An ambivalent athlete

I had always been a reluctant jogger. I was reluctant to do much of anything but read books from the moment I first was able to do so until the age of 30. Last one chosen in gym class, lagging behind even those who had walked half the annual 12-minute run in high school…. the whole classic nerd-girl story. The tribal identifications of adolescence followed me far into adulthood and long outlived their usefulness–if ever they had any.

Only the threat of constant physical pain (an RSI of my arms) that showed every sign of lasting indefinitely drove me to running. When you’re in mysterious and debilitating pain, people have all sorts of ideas for you: giving up coffee, or all cooked food, sleeping on magnets and buckwheat pillows, getting serious exercise.

I ran faithfully, daily, reluctantly, with teeth clenched. It seemed to help slightly with my overall pain. I would start at 3 minutes, slowly working my way to 4, then 5, then 6…. Never running more than 12 or 15 minutes, and feeling like I was pushing a dead weight every step of the way. I had to listen to books on tape to convince myself that I wasn’t fatally wasting time that should be spent learning something. I started with Beowulf–I have such a vivid memory of running around Withrow Park constantly having to stop and rewind the tape because I’d lost the line of the battle action or the thread of the speeches in the feasting hall.

A bout of foot pain (to add to the arm pain) put me off running, and I swore I wouldn’t begin running again until I could feel the pleasure of moving forward in space: using the power and strength of my own body to fly. It sounded like a great idea, a theoretically possible thing. But does it really exist in experience?

Meanwhile I’d begun a Feldenkrais training program. My foot pain cleared up; the original arm pain finally began to ease. I was slowly learning that the interior experience of my body and the experience of relating to the world at large could be every bit as engaging and rewarding as reading about things very far away, in foreign languages, in the past, in distant realms of philosophical abstraction.

Periodically, I’d try running again. Once or twice I’d go out, trying out a new approach–“what if I don’t care how far I run, as long as I run as fast as I can? Maybe only for a block?” “What if I chose a goal I could see visually, the top of the Broadway Bridge, and actually cared about reaching it?” I had a taste or two of really moving forwards in space, I began to be able to taste what it might feel like to run with the whole body cooperating in moving forwards instead of 9/10ths of it holding me back.   I could start at 5 minutes instead of 3. I noticed what a difference it made to run with my head up and free, eyes able to focus on a distant goal.

But it still wasn’t enough of an experience of moving forwards in space to convince me to run regularly again.

A couple more years of Feldenkrais went by and one day, after an intense month of training in Feldenkrais and at least six months of not having run once, I set out to run. This time in Regina, where there are no distant goals you can focus your eyes on (it’s that flat…). I started running, and I kept on running, and kept on running. I looked at my watch. Five minutes had passed. Ten. It was growing clear that I wasn’t going to have to stop. My body wasn’t going to make me. No exhaustion, no misery. A few mild cramps came and went in vulnerable places. I stopped after 15 minutes or so.

I didn’t really run again for about a year or two. What’s a person to do with running when she can just run as far as she wants? How did this happen? And what would I do now, if I didn’t want to run every single day (“because it’s good for me”) and if I didn’t have the structure of gradually pushing myself to add one more minute, and one more minute…?

At the end of July this year, I was doing a little “strengths survey” on the web. I found myself choosing “unlike me” or “very unlike me” for only one kind of statement: statements about setting and accomplishing goals. I saw the pattern, though the survey results were too polite to highlight this for me (choosing to feed me back what I’d scored high one, not what I’d scored low on)–and was not pleased. Time to have a goal and accomplish it.

A goal, a goal: any goal would do. I found a 10K race coming up Sept. 7 and voila–a goal.

I hadn’t tested my magic Feldenkrais running ability lately, and was nervous to do so.  Maybe I was only imagining that running incident in Regina. An experience you become familiar with in Feldenkrais is that one clear experience that runs contrary to the weight of received opinion (“runners don’t build up endurance by lying on the floor, rolling around, and never breaking a sweat!!”) is not enough to change a person’s way of thinking.

On my first run, I suffered a little to get to 12 minutes. The second a few days later I pushed to 15. For the third, the next week, I measured distances on a map and chose a route that would be 3K. The focus of getting to a goal helped, and the cramps that had set in at 3 minutes before now held off until 15 or so. It took me 22 minutes. I realized too that the first five minutes of this route were uphill (unlike anything in Regina)–so an explanation for why the first five minutes weren’t as easy as Regina, where nothing is uphill!

