Running moment to moment in lane 4

[Warning: A bout of confessional bloggorhea follows. There is a running pay off, though. And maybe other useful things.]

This past fall and winter were rough. When I think of 2010, I see a year that began with disappointment and frustration (following hot on the heels of a less-than-stellar 2009), then had a fabulous high point — a couple of extremely good and gratifying months in early summer — and then began a nosedive in August followed by a flap-rattling death roll through the rest of the year and into this one. The ups and downs (mostly downs) weren’t limited to running — there were work/career goings on, social stuff, financial stuff. You name it. It was a year of extremes in many ways.

While I’d hoped that 2011 would bring instant relief — I don’t know why, since it’s just a calendar page, or dropped Times Square ball, or new crow’s foot, or however you keep score — the hideous blob of sheer misery and distress that was laying waste to my psychic backyard was rapidly advancing toward my mental domicile’s shaky foundation in the new year in a most horrific way.

On this blog I have not made a secret of my history of anxiety, a problem that I still struggle with now. I’ve also got a long history of depression — a constant kind (called dysthymia) which sometimes erupts into major depression (a delightful sequence known as “double depression”). This glowing tinder of seemingly innate unhappiness has become a full on conflagration on several occasions in my life, lasting anywhere from weeks to more than a year. I’d gotten a reprieve for most of the 2000s and thought I was out of the woods. But it was back late last year.

Why did I get depressed this time around? In some ways, it’s an impossible question. Why does anyone get depressed? Normal people — meaning people who are not otherwise vulnerable to depressive states — will get depressed in reaction to some catalyzing event: extreme loss, for example. Again, this is normal. Others, like me, will get knocked slightly off balance by some event that is not on its face disastrous — in my case, it was a couple of things that don’t need detailing here, but [here’s the tie-in] included my stress fracture and subsequent total layoff from running for about 4 months. It’s not an event in particular that’s causing the quick slide down off the mountain. The event may be disappointing, but it’s not the problem. The problem is the reaction to the event — or, really, the chain reaction of mental machinations, all of them harmful in their extremity and breadth, and based on ingrained patterns from previous death spirals, that cranks into motion after that single event.

And what’s feeding that engine of awfulness? For me, it’s anxiety. And feeling bad about the anxiety. Then the anxiety about the anxiety feeds the depression and then the depression, in turn, feeds back into the anxiety in a crescendoing feedback loop. Pretty soon the top flies off your Waring blender of distress (“Hey, what’s that burning smell?”) and before you know it your kitchen walls are covered in the worst parts of yourself.

Holy crap. I finally get this. For some reason, this was the year that I was able to step back and observe what happens. I couldn’t stop it from happening, mind you. But, once things lifted enough for me to think straight, I could somewhat recognize cause-and-effect/effect-and-cause. That small shard of perspective produced a glimmer of hope. That hope got me thinking. The thinking got me reading. The reading got me working.

It’s not fun to be me much of the time. I think I’ve established that. But I will always be me, so I’d better learn how to live with myself. What I suspect needs to happen is that, going forward, I need to focus less on fixing and more on just being aware of the pattern and movement of my own thoughts and feelings, with an aim to get out of my own way. Floating, not flailing. I don’t write all this because I feel sorry for myself. I write it because I’m a slow learner and I hope that someone else can learn from it a little quicker than I have. It’s also nice to share news about things that are working well.

I am now trying some things that are wacky, or at least they are to me. I gave up on psychoanalysis several years ago. I will not take meds for these problems, as that presents a host of other potential problems in the form of side effects and — let’s face it — masking rather than actually addressing what’s going wrong. I am taking a bunch of vitamins and supplements that supposedly help with moods. We’ll see what those do or don’t do. I don’t put a lot of stock in them, but I figure they can’t hurt. I’m off synthetic hormones. I stop at one drink now.

But the heart of everything else I’m doing is a twosome of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and “mindfulness,” areas I only just became aware of quite recently. I so wish my former analyst had looked at me in 1991 and said, “Julie, your habitual thought patterns are toxic and your perceptions are totally distorted. You need CBT for your anxiety and the depression it fosters, not years of analysis from me.” But Freudian analysis is at best a quaintly blinkered belief system and at worst a cult perpetuated by adherents who I believe only have the best of intentions, so I bear them no ill will. But given what I know now, I’m not surprised that our exchange never took a more practical turn.

Okay. So what does any of this have to do with running? Fair question.



Running has given me so much when it’s gone well, but has hurt me so deeply when it hasn’t. Or, rather, it has set me up perfectly to hurt myself deeply. This time around, it lit a fire of depression. When I was limping around with my stress fracture in the fall, my dad, himself a former obsessed marathoner asked, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” By that I think he meant: “Why do you keep making this so important and setting yourself up for a fall in the process?”

The answer to that is because I thought in running I had found a source of pleasure and achievement that I could control. Boy, was I wrong about that! A sane person would have stopped caring so much about it after it went so wrong for so long. But I reacted by stubbornly caring about it even more. I devised new goals, goals that may or may not have been realistic. It doesn’t matter if they were or are. The problem is that I had goals.

