulness and observe my body’s and mind’s reaction with curiosity.
Today I ran 6.1 miles, the most I have run since before my trip to Europe. (My longest run there was 5 miles). The first 2 or so miles, I ran slowly and paid attention to the sensations in my problem areas, ready to slow down to a walk if needed, especially on the hills. I felt better than I had on the same course 2 days ago, so this time I didn’t walk at all. I noticed the beautiful scenery around me, the perfect weather, and kept tuning into my body. Somewhere around mile 2, I realized that I felt pretty good. My problem areas were present but I didn’t feel any pain or discomfort, it was more of a “I’m your sore muscle and I am here” feeling. I settled into a rhythm, with my breathing and stride finding their comfortable rhythm. At one point, it occurred to me that although I had been piping music through my headphones, I hadn’t heard a single song. I was completely focused on what was going on in my body and in my surroundings (birds, farmland, uneven surfaces, occasional cars), and Coldplay had become part of the background. I was in The Zone.
I see a lot of similarities between running and other life situations/projects. Because I quit drinking about 8.5 months ago, formalizing my years-in-the-making journey into the recovery world and process, the similarities between running and sobriety are in the forefront for me. Those first few days, weeks, months, when you first stop drinking are like those first couple of miles of running. You are moving your body and mind and heart out of the comfort or habitual routine and into new, uncomfortable, awkward movement. You are changing your physical environment to rid it of the triggering substances, and changing your routine to avoid the temptation of acquiring alcohol. I often say, the hardest part of running (or any athletic event) is showing up to the start line. When you admit you have a problem, and then start taking the steps to purge your environment and schedule and social circle of triggers, you are basically showing up to the start line. Then, as you go through your first days and weeks and months, and sucky life situations, and dealing with people and circumstances you used to handle with some liquid lube, it’s just like those first 1-3 miles of running. You may say, “This sucks, I suck, I’m calling it quits, it’s not a good day, tomorrow will be better, I give up.”
But you push through those first few miles. If you have been reading about running, or you have runner friends who give you advice (and you actually listen), or you watch those inspiring YouTube videos, you know that even experienced marathoners struggle with the first few miles. Turns out you aren’t a loser, you aren’t a failure destined for couch surfing – you are human (and in my case, you’re almost 47 years old, which I know is a factor). So, you push through the suckiness and you notice it and you shift your focus to your environment, to your breathing, to your posture, to the fact your muscles are getting looser and you’re starting to glisten.
I know that in the recovery world, the more traditional thinking has been, stop drinking and/or using and for now, keep smoking and stuffing your face with crappy food and stay on the couch, whatever it takes, but don’t use. I personally think that this approach isn’t the best, and while I won’t go into it for now (that’s a whole other blog topic), I do think that as I mentioned in this previous blog entry, when you let go of something in your life, a vacuum is created, and it will be filled. I think exercise is a great vacuum-filler and specifically because of what I am talking about today, I find that exercise (in this case, running) can give someone in recovery a valuable way to relate to themselves and to the world, as we acquire new self-awareness and learn new tools. More pointedly – if I am trying to quit drinking, and I find myself constantly back on day 1, when I pair my sobriety efforts with a running plan, I see the parallels. I see that in the same way that I grew my grit muscle by building up my mileage, not quitting even when my brain was trying to convince me that Today Is Not The Day; shopping for new running shoes because tools really do matter; seeking out runners and asking for help; focusing on just getting to that next tree (instead of worrying about mile 5 or 15) – changing my life by acknowledging and addressing a progressive and potentially fatal problem/disease, is really not that different. And requires the same grit and seriousness and determination and commitment, as training for a 5k or a marathon.
Just show up. And keep moving forward, to the next tree. Tune in. Adjust as needed. Get to the next tree. Focus on your breathing. Ask for help and accept it when it comes (because it will). Drink water. Get the right tools for you. Stay in your lane and in your present mile. Celebrate milestones (personal records, finish lines, anniversaries). Help others who aren’t as experienced as you.
The rewards are incredible. Every medal started with the sucky first miles (steps). Every person who has racked up months and years of sobriety had the same sucky first miles (steps). Just keep showing up, and moving forward.