Despite years of learning to value the process and not the goal in Feldenkrais, I was still basking in the buzz that comes from doing at least 50% more every time I ran compared to the time before. I could simply decide before running each time how far I was going to run, or how long, and carry it out, not stopping because I had to, but because I’d decided to. Is this what that Feldenkrais idea of freedom from compulsion is?

In a sense it puzzled me. Like so much in doing Feldenkrais: it seems to go so strongly against the whole system of beliefs we’ve built about strength and endurance and training in physical performance. I wasn’t too surprised that it should be possible to run farther with less energy expenditure–after all, if movement is organized so that forces pass easily along a balanced and aligned skeleton, nothing getting caught up in a knee joint (for example) operating at an uncomfortable extreme, creating heat and injury to the tissues, then the biomechanical efficiency makes it possible to do more with less effort. Strength through alignment as it were. But then what is this feeling of being able to run however long I feel like it? How can hours of gentle movements on the floor improve cardio fitness or endurance?

I spent some time in running experimenting with altering the movement of my feet or knees, or the tilt and bobbing of my head, or the movement of the hips and shoulders. All that kind of stuff we explicitly experiment with in Feldenkrais lessons.  I also noticed my body seemed to be experimenting with some things I wasn’t so conscious of controlling: reaching and backing off of the moment of feeling short of breath, or the moment when the complex balance of heat exchange meant I had to pull off my T-shirt or put up my hair.

I also found a delightful feature of the organization of movement. I was used to thinking of the important category of timing of skeleton moved by muscle: a small difference in timing of the movement of knee and hip (for example) can make the difference between comfortable feet and sore feet, and I was fascinated in my Feldenkrais practice by the way a person’s musculoskeletal organization could make a whole pace or rhythm of movement natural to them, or compulsive, or invisible. I began to find a whole different level of coordination in timing: a particular timing or organization of movement could invite the softer-yet tissues, the fascia and fat and skin that the brain doesn’t control with motor commands, to function as a smoothly-operating part of the whole, not jiggling or jerking uncomfortably with clashes of timing. The vision of dollar signs that comes with inventing the true end of cellulite! If only those same people who are psychologically or culturally inclined to experience dread of cellulite could be induced into the years of patient and playful self-exploration that it takes to reach this point!

I read somewhere in Moshe’s writings the idea that timing is also a matter of timing the consciously-controlled movement to the timing of the vegetative processes. Timing movement and breath is the most obvious form of this, but my jiggling thighs were another example.

I had grand plans in the last week before the race to run an actual 10K on my own before race day’s required 10K. And one thing after another got in the way, and race day arrived with nothing longer than 8K in 64 minutes under my belt. I began to worry that my partner’s cautionary doubts were reasonable. Was I crazy to have decided that my tenth run would be 10K?? As we arrived at the site I considered switching to the children’s 1K fun run. I got down on my hands and knees and did some of the ATM moves that most quickly and directly create for me the feeling of light legs lifted with the cooperation of the length of the whole spine. Someone rushed over to see if I was ill. “No! Just warming up!” I found some women near the back of the pack who could fill me in on how badly I’d have to do to come in last. I decided that 1 hour 20 minutes was a reasonable expectation, based on my 64-minute 8K.

I quickly fell somewhere back in the pack. I was astonished at the speed other people had. I knew part of the drama of physical engagement for me was coping with coming in last. Last picked in gym. Last back after the mile run. And today I was sure to be last in at the end of the race!

At the halfway point, I commented to the water-people that I should get all the remaining water, since I was surely the last person by. They told me I wasn’t, but I didn’t believe them. I began to relieve the extreme boredom of doing the same thing over and over again for coming up on an hour by giving myself vivid memories of ATM lessons I’ve done, the most luxurious and powerfully organized feelings I’d remembered having. Anything so as to feel something in my body other than the monotony of the run.

This tendency to be easily bored with physical activity had long been one of the biggest barriers for me to having a physically active life. Feldenkrais has been the greatest antidote to this. Who knew there was so much to pay attention to, to experiment and play with, in the sensations of the body moving in space? As one of my teachers said in the training, standing in line at the grocery store is never again boring after doing a Feldenkrais training.