Getting better. Changing myself. Fixing what’s wrong. Whether we’re talking about running or about my state of mind, these are all bad goals. They are all about forcing something to happen, denying what’s actually happening, giving potency to something that’s nothing, missing what’s real, and often good.

Edited: One book I’m reading quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

“How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races — the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you’ve ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything you do. You must realize that something has happened to you; that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

One of the wackier things I’m trying — the “mindfulness” part — is meditation. I would like to say that I suck at it. But that would involve a judgment and I’m gathering that the whole point of meditation is to be, not to do. If you’re sitting there meditating and thinking, “I’m not meditating the right way,” you’re lost. You need to just sit there and be. If in one moment you realize that you’re thinking about what to make for dinner, then you’re doing it right; the work lies in the realizing and the accepting, not the thinking or the not thinking. Gaining an awareness of whatever’s going on in your head means you’re on the right track. Awareness of “mistakes” — and refusal to label them as such — is the success, not the failure.

Supposedly meditation can actually change your brain chemistry, affecting key areas like the amygdala, which is our brain’s bus driver for fear reactions (“fight or flight” — the core of all externally expressed anxiety)  and so-called “emotional memory” formation, and which comes into play in conditions like social phobia, depression and other problems that are near and dear to my heart and history. Working with the hypothalamus, the amygdala also regulates some aspects of our nervous system. Read up if you’re interested, since I’m sure I’ll screw something up if I continue here. I found it intriguing enough to pursue in addition to the more directed methods offered by CBT. This book, which was created by some of the authors of this study, in particular has been quite the mind- and eye-opener. Its approach works as well as happy pills, but doesn’t make you fat, dizzy or dullwitted in the process.

But back to running. All this other stuff I’m doing is having an effect on running, which is a welcome, and quite unexpected, side effect. I am starting to naturally run without goals, without expectations and without judgment. This is making running easier in ways I did not expect. For example, I had a very tough track session today. Since it’s unusual, I think Coach Sandra would consider it “proprietary,” so I won’t give details. But there was short stuff (a lot!) followed by semi-short stuff, followed by a long interval that was to be run “all out.”

I had never done this workout before. It frightened me a little, but I went in with an open mind. Stuff that normally would have bothered me didn’t today.

People were wandering chaotically around the track. I like running in lane 4 because it’s closest to 400m (the track in Bronxville is screwy because they shoved it into too-small a space, but the installers chose aesthetics over accuracy for the markers — so no lane is exactly 400m — inner lanes are shorter, outer lanes are longer). I did not let the dawdling interlopers get to me. I ran around them. I did not have to run in lane 4 at all times. Accuracy didn’t matter. The effort is what mattered.

I did not think of the many repeats/rests that lay ahead. I thought only of the one I was doing. I didn’t think of how far I was from finishing it. I didn’t think, with dread, “Oh, god, 300m to go…” or, with resentment, “This fucking wind is slowing me down” or any of the usual stuff I do when I’m doing track work. I just ran at what I thought was the appropriate effort at that point in time and kept the rest of the workout out of my mind. I would get there when I got there.

At one point I was running fast and realized that I was totally relaxed, watching my hands swing up, my right arm swing and wrist angle completely different from my left, something I now accept rather than try to correct, my flats eating up the curve. I enjoyed running in that moment. Thinking about it right now makes me happy. My splits were remarkably even — for 18 intervals (I did an extra by accident). Like within a second or two of each other. No watch required.

The last, killer interval was awful. It was slow, something I knew without looking at my watch. Then I realized that it probably wasn’t supposed to be fast. It couldn’t be. I had exhausted myself with the previous few miles of faster running; my legs were burning and aching. I realized midway through that I was now doing “get comfortable with suffering” training, something I’ve come to recognize in some of Sanda’s workouts. I made a mental note to ask her what the purpose of that horrible last big push was — mental, physical or both — and then I gently returned my attention to my hands, my feet and the metres unfolding in front of me.

22 Responses

  1. You went Full Sheehan at the end there. Never go Full Sheehan. Haha

    Good post.

  2. Bloody Chinese — can’t buy a good blender anymore.

    I like the metres unfolding. They come by much faster than miles.

  3. Such a great post, and all I have to add is…”yup”


    Our running goals and plans become a maze in which we’re trapped, and we lock ourselves into what we should be doing, rather than what we are doing. And any deviation becomes failure, not occurence.

    Focusing on the moment — isn’t that how the Kenyans run?

    • Well put, Cris.

      I don’t know what’s in the Kenyans’ minds when they’re running, but I do know that from what I have witnessed and read about, they do ridiculously easy warmups and cooldowns.

  4. I’m sorry that you’ve been in such a dark place. You write so clearly about it, and it’s helped me see through the mist this morning.
    I find it interesting that you don’t retreat to a’just running for fun’ non-schedule, but you can still focus your energy into a tough regime…that’s great. I always revert to ‘do whatever you can’ runs, but that isn’t necessarily the answer.
    Can you find that meditative mind on your easy runs?
    Thanks for your honesty and skilful writing.

