Sunday, December 7, 2008

Long distance running as a meditation practice - 22 miles

I woke up at 4:45 am this morning and decided to go for my normal 22 mile run. I had been debating over taking a week off because I did the marathon last week. But a funny thing has happened: I miss the long run when I can't get to it. So I went running.

This run was cool for a couple of reasons. I got to break in my new $30 Montrails I bought at Rogue Runners in Austin. And I also got to run this loop (Washington, DC: Woodley Park, down Rock Creek Parkway to the Capital Crescent Trailhead, up the Crescent to where it meets the RCP again, back down the RCP to Woodley Park and home) for the first time with my new Garmin 305 GPS unit my mom got for me. Really, running is not about gadgets. But I wanted to map out this route with the GPS partially because I was not sure that my 22 mile loop was 22 miles long. Turns out that it is almost exactly 22 miles. That was nice to have confirmed.

But there was one other thing that made this run great. I think the main reason I miss the long run when I don't do it is that it is the one time of the week when I run for a long enough time to shut off my brain and just be where I am for a few hours.

I have tried sitting meditation quite a few times. I have never gotten very comfortable with it. Part of it is the difficulty I have in just concentrating on the moment without rattling through thoughts-- however, I understand that this is part of the meditation practice. I explained to a friend of mine that if I meditated for a half an hour my mind would wander off the ranch fifty times. I would have to pull it back to my breathing fifty times in that half an hour. My friend said, "what a wonderful practice". And he was right, that practice of recapturing my sense of presence is good.

However, my real problem with sitting practice is that, as the father of a seven year old, I'm just sleep deprived all the time. I expect this situation to improve, oh, shortly before I die. So usually when I sit to meditate, about five minutes in, I'm fighting off sleep. And that's just crazy-making.

But running... I find that the regular rhythm and the proximity to natural sources of noise help me concentrate on where I am. I regularly use noise as my focal point. If I can really fixate on the sound of where I am, I know I am truly present. The reason for this for me is that so much of what goes through my head is sound-- catches of songs I've been thinking about, or bits of conversations, or a little self-criticism. My monkeys are noisy.

So I run and listen to my footsteps, and I breath and listen to my breathing, and I listen to Rock Creek.

This run started in the dark, and I ran for more than an hour before there was appreciable light. And it was cold, right at 37F. So not many people were on the trail. I saw a total of ten souls, and five of them were deer. I saw four deer just crossing Rock Creek Parkway. They're so used to people now that I don't think they get scared. They just watched me run past, then dashed off into the woods.

I did find my speed sagging a lot on this run. I found a good trick to pick up some speed-- I concentrate on my turnover. I tried to concentrate on quick turnover, and not on going fast. I did this, and after 19 miles, I was doing 9:30 miles, which is a good pace for me. I reckon if I can work on a good turnover, my stride will take care of itself and I'll be able to maintain speed.

All in all a very satisfying run.


  1. I love when I have a good "zen" run.. mind is quiet, legs are turning over easily and quickly and my breath is flowing softly. It makes up for the struggling ones when my thoughts drown out my footsteps and nothing feels good. I can't quite make myself get up earlier then 6 am for a run unless it's a race or I'm meeting people, so I have the ultimate admiration for you!

  2. I should have mentioned that I actually managed to finish my run and sneak back into my apartment before Sonia and Daniel were awake! That makes it all doubly satisfying (like that old Army commercial: "we get more done before 8AM than most people do all day).


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