Earlier this month I announced I was going to run a marathon next March, and then after having spent the following week or so floundering around buying things and trying to get my head around the enormity of the task, I realised I had no focus except the vague cloud of “marathon,” and as we all know if you focus on nothing, you’re sure to hit it (see also: several past marathon attempts, all with no clear plan and all ending in failure). So this past weekend I decided to get organised in order to gain confidence about the huge mountain of work ahead of me.
I always feel better when I get things written down— usually the situation is not as dire as I think it is once I see it all laid out in front of me. So in hopes of quelling my rumbling anxiety, on Saturday I started to make a training calendar (I used good ol’ iCal, since I wasn’t using my iCal for anything else). I started out by taking a notebook (a real one, you know, paper and all that) and writing down everything that I would work into a training schedule if the world were perfect and I had endless resources. I decided I wanted to do running (obviously), some other cardio activity (swimming seems obvious), some core stability training on the Swiss ball, yoga, and something involving meditation or some other kind of mental concentration discipline. As it turned out, when I mapped all these things out, they didn’t take up as much of a day as I expected. I can get them all done before lunch time and relax in the afternoon. I also made a space on my calendar to keep track of my weight and my daily food intake; if I’m going to launch myself around Antalya for 26 miles, I need to do myself the favour of getting the rest of this extra weight off. The exercise will help, certainly, but I need to stop shoveling goodies in my mouth like it’s Christmas.
The race is on a Sunday, so I designated Saturday as my full rest day, and when the time comes that long runs are a possibility, Sunday will be the day for those. There will also be a break from running on Wednesdays, which is when I’ll fit in the swimming or whatever I decide on. Swiss ball work and yoga (I subscribe to Yoga Today, which is free and unbelievably great) will happen every day of the week, as will meditation. Everything starts at low levels and builds gradually over time. When I added it up on Saturday, I learned that there were 260 days between then and the race. I was panicked about that before, but now that I have a written plan it appears to be plenty of time.
So I went out for my first “real” training run yesterday morning (Sunday, day 259 if you will). I set a goal for the week: by Friday, the last training run of the week, I want to be running 15 minutes non-stop. I’m not a beginning runner, but I am quite a bit out of practice, so I thought this was a reasonable goal.
Three minutes into my Sunday run I didn’t think my goal was so reasonable anymore. I started my run at 7:00 in the morning, and as soon as I hit the road I realised I’d started much too late. Already the heat and the sun were almost more than I could take, and I was feeling like a big fat radiator bouncing up and down the street. I finished the session without dying, but only just, and to be honest I walked most of it. Still, there’s only one first day of training, and it can only get better from there. I went home and did the rest of my training work and felt at least somewhat accomplished, but during the run I was really unhappy, and I didn’t feel much better about it afterwards.
Last night I thought a lot about how I could improve my approach. As a habit I listen to a lot of Gil Fronsdal’s teachings via Zencast. You don’t have to be a Buddhist (I’m not) to get into Vipassana meditation and the practical daily applications Zencast offers, and I recommend this podcast to anyone who wants to shake up their brain and explore something new. Gil talks a lot about “hanging out” with feelings as a coping device (a technique which is often used by mental health professionals to treat phobias). He uses the example of boredom and restlessness during meditation, and he advises that the best way to hang out with that is to label it in your head (“boredom,” “restlessness,”) and if you just keep hanging out and acknowledging those feelings by labeling them and accepting them rather than judging or acting on them, eventually the bell rings (to signify the end of the meditation period), and then you’re free to go and it turns out it didn’t kill you to sit there after all. I wondered if I could apply this technique to my unhappiness and frustration with running.
I knew that one thing I was going to have to do, aside from getting up earlier, was get rid of my timer. As I mentioned before, I already ditched my heart rate monitor months ago because it was making me obsessed with numbers instead of running. But on Sunday I noticed my watch was doing the same thing— I couldn’t stop myself from looking at it every three seconds to see if it was time to quit yet. That’s no fun, and it keeps my brain from being open to things like awareness of the feelings in my body and perhaps, god forbid, enjoying the scenery. But of course I still need a way to time my runs, so I came up with an idea: I made an iTunes playlist approximately 15 minutes long (this week I’m enjoying songs from the new Chemical Brothers album), and popped it onto the iPod Shuffle. I added a track of silence at the end to make sure I would know when to stop running. So now all I have to do is start the iPod when I start my run, and simply run until everything goes quiet. No watch to obsess over, and great music to run to. I decided to give it a try this morning and combine it with the “hanging out” and labeling techniques.
I went out at 4:50 this morning (day 258). The weather was much, much more tolerable. I walked for a minute or so, and then fired up the iPod as I started to run. Within a couple of minutes I was really unhappy and desperately wanted to slow to a walk again. I labeled those feelings in my head. “Unhappy.” “Tired.” “Want to quit.” “Fed up.” “Hate running.” “Unhappy.”
I know you all know the phenomenon by which repeating a word over and over causes the word to start mutating in your head, until it sounds alien and eventually loses all meaning. Well, today I discovered the same thing happens with labeling feelings. You really get into your labels, and the very act of labeling causes those labeled feelings to distort and then dissipate. So after a few minutes, “unhappy” and “tired” became “blank” and “I’m not sure what this one is. Neutral, I guess.” I labeled those feelings and hung out with them, too. Then some outside stuff I was experiencing started creeping into my labeling: “mountain.” “Brick wall.” “White cat.” “Chemical Brothers.” I felt myself smiling. “Smiling.” The fact that I was busy labeling things meant that I had no room in my head to tell myself all those stories about how I could just quit and go back to bed, or about how I’m too out of shape to run a marathon, or about how it’s ridiculous to put myself through this when I’m clearly not cut out for it. We all know the stories we make up in our heads, every excuse in the book about why we shouldn’t succeed at doing something difficult.
In fact, I was so busy labeling things that when the music came to a sudden halt I nearly tripped and fell over my own feet .
And that was it. On the second day of training I ran 15 minutes non-stop, accidentally. I wasn’t supposed to do that until Friday. And at the end of the run I was settled and happy and completely devoid of all the negative thoughts I’ve usually filled myself with by that point. My experiment worked. I’m going to try it again tomorrow.
I think I’ve really hit on something here— as I was walking home I thought to myself that if it weren’t for my current poor state of physical fitness, I might have continued to run like that for several hours, just noticing things and labeling them and not judging or criticising or feeling sorry for myself. Later in the day when I really didn’t want to do my yoga class, I labeled my way through that, as well, and honestly I think I connected with the poses today in a way I never have before. I’ve never paid this much attention in my life.
So I’m feeling good about this training stuff.
Incidentally, the new shoes are working out well so far— they’re a lot less like new shoes than most new shoes are. I do have a strange blister in the arch of my right foot, but I’m pretty sure that’s due to my flip-flops and not the runners. I’ll tape the blister for a couple of days and see what happens.
257 days to go. “Confident.”