Journeys to the softer, slower, gentler and better balanced side of life!

This is a guest post by my friend Deb Thompson:

Hey sportsfans

Well here I type with rather tender legs, finally getting to write my first race report…

Toronto Waterfront Marathon September 30, 2007

Leading up to this race, my first marathon, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about what it would be like, especially during all those hours running out on Highway 2. I looked forward to the happy buzzy atmosphere I have loved at shorter races, and feared an attack of the legs o’lead in the last miles. I worried if injury or illness would prevent me from participating or finishing. I started noting endorphin-induced epiphanies for this race report or the See Jane Tri retreat weekend about life lessons from sport.

What I had not anticipated was how recently re-entering training to become fully certified as an Integral Coach would plunge me into questioning many of my choices in life, including whether or not to go to the marathon. In the three weeks prior to the race, being coached had brought me face to face with my propensity to over-cram my life, and called me to examine my many choices that have brought me once again to this point of burn out. My probing extended to all corners of my life, into the role of my hobbies and habits, including long distance running and racing. Was this just another addiction, under the guise of ‘health’? Was running a restorative relaxing practice I loved? Was I escaping my life and its demands through running? Did running bring certain blessings? Did running so much close out other good things? Was it a fab way for me to stay fit and well (and get to eat cinnamon rolls and stay thin)? Was doing a marathon my “go big or go home” way again? Did running bring some great relationships to my life? Was I unwise to go ahead with the marathon given my exhaustion and overwhelmedness? Could I drive myself bonkers trying to figure this out?

The answers seemed to be “yes” to all of the above. It was and, and, and… not either/or.

So I was confused and uncertain. I tried to let myself be open to going and not going, not forcing a decision. Over the last week or so, my desire to experience the race I had readied myself for surfaced in my somewhat disheartened heart with a palpable shape, albeit less solid than I would have liked. I wondered if this somewhat sober and wobbly decision was in keeping with my desire to accept the unfoldings of the race (my life) with less insistence on certainty/control, and even a useful dampener to my over-excitability that had led to me not pacing well in several half marathons (my life). I can find a silver lining in just about anything evidently.

Off I went to Toronto alone on the train, my family staying home with our new young pup. I was eager to hear John “The Penguin” Bingham, the comedic champion of the ordinary runner, speak at the Expo. I have loved his credo, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start” since my early days, 4 years ago, of starting to walk, weighed down by about 90 lbs. of extra weight, 15 years of a busy but so sedentary life, and the ego of a former high school athlete. I remember walking out 15 minutes, and turning around to hobble home in a variety of gaits to vary the pain. It took much courage and faith to keep on walking, and eventually walk-jogging in an unwieldy body, more than running for hours does now. Listening to Bingham encourage people to enjoy moving their bodies, however ‘waddly’ their steps may be, was golden. He spoke about running/racing with a sense of wonder, not expectation, which seemed so appropos it was eerie! I spoke to him briefly, thanking him for his motto, and was struck by his gracious and warm presence. I felt renewed in my tender intention to stay loose and light in my head, with some room for hoped for finishing times, but moreso being in the marathon as a celebration, an experience, an opportunity, a blessing, a challenge… the ‘full catastrophe’. The totally unwelcome but undeniable fact that one day, maybe sooner than later, I won’t be able to run any more was on my mind, with my desire to revel in my regained mobility while I still have it. I thought of all the people I know who would love to run or move their bodies freely, but cannot, and felt what Sue calls the “attitude of gratitude”.

In the blink of an eye, it was morning, and I was up up at 4:45 a.m. to eat, drink, go to the can, rub silicone on the bits that get chafed, get dressed, go to the can, write the words “celebrate” and “wonder” on the back of my hand, and go to the can. Time to head out and find a coffee, which was pretty funny, since all the other patrons at Fran’s Diner had evidently been out all night, and would be crashing in bed while I was out hammering out the miles. Off to the race start! What a throng (about 11,400 runners in the half and full marathons, from 44 countries, up to age 80)! The air was electric with excitement, nerves, anticipation. I decided to use a “pace bunny” to try to run more steadily, and to aim for a finishing time that seemed in sync with my training runs (4:00 hrs). This was good until about 16 or 17 kms, when I began to get an inkling of my classic race problem with quadricep pain, which had clearly set in by the half way mark (21 km)… I let the bunny and her group go, and settled in to just run my best. On two loops of the course we got to see the top runners on their way back… amazingly sinewy athletes… indeed, the record for a marathon in Canada ended up being broken by the winner (2:09:30). I cannot run one km as fast as they run 42.2 … mind boggling! Well, it was an unseasonably warm and very sunny day, and I tried to stay hydrated and use energy gels as planned, but by about 30 km, some nausea had set in, and my quads were very sore, and I needed to take some walk breaks. I shifted my goal again, this time to finishing. Bingham had described the ‘brain melt’ of the last miles rather humorously in his talk the day before… and I smiled a little when I got hopelessly confused between ’35 km, 7 to go’ and ’37 km, 5 to go’. I started to set very small goals: run to that post… good… run to that hydrant… good. I felt massively fatigued, even sleepy, and thought of how Kyla had described people in the Ironman lying down in the gravel at the side of the road. The last few km were very foggy… I kept trying to listen to the words on the music on my iPod, and just keep moving ahead. The last song that came on was a fabulous one I recently got from my coaching course: Every Little Day by Greg Greenway: “I felt terrible, I felt lucky, at the ways things are, like a glad accident, like a bright shooting star, like a brave little ripple in an ocean so large”… with a mercifully lively tune/beat. I thought I would cry crossing the finish line (chip time: 4:20), but instead I felt a little stunned (“can I really stop now?”)… the tears came when the medal for finishing was put around my neck, the magnitude of this accomplishment overflowing me. Then it was time to drink, drink, drink… which had my brain back in gear in an hour or so. The legs were pretty bad, so I sucked it up for my first trembly ice bath to try to reduce inflammation and suffer less later. And then home on the train to my lovelies, and a much more pleasant warm bath, and to bed for 8 p.m.