    • You may have mentioned it previously, but I’m wondering about your athletic pursuits before you started running as an adult. Those of us who discover the empowerment of athletics as adults are generally more obsessed than people who had success in swimming, playing soccer, baseball, tennis, etc., as kids. I think that’s why it means so much to us, and we quickly become self-doubting overachievers, especially when we insist to ourselves that we will top our previous PRs, even when that’s very unlikely if not impossible.

      Meditation is very beneficial, as long as your goal is not to become the very best meditator!

      Your writing is superb, as always. Thanks, Julie.

      • Marilyn, I think you hit the nail on the head. My athletic background, such as it was (limited to high school team sports that I didn’t even care enough about to learn how to play properly), was short-lived and non-competitive. My running would have remained that way, I’m sure, had I not discovered a 5K race, which turned me overnight from a hobbyjogging Jekyll to hypercompetitive Hyde.

        I am already organizing an “utlimate fighting” meditation competition in my area. We’ll have a cage and folding chairs to throw and everything.

        Thanks for the kind words on the writing.

    • UKLady, the biggest reason why I stick to a training schedule is that it’s about the only area of my life that isn’t totally unstructured. That structure — and sense of having something to look forward to and “check off” — has become important to me over the years, so I keep it up. But I am getting better about taking a day off if I’m tired, or shortening a run as seems fit.

      I used to approach something that resembled “moment to moment awareness” on my very long runs. It’s why I loved them so much. Something would happen after the 2 hour mark and I’d usually have no memory of that last hour. I always felt energized (and, paradoxically, also at peace) after those runs.

  5. Alas I am one of those who knows the meaning of each of the lines in that Lane 4 and find myself thinking “320 meters, no 310 to go” as I circle. If I’m running relaxed I don’t do that so much. I found it helpful to run two ten-minute tempos at Twin Lakes — a 1.6 or so mile loop — instead on Wednesday where I found it easier to break the loop down into three segments — to the bridge, to the dam, to the finish.

    As to Marilyn’s point, as a lifer all I can say is that it means much to me, even though I’m further removed from PRs.

    As to the other important stuff about which you write, thank you for offering the perspective.

    • It’s because of you that I’m aware of the Bronxville track’s idiosyncracies. Sometimes I hit the lap button short of the marker in lane 4 — because I can do so relatively guilt-free.

      I never do tempos on the track anymore. Doing them on trails is great for just the reasons you state. They’re harder too, which makes racing on roads seem that much easier.

  6. I really like this post, though I don’t envy your depression struggles, I love that you’re recognizing how they work, the better to deal. And also, I truly love the way you ran that workout without the pressure we always lay on ourselves. That is exactly how I hope to return to hard running when it’s time. To that end, I think I’ll probably skip distance as a measurement and go by time intervals.

    From one to another, it’s quite a trip being a gal who thinks a lot, huh? Ah, those times when we can just be.

  7. I read this for the first time just after you posted it, and I knew I wanted to comment on it, but I was virtually dumbstruck with admiration. Having re-read it, I haven’t advanced much from that condition, but I do want to say thanks. Life, running, hope, despair–you pretty much cover it all, with brutal honesty and great wit! Meanwhile, the path you’re running down now–“without goals, without expectations and without judgment”–sounds so right. I hope you have many more workouts like the one you describe above. (I guess a true meditative state, though, dicates that YOU can’t hope for such a thing. Oy.) Best wishes!

    • Thanks for commenting, David. Posts like this sometimes seem to draw some of the lurkers to step out into the light by posting a comment. I’m glad you delurked for a moment to do so.

  8. Nice post. I’m happy to hear that you’ve come across meditation and have experienced its merits. I’ve been practicing Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation for over 15 years now (sometimes more, sometimes less), but it sure does the trick for getting you out of your own head by just being with and observing whatever is going on in your head. I’ve never felt better and more at peace than when I’ve come back from a retreat.
    And it sure does go well with the running. Go with that flow.

    • All I can say is that meditation, while not easy to do for an overly cerebral and driven person such as myself, is proving extremely helpful in several areas, the running being the least of them.

  9. What a wonderful, insightful, honest post. I too have come to the conclusion that mindfulness is something I need to work on – it’s hard, particularly the non-judging yourself bit for me – but that’s kind of what makes it good, and necessary. Good luck with it all. Great, great post.

    Oh – and IMPRESSIVE interval work. What an attitude!

    • Yeah, my attitude’s usually crap. This is a welcome change. And cheaper than a lobotomy.

      I’m going to be in England next month. But S/SW — London, then Dorset. Any chance you’ll be in that neck of the woods in mid-May? Would be fun to meet you.

  10. You post has touched me in ways I’m not quite comfortable with yet — so I plan to read it several more times today and tweet the shit out of it, because that’s what I do when I find something I love.

    I’m not a runner, but recently triggered an autoimmune disease I didn’t know I had from the aniexty I actively internalized and ignored. Started meditating in January after losing all my hair in October.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and touching the hearts of those with similar paths.

  11. […] summer I was pulling out of a year-long tailspin that included (not necessarily in order of importance): race failures, a horrible running injury, […]

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