Yesterday, I ran 10 kilometers as a practice on the trails where we will be running ‘the race’ on 19th September. People in the group had signed up for the mock trail run. The bus chugged slowly from Bangalore towards Srirangapattana. It took three hours to get to the trail course. I am not sure that I sensed people’s anxieties about the mock run through the bus journey. Obviously, people were variously excited, nervous and anxious about this run partly because there was such a build-up to it and we had run many difficult courses during the training programme to become able enough to run alongside the Kaveri canals.
I was wearing blinkers of my own, trying to disconnect myself from everyone in the group because I felt I did not belong here in the first place and that my running was my own thing for today. In fact, I was not really thinking too much about the mock run and my performance during the run beforehand. When the run finally began, at about 8:30 AM, I was a bit unsure as I started out. I was supposed to run 8 kilometers as part of my new customized training programme but I decided to defy it for once and run the full 10k to see how much I could do. When I woke up from the bed in the morning at 3 AM, the area around my hip bone on the right was sore and stiff, an ailment that has been there for some years now and it comes as easily as it goes. I had decided at that moment that if the hip starts to trouble too much during the run, I would stop running and not fret and fume but use the pain and limitation as an opportunity to get into a regime of strengthening my glute muscles as Pree the Physio has been advising. I had decided that I would go easy, even though the schedule said that I was to do a tempo run i.e. run by keeping a certain timing as a goal like every 1k in 8 minutes (my pace, roughly, these days).
When the run finally began at 8:30 AM, I was unsure. People whizzed past me in a jiffy and as usual, I found myself running all by myself with a few people ambling ahead of me. I decided to stick to a 3:1 run-walk ratio through the run, telling myself that I was starting from ground zero and that I need to develop my running technique as if I am starting from scratch. In the humdrum of the un-sureness of my uncertainty and the rumblings and vagaries of my mind, I decided early on that I would simply enjoy this run as if this were one more of those runs and trails that you go through in your life. The stiffness and soreness in my hip bone had melted away by the time I started. Yet, I decided to go easy because I was aware that I was very anxious in my muscles and my mind. Perhaps the un-sure-ness was the cause of the anxiety. Moreover, I have RSI where the muscles in my shoulder, forearm and shoulder blades region have become stiff and entangled owing to poor blood circulation which in turn has been off-setted by poor breathing patterns, anxiety and tension. Consequently, I have a lot of work and un-work to do when I run because the RSI affected region of my body begins to untangle and unwind as I run and causes immense discomfort at times. The un-entangling and unwinding happens because as I run, the blood circulation, the air and the breath begin to do their work through the betweens and insides of the muscles and body region. This causes me a lot of discomfort and anxiety, and I have to stay alert that I do not compound this anxiety by running faster and faster. The anxiety can be tamed when you tame your pace and run in the face of anxiety where you know the anxiety is there, it may stay or it go away, it is impermanent and that what you are expected to do is to run despite the anxiety because run is what you must. Even as I write these words, repeatedly, I know that my writing is futile. It is futile because what I write may sound good and beautiful in words but it is not so easy to accomplish in practice. There are days and moments when you want that damn anxiety to go away fast. But it does not. There are also days and moments when you get bogged down because of the anxiety and your mind takes the driver’s seat and determines how and how much you can run. And then there are also those days and moments when you can run despite the anxiety being there, where you become the external observer of yourself and your reactions and you continue to do what you must because what you are doing is your faith, your calling or the reason for your existence in this moment and that if you go through this moment, the chances are that you will surpass your own self and even surprise yourself!
In the face of anxiety then, stay steady, go slow, keep the pace.