On the train there and back, I did some journaling, reflecting on what I had learned in these past 5 months and culminating 4.33 hours. One big one has been paradox, something I really wrestle with, always seeming to prefer the seeming solidity of uncontradictory conclusions even as I might know it is illusory. The rigorous training was about and for the race day — while I would have been running regardless, the structure and duration of my runs was definitely in preparation for a one day event. All this hard work, which was necessary but entirely insufficient for the race to transpire as desired. How to hold the marathon as a focal motivator yet be open to it being kyboshed by injury, illness, life’s unwelcome droppings was s
uch a difficult tension to try to stay with, rather than slipping to “well I can’t fully control the result through my efforts, so I can’t risk fully wanting or commiting”, or “I prepared and worked hard, and now the outcome should follow accordingly”. To do what I could do to ready myself, and yet be open to the final day’s surprises. To let go of my expectations or hopes during the race, over and over. I am beginning to realize that this will an ongoing opportunity for me, and maybe for most of us; to stay with the sweet and gnarly challenges of the serenity prayer — God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

One gift from the training was on the “changing what I can” side: the development of more faith in the adaptive powers of my body and mind. What looked so very daunting at the start of my training program, especially three 20 mile runs, became manageable by the time those days arrived… because I had done the 12 and 14 and 16 and 18 mile runs by then. I think about how often I freak myself out at the beginning of a process in thinking about how I am not yet prepared for the culmination. I smile at the silly arrogance under this self-doubt… somehow expecting to be ready without preparation. This lesson is front and center as I begin a 9 month certification program in Integral Coaching, and worry if I will be fit for the final exam. My teachers tell us: trust the process, do the work, and you will be ready. One of our practices is a 20 minute sitting meditation 6 days a week; to choose to take our seats, to be open to the sitting as it is that day, to gradually build our capacity to be with “what is”. And so it has been for me with my running this year: not so much a “just do it” in a harsh or driven way, but in the way of an abiding commitment to a proven process that sometimes shifted in the details, but did not actually waver overall because of holidays, heatwaves, headwinds, and most of all, not feeling like it. And there has been something really valuable in having known this steady dedication to ‘taking my seat’, and having my capabilities shift over time.

However, to date, my faith in transformation through practice is pretty limited to active ones. Running shines another light for me on how hooked I am on going forward, action, doing, the yang side of life. Tapering for a race, running less and less, and eventually not at all, makes me so anxious that I will lose all my fitness, all my ability… and while intellectually I know this is ridiculous, I cannot seem to hang on to the substantiveness of my strength without very recent concrete evidence of it. Or yet fully believe in the development of power through times of rest, nondoing, yin… for muscles or me in general. Such fear… fear I am trying to both be gentle with, but not necessarily as fully driven by. A recent run on a suddenly cold day in my customary tank top let me squirm in how very loathe I was to turn back, catching in my deep groove of “onward”, scratched over decades. I was inspired to return home for a long sleeve shirt as a drop-of-wood-filler move in honour of self-care, flexibility, and being able to turn ‘back’ more readily in my life… in coaching conversations that are not landing as planned, through to reconsidering where we will live, and shifting how I make a living, and how I would even define “a living”. Cool.

Something else that is getting more clear for me is how much I like familiarity and sameness, and struggle with the discomforts of newness, even when it brings goodness. Breaking in new shoes, that I know I need for the fresh cushioning, always makes my feet go numb against the stiffness of the soles. And so it is with new practices and concepts… oh so shiny and appealing at first, but then they feel tight and stiff and make me cry for my old scuffed squishy ones back, even though they don’t really support me anymore! The cycles of excitement, disenchantment, and re-engagement that I am spinning through in these early days of being coached, and see in my clients in their ongoing processes of development too, spiraling towards steadiness and embodiment. This shoe metaphor reminds me to lace on the new stuff a little loosely at first, to not panic when it feels stiff and foreign, to allow for alternating between old and new while new is so unfamiliar, to trust in gradually feeling my foot soften and imprint new into a better fit, and to relax a little into the never-ending-ness as new becomes compressed and unsupportive someday…

Finally, the marathon reminded me of how readily I can get stuck in my own pain, imagining myself to be alone, and my suffering to be somehow unique. I come back to what Joanne G. told me of how she had complained of leg pains to her companion late in her first marathon, and of his rather sharp reply: “look around you, everyone’s hurting now”… I thought of this many times in my last grueling miles, and I would like to stay awake to this maxim more and more in everyday life too. Seeing others rejoice and cry at the finish line, as in my coaching class, my office, my home, has been a very poignant opening this past year to connect more fully, deeply and compassionately
with them and myself… an opening which lets me once again call upon the miracle of the courage to start, and to stay and to settle, and to start…

All my best, Deb


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