I run to understand my body.
My first foray into successful athleticism, and I think it all has to do with my starting the practice of yoga, which sounds cheesy, which sounds like something my yoga instructor would say after she says something like, “trust yourself and your breath in this moment.” She will pause, following with, “Oh that sounds cheesy, doesn’t it…?” Because these things do sound cheesy, like when someone tells you finding religion brought them out of darkness, or when you hear that anything is possible if you try. These things are the bread and butter of earlier generations—inspiration and mindfulness, coming to terms with fundamental flaws—things the millennial mind is trained to immediately distrust, to dissect to disembodied parts that, on their own, expose their raw, visceral undercurrent: a problem with systems, the status quo, not a problem with self. Never trust what works for another because you are your own person. Standardization is the enemy.
But I still find the statement to be undeniably true, that yoga is the culprit behind my newfound understanding. Spending thirty to forty minutes per day on a mat, breathing and lifting your body in a conscious way—just writing that seems absolutely silly to me, but the takeaways from it are being applied extrinsically to my worldview.
The perfect example of the kind of mindfulness I am moving toward again involves the foil of my young, lean, fatally beautiful friends. At a party, I keyed them onto the fact that I owed a lot of my recent success in understanding my body to the practice of yoga. I went on to talk about poses I liked, ones I struggled with, and any that I might be working toward. This last bunch piqued their interest; I told them the poses, showed them some ideal shapes from the internet. Do you know what a few of them immediately tried to do? They got up, walked to an open space, and, with little to no understanding of the nature of the pose, the proper form, started trying the poses themselves! I feel lame using an exclamation point but I just had to! I’ll use another one!
Anybody who has attended even one or two classes taught by a mindful instructor knows that even basic poses need to be worked toward. Further, the whole practice of yoga seems to hinge around this idea that it isn’t about hitting the pose—there’s so much more going on subliminally: the stepping stones that lead up it, the support of the breath, the connection with the ground, playing with the idea of finding what feels right, etc.
My herculean friends failing crow pose was really revelation one in my self-discovery, (I’m getting back to the topic, I promise) that being older, or, perhaps for those who find that being 26 is not yet old, that starting to bloom into athletic ability later than most, has made me appreciate the process that leads to an accomplishment, whereas my athletic-from-birth friends care more about being able to do the physical feat itself. Just listening to them, or any young athlete for that matter, is testament enough of that fact: when they talk about working out, they primarily find interest in muscle growth, (“getting swole,” as we say), I almost never hear a progress report, just the finished result—“I can bench X now,” or “Today I squatted X pounds. I was so vascular after. It was insane.”
The common variable here is X, when all I seem to care about now is A-W. So it was tonight during my run, I stopped caring about the distance traveled and focused more on the sensation of the moment. Just like my instructor constantly reminds us that it is not about hitting the pose, I learned to stop caring about the finish line. Perhaps this is the only way someone can run a marathon; I cannot say, since I am far from that milestone still.
The first mile or so was spent acclimating myself to the practice of running. My yoga instructor is, again, inadvertently to blame, since she teaches that paying attention to how your body responds to any form of exercise is paramount. Tonight I was hyperaware of the elegance and quality of my stride, making sure a uniform cadence was achieved in each leg. I also took stock of my breath, yogi’s bread and butter—in through the nose, out through the mouth works best for me while running. My breathing becomes a rhythm to follow, a music that I can align to my cadence (more on that later). The lungs always protest during this first stretch, which is why many never progress further; mine are no exception.
I assessed the way my body was responding to each portion of the run, making small adjustments here and there, trying to isolate problem areas, acknowledge them and thank them, shift the impact. Tonight my obliques were sore from an earlier ab workout, so I paid close attention to my sway as my arms raised and lifted. I could never have gained this level of understanding without yoga.
During the final stretch of my run, a choice had to be made—do I call it a night or do I continue on? My body felt in top form, like it could run the same distance again without too much distress (what was in that naan?!), as slow and graciously as I needed, with as much ease as I could dish out. I decided to take a mini-circuit around my complex as a cool down; there was no need to overdo it anymore that I understood my body. As I passed by my apartment, through the open window I could see my roommate practicing an asana without me—a small source of quiet determination in the premature, voyeuristic April dusk.
I run to acknowledge the ambient world.
It was a very recent discovery, the idea that there might be something to acknowledging my surroundings during a run. In the past, I used the world as a tool to distract my mind from the task at hand, setting up little barriers as ways to make the agony of a run a little easier to bear. An inner monologue would ensue: “Damn it! Pay attention to the cracks on the sidewalk and not the rasp of your breath. C’mon, go! Go!” But in the new era, I’ve learned that just being present in the moment is enough to carry me.
Tonight I made an effort to acknowledge every person I passed. There were a fair share of runners out, all soaking up the cool April air, glad to be off the treadmill and back onto the delightful sidewalk; each were greeted with a wave, though it looked more like the invitation for a high-five. The connection surprised me—many brought their hands up at the same time I did, like we were all congratulating one another for being out there, hard at work. Not everyone returned the wave, however; you can likely guess who refrained. Lone wolf, younger-looking males, all carbon copies of my friends, the finish line consuming them, a personal vendetta against the world, as if wasting energy greeting a fellow jogger would drain them enough to not achieve their best time, were the only ones who accepted my wave, but failed to return their own.