Once I passed 8K, I figured I was winning no matter what happened, because I was running farther than I’d ever run before. At the 9K mark I turned up the speed a little–I could do anything for 1K, I figured. The people who had finished the race 30-40minutes earlier were coming back to cheer us stragglers on. I sprinted with impatience the last stretch. 1 hour 12 minutes, 138th out of 155. Not last; not in the 99th percentile.


Postscript, Summer 2004

This bit of writing, and the whole idea and experience of running that is behind it, has always felt unfinished. In some sense, of course, that is life: narrative asks for beginnings, middles, and ends; life continues, carries on, cycles around to where it was before and moves on to where it has never imagined it might go, in ways that are only vaguely approximated by the pattern of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

But it feels unfinished in the sense that I feel always vaguely like I’m going to start running again, and never do start running again, and of course it would be too simple for my baroque brain to believe that that’s just because of something as ordinary as a lack of self-discipline.

Today in Kingston, Olga and I took our good friend Forest for a walk at Lamoine. Dogs are a joy – I mean quite concretely and literally, they embody and live out joy in a way we generally refuse to past the age of 6 or 8, when we’ve been disciplined and socialized into sitting still and not making too much noise. Dogs don’t mind feeling silly and childish and just running like mad in circles for no reason but that it feels really good to do it. So at the end of this walk I was inspired by Forest and ran in short bursts, for no reason, but that it looked fun and was fun.

In the car driving out of Lamoine, we passed someone jogging towards us on the side of the road. She was the very picture of running-as-tortured-obligation. From the slow, vaguely hopeless way she dragged herself along, to the unhappy expression on her face: this was the very picture of running as I’d once experienced it. It triggered the question for me: in what sense is “going for a run” ever something that makes evolutionary and functional sense for the human being? Is there any context in the evolution of our form, our structure, our psychology, in which just running for, say, an hour at a time is something it has made sense or that we have chosen to do? Perhaps the Masai migrate by running, unlike every other human group on the planet, who walk to migrate. The marathon was created by rather specific social and political forces, a necessity of politics and warfare that required communication as quickly as possible across long distances – but what is the story behind their not using horses for this?

Running is just one particular socially acceptable way we have now to counteract the evolutionarily novel situation we find ourselves in today by force of our economic and technical and cultural situation: most of us spend most of our time sitting and doing not much but thinking and talking for a living, in confined spaces, where we barely get up and hobble from our desks to the water cooler. And we feel desperately like we have to do something to counteract this. So in those precious few hours we have left after work at work and work at home, we lace up our running shoes and all try to replicate the achievements of the marathoner at Marathon. Despite everything I say here about what’s not natural in evolutionary terms, in the big picture, this is in a sense very evolutionarily normal: faced with novel circumstances unlike anything we have experienced before as a species, we try out novel techniques of dealing with them. That’s what evolution is all about.

I think I’ve particularly got into running at moments in my life when I’ve felt driven to change: something drastic has to shift, I have to move a great distance. Running is like a symbolic, or an expressive act. I create in my body and physical experience a perfect picture of the movement I need in my life. Each round has been shorter, sharper, more focused than the last, as I’ve become more efficient over the years at recognizing that aha, I’m at one of those moments when I need to make a drastic shift from one life project to the next one.

But now I feel ready to run like Forest. Because I’ve been cooped up inside for too long; only now am I allowed out for a walk. Because it feels great to get all those great big muscles working and to feel the day’s air rushing past. To wake up and tire myself out all at the same time. I can run for 10K if I want to; I don’t particularly want to. I think it’s time to take up sprinting!

P.S. There is an absolutely wonderful moment in a Carol Shields story somewhere, where she comments ironically on the apparent revelation, the intensely personal moment of self-discovery, that a young woman somewhere in rural Ontario (in her story) is living through — and how the character in the story is quite unaware that this moment of discovery is everywhere in the culture at large, is coming at her without her knowing it from New York, Los Angeles, via Toronto… I laughed then when, after writing these last paragraphs in the summer of 2004, I noticed something about the Nike ads in the subway. Last summer’s Nike event in cities around the world: a 10K run, featuring some plodding Joe who was chosen to show that anyone can run 10K in a casual kind of way, with minimal training. This summer’s Nike event: a sprint.

Ah! The illusion of individuality, of immunity from the winds of advertising culture. Are we all pawns in the end?