I’ve often said that if I had a transcript of the commentary that runs through my mind during a marathon, I would immediately be put in a straitjacket and committed to the psych ward. I know I’m not alone in this, as any endurance athlete can relate to the vast array of thoughts and emotions that sweep through during a long run. Last week, I completed the New York City Marathon, and the highs and lows I experienced were of epic proportion, which interestingly enough, seems fitting for the largest running event in the world.
It always amazes me how much I learn from each marathon. Every race has it’s own set of logistics and challenges to navigate. The months of training can only prepare you to a certain extent, and no amount of preparation or race day assimilation guarantees anything once that gun goes off. This race was unique in its sheer magnitude, and the coordination and navigation to get to the start line felt like a marathon in itself.
The Buddhist tradition speaks about difficult energies, or hindrances, as mental disruptions that can be the cause of our suffering or discomfort. According to the Buddha, those who conquer their own minds are greater than those who defeat a thousand men a thousand times in battle . . . and a marathon can most certainly be a metaphor for a battle. We all have our own personal reasons for wanting to take on the physical and mental challenge, and in the process, we are certain to experience some version of the basic hindrances including:
.desire/greed (I wish it weren’t so windy, if only these crowds would thin out, that spectator is drinking coffee, why am I doing this? I could be drinking coffee right now, but instead I thought THIS was a good idea);
.aversion/anger (why didn’t I train harder? What’s up with this dude and his breathing?? Now I have to exert even more effort to get away from him so I can run in peace. OMG these water stations! ankle-deep in wasted paper cups, and do people simply not understand etiquette??;
.sloth/torpor (I’m too tired to stay sharp, and there’s simply no finding a rhythm in this race, I’m going to just let my mind sink into a pleasant daydream, the beach would be nice right now, oh, how glorious it was to swim in the Aegean Sea this summer, who has the best yogurt, Greece or Iceland. mmm . . . . cheese;
.restlessness/anxiety/worry (I have HOW MANY more miles? There are people at home who are tracking me, and they see I’m slowing down, they must be so disappointed, there is too much to take in, I’m getting dizzy if I look up, this is so disorienting, what are the warning signs of pulmonary embolism? Wait, HOW LONG is Fifth Avenue??; and finally,
.doubt (should I fuel now? Did I just over drink? Should I walk this hill to get my right glute to fire? Why do I do this to myself??)
The years of running long distances have shown me that the above narrative is par for the course. The hindrances will show up in some way or another at any point, and sometimes, in rapid fire. What meditation has taught me is that if I’m willing to face these difficulties head on by clearly seeing whatever may be arising, I can learn to develop a different relationship to those feelings. As I’m internally doing battle with something extremely unpleasant, I’m also fully awake to the fact that this is an impermanent, intangible state and often something fabricated by my own doing. And much like capturing a scene on the race course to be held for the briefest of moments, those thoughts and emotions, too, pass on by much in the same manner.
As I pushed my way through the five boroughs I was tuned in to these energies as they ebbed and flowed. Let me be clear that not all moments were horrible, as portrayed above. There were euphoric moments that felt almost dream-like, including:
.Crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on a blue bird day with Manhattan in the background and helicopters hovering so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.
.Adrenaline surges through Brooklyn.
.Overwhelming compassion for the runners with disabilities and their guides leading them every step of the way.
.The deafening cheers from the crowds.
.Witnessing the dude in the Spiderman suit work through his pain.
.The realization that I am vibrantly alive and healthy, and how lucky am I to be able to do something others dream about.
These thoughts and states were the crest of the waves that truly felt like gifts.
I look at the NYC Marathon as not an overall net positive or negative; but simply an experience. While I had personal goals and a sense of how I wanted the outcome to look, this race became an exercise in working with the primary elements of my immediate experience. Without the lows, the highs wouldn’t have had the same impact. From those dark, low places came the most understanding and clarity, and from that, compassion and freedom. And if I needed a reminder, THAT is why I run.