Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Art of Easy

(In my mind, this post is intimately connected to my earlier post titled "Purpose with a side of cheese fries."  I am not going to make that connection explicit; you need to do the work.)  

Last night while running, Renee and I had an interesting (and, honestly, ironic) conversation about going easy. 

If you have ever met me, you might have noticed that I do not naturally tend to take things "easy."  I tend to be a total spazz about everything, and typically overextend myself to the point that something (physical or mental) snaps.  And Renee makes me look relaxed.  (Seriously, it's scary.)

This conversation was particularly ironic because of all the other conversations we have (like, at the beginning of our run yesterday for example) about running ultra-marathons, and doing crazy things (we particularly like to imagine ourselves climbing distant snow covered mountains, or surviving on bugs in the African savannah while we save baby cheetahs and elephants; things like that).  We read stories of people doing impossible things and think "Oh, I could totally do that; I'm gonna start training tomorrow.  And while those sorts of discussions are sort of ludicrous, we do have a tendency to do some pretty not-easy things on a daily basis. 

Although our lack of "easy" permeates our lives, it is easiest to describe in terms of running.  Mostly, that we are always doing it.  Renee and I have talked about how we don't really "believe" in being hurt or getting sick.  We have both shown up for runs on some pretty awful days.  Renee, for example, will run in ANY weather, even when it is thundering and I am pretty much screaming at her that we are going to die (which, FYI, just makes the run more fun).  I tend to run through more physical challenges (okay, hangovers).  But no matter what happens the night before, if we say we are going to run we do.  Even when we probably shouldn't.  Like, this winter when I slipped and landed on my head (because my arm was already in a cast, so I couldn't use it to break my fall), and definitely had a concussion--3 miles into a 10 mile run that, yes, I finished.  And that is just the most recent example.  (I am sure there were other things before the blow to the head, but I can't seem to remember any of those...) 

I am not saying all this to point out how bad-ass we are (but we are).  I am saying all this to set up the irony of this conversation, or maybe to illuminate the weird maturity we came to suddenly. 

Because yesterday we started talking about taking things easy, and about how important it is to have easy days.  It started with my saying that I have learned to listen to my body.  I know that sounds like nonsense to any of you who are not runners, but it is actually an essential part of being a life-long runner without being a constantly side-lined-by-injury runner.  The hard part is learning how to listen, and learning how to tell the difference between general whiny complaining and serious complaints.  And the key is knowing where they come from.

We all have days when we whine while we run.  We have days when we don't want to be out there, and every step is a hassle, and all we can think about is how everyone else is home in bed.  But those complaints aren't coming from your body--they come from your brain.  Your brain (my brain especially) is LAZY.  But most of the time, if you tell it to shut the hell up for a minute, you can hear what your body is telling you.  Usually, it is saying "yeah, I'm good, just a little tired, but I got this."  Every now and then, however, it is saying something more like "Why the hell are we out here?  I am broken!  Stop moving and get on the next f**king bus you see!"  Those are the days that you need to listen to your body.

Here's the problem with a runner's brain: it tells you stuff that is not always that helpful. For example, my brain likes to tell me that if my pace is not below a certain point, I suck.  It also likes to tell me that if my mileage is not above a certain point, I am a let down.  And sometimes, when I finally convince it that something is broken, it convinces me that I am a baby for resting and to get my ass to the gym.

Some days, having a brain like that is awesome.  It doesn't let me slack off or bag on runs.  When I need some extra incentive to get my ass in gear, it always gives it to me.  However, there are also days when having a brain like this is a problem, and those are the days when I need to learn to tell it to shut up so I can hear what my body has to say.  And once I learned how to do that, my body told me that my brain is a dumbass (I sort of suspected as much).

Here's what I learned by listening to my body: I don't have to be wicked fast every day; I don't have to run a million miles; I can take a day off if I need it.  And the crazy part?  The more I listened to my body, the less I needed to take a day off, and the less my brain has been yelling over my body to keep me going.  Now, I have learned to be easy.

For a long time, I figured that long, hard runs were the only kind.  But, they're not.  Long easy runs, short hard runs, short easy runs (okay, I still can't really convince myself of those); they are all necessary to being a life-long not-injured runner.  Sometimes, it's okay to go slow, and even to stop to stretch and walk.  It's okay to take a day off and rest, as long as you take the day because you need it, not because your brain is making excuses for you.  There is an enormous amount of pleasure in an easy run, with no watch or plan, especially when you can share it with someone else, someone with whom you can plan a trip to Everest for example. 

Like all my other great revelations about running, this is all easier said than done.  There are plenty of days that I don't listen to my body, and I let my brain talk me into doing stupid things.  Like squats.  And I certainly still go out for long, hard runs.  But I can enjoy them a lot more now because I feel like I am out there because I want to be, not because that is the "only" way to run (translation: I have to be).   And of course, when I get home and calculate my pace, there is always a part of me that wishes I had been just a little faster, or wonders if I was taking things too easy.  Because this whole "easy" thing is still a pretty new concept, and I am still not totally comfortable with it.  Even with Renee and I in it together, we are not exactly good at it yet. 

But then I look at the big picture, and ask myself the big questions: did I have fun?  Can I get back out there tomorrow? Can I keep getting out there every day until I decide it isn't fun anymore, way after I would have burned out if I listened to my brain every day?  As long as I can say "Yes" to all of those, then I am happy, and being happy makes EVERY run easy, just the way it should be.     


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