The Kaveri trail is a nice one. You run parallel to the canal, between bulls and cows and bullock carts, amidst men and women doing their chores along the waters, and next to the paddy and the sundry growing in the fields. I can’t say this was all divinity for me throughout the 10k because it is easy to lose consciousness of the surroundings and the people around you when you are wrestling with your mind. The moment I decided that I would enjoy this run as if this were one more of the runs that I have to go through and get past, it also dawned on me that the notion of a ‘race’ is essentially false or futile for me. It is false or futile because for me, every run, every practice session, is what I have to give my best to. Giving my best in anticipation of a race is useless for me, for the moment, because ‘a race’ is only another event, another experience just like each workout session is like another event, another experience. For some of those who train regularly, races have other meanings. Maybe races are like goalposts for them, something to achieve, put behind and then move on to other challenges. I don’t know …
Having realized at that moment that each workout is an experience, an opportunity to not only perfect your running but also an opportunity to get to know yourself better and to surpass yourself, I realized the value of regularity and of practice. This season, I missed some of the runs and workouts because I was working on deadlines and academic papers and I felt that instead of going for that workout session on that morning, I would be better off staying back and getting some writing done and out. I now know that that was an erroneous error because when you run, the experience has the ability to do several remarkable things for you. It can do magic for your mind and your body and there are times when you can transpose the experiences from running on to other aspects of your life. How that happens, I swear I cannot write in words – it is difficult to explain immediately. In retrospect and with time, I may able to put words to unconscious acts.
The other thing is that regularity and practice help you towards developing and perfecting your running technique and pace. Technique and pace, as much as they can spring out of instinct, spontaneity and impulse, also need regularity and practice. It is just like faith or meditation or cooking or writing or coding where the activity in question develops as much from spontaneity, instinct and impulse as from regularity and practice – that the two are not incompatible as I was making them out to be. Technique is essential for any skill or craft because technique allows you to stay steady and to think through when you waver or when there are vagaries or uncertainties or challenges or puzzles. Technique also has an element of sublimity, a certain soothing effect where the mundane does not become boring, but that the mundane can be meditative and delivering. More importantly, technique is a state of mind. You can get locked in your technique to the extent that it becomes rigid and limiting. You can pride yourself so much on your technique that you do not realize that there is always scope and room for experimentation, innovation, instinct and errors. Your technique can be both limiting and freeing depending on how you take to life and your skill/craft. And, you will never know everything fully, completely because there are always mysteries and unknowns …
I ran the first 5k with some amount of difficulty and some amount of ease. In the second half of the run, I drank too much water which began to show its effects in terms of slowing me down. I also began to start worrying about how I was doing on speed and timing – will the people behind me overtake me? In the midst of all these mind games, I decided that I would stick to my 3:1 run-walk routine and that even if my feet or my mind tire me out during the 3 minute run time, I will still keep running and will slow down if I need to. In retrospect, I think I probably did much better from 6k onwards because even though my speed, timing and pace were all over the place, I managed to finish in the face of uncertainties and unease. To finish despite the unease is a great kick I must admit. You don’t realize the kick until much later but when you do, believe you in me, it makes you more sublime and accepting of everything around you. Again, to say it in so many words is much easier than the experience. But when you go through it, it will change some part of you for some time to come!
Having finished the 10k was a psychological plus. It meant that there is at least some amount of distance that I can cover somewhat more easily from now on. Couple of challenges remain. The first is that you can quickly decide to move to the next level of say a half marathon to test your limits. The other challenge, which requires more patience, is to get better with your 10k by practicing for some more time and develop the technique so that when you have to move to the next level, you are somewhat more equipped and yet, there is a challenge because your equipment, your feet and your mind have to be stretched, tried, error-ed and perfected when you run longer distances. The longer distance is not simply a challenge or a point to be proven – it is a metaphor that sometimes, the courses of life are long, arduous and so tough that they appear to be never-ending – the trick is to stay steady, keep the pace, breathe easy and move on. The finish, which is momentary before the next challenge, will be life transforming!
I realized this morning, in retrospect, that I am not training to become an accomplished runner. That is not even my goal for now and I believe for some time to come. But running is good because it gives me those experiences from which I can better my other passions, crafts and relationships. I will run longer distances, I will run those races and will run in those places which I cherish or desire. But none of these will be to become a master runner – they will be because running is a calling, a choosing, an experience, an opportunity to connect with myself and the life around moi!