Most of the others, the non-runners, those on walks, perhaps birdwatching, or doing some low-impact cardio, the families with their dogs and perfect nuclear structure, were more than willing to accept a cordiality from a smiling and sweating young adult, who seemed so alive, so fucking excited to be out in the thick of it all. Even the dogs could feel my energy, riffed off it, improvised their own melodies, pulling their chains away from their owners, consumed with the desire to do nothing more than join this kid in his pursuit of freedom.
But not only did I desire to see passing people, but all elements of the world around me. I couldn’t drink it in fast enough—should I focus on the faces in the passing cars or the periwinkle sky? Is that squirrel running on a wire more important than the gentle sway of the branches of the oak tree beyond her? The water or the earth? The clouds or the reflection of the clouds? The cognizance of these things helped settle my body into its routine; it was multitasking that worked. It was as if a small crumb of my brain was able to hold itself onto the correct motion of the run, while the rest of the larger cookie (yes, that is a brain-cookie metaphor) could soak into the land of milk and honey (swish, nailed it) that is not-quite suburban, not-quite urban Columbus, Ohio and really acknowledge the beauty of it all.
I run to feel free.
What are the most important things (meaning literal items) that a runner needs? I’ve often asked myself this question, even during my earlier years when running seemed more a chore than an experience. There aren’t many, which, like yoga, is a reason that I enjoy it so much—there is a lovely lack of rules, equipment, and camaraderie involved to have a good experience in both. The independence is a nice change in my world; my professional life requires a lot of collaboration, and my social life, led by a partner who, as he puts it, “loves activities,” keeps me a fairy busy social butterfly. I’ve boiled down the list of things to a relatively small selection.
Perfect shoes—that’s been a constant over the years. Because I am running with a physical impairment, I need to be ultra-cautious that my feet are properly protected. As a result, I tend to be rather hard on them; to be more insightful, it’s because of the nerve damage I was born with. Numbness is the result, which can make targeting them and isolating the sensation of running, highly important in a runner’s checklist of useful tools to make sure the run remains healthy and safe, a pain (pun unintentional). Before I locked onto the perfect model and make of shoes for my feet, I visited different specialty running stores to have my gait assessed by professionals (this is generally a free service that I would highly recommend for all runners, even those without a disability!).
I also enjoy running with a headband or a bandana, to keep my hair out of the picture. If it’s left to fly around in the breeze, I start to feel self-conscious and worry what others might be thinking or how it might look—I worry too much about my hair and appearance, and I always have. Definitely something that I would like to improve upon in the coming years.
Next, the final point is a point of contention: music, yes or no?
Old Trent would say yes, yes, yes. Music was a way to force a rhythm to the run, to energize the mind through upbeat and inspiring music. Plus, it was a way to make the time go quicker—after a few choruses of any Rihanna song it felt like time was shredding itself to pieces. But to have music means to carry a phone or mp3 player with you, which can weigh you down (am I supposed to believe that a human in the 80s/90s actually ran with a Walkman/cassette player?). Further, it might just be my ears, but I can’t find a pair of lightweight headphones that enjoy staying put. Even when I use my headband as a stabilizer, at least once during every run with music has involved me tinkering with them, one falls loose, or I have to adjust the volume on my phone (gotta crank Robyn all the way up every time she comes on, y’know?).
The moral of the story is that new, 2017 Trent says no, no, no to music. He really wants to say yes, but until he can get a chip planted inside his ears that can wirelessly channel music from the ether, he is out. Wielding a phone on a run, even with the use of armband technology, is still cumbersome, still a source of both physical and mental baggage. A phone bounces in the pocket, or slides down in an armband; if carried by hand, it runs the risk of being dropped and shattered (a millennial nightmare). Music also runs the risk of stopping early—I have a bad habit where, when I listen to a song, I tell myself, “Okay, you can take a small break once the song ends.” Left alone to my own devices, with only my breath and body as a signal, I can train free of the chains of technology.
If I could, I would run stark naked. As a compromise, for the sake of my neighbors and the world at large, I have done away with almost every item I can when I hit the sidewalk—right down to the house key if I can manage it. The ideal run would consist of me wearing my smallest running shorts (with built in protection), or thermal leggings in colder weather, a tank or a thermal top, socks and shoes (the house key left behind if my roommate is going to be home when I return). Basically, I’m like Michael Cera’s character in Juno, sans Tic Tacs.
I mentioned in my first post that, before tonight’s perfect run, before the connection and acknowledgment, I was in the worst mood from a day that didn’t quite go right. From the first stride, I felt all the excess baggage of the day strip itself away. In my barebones gear, my new pair of running shorts I bought on clearance during the winter season, my oldest and most favorite workout tank, and, of course, my trusty Brooks, I was able to appreciate the ambient world around me and begin connecting with the inner workings of my body and mind. So that’s why it all felt so perfect, I think. That I was able to run away from my problems and run into something that I could control completely. Aside from the traffic on the thoroughfare or the coming darkness, I was the master of one: this quiet, intimate moment where I could learn about what it means to be alive in the moment, to escape but be present, to move from a place of connect. To continue, to improve.