I love to run. Over the past decade I've honed training for short-distance races - chipping away at a time, year after year, continually trying to become a slightly faster version of myself. The 5k is the running version of my first love. Yet, in this season of the year, and this season of my life, I'm drawn to the opposite end of the spectrum - trying to run farther than ever before. I'm learning that distance running is a three-act meditation that unfolds over hours, full of lessons and self-discovery.
The opening act starts slow, with a fully rested and functioning body. I'm excited about how the run could unfold. I love and anticipate the chance to accomplish something new. And yet, I already feel a bit of trepidation about the pain to come.
The first act is a honeymoon period - easy miles void of pain or discomfort.
I can do this all day.
I occasionally experience "runners high" right at the end of Act I, where I feel unexpectedly strong past the point where I'm taking that for granted. It's a mesmerizing feeling of easily maintaining a strong pace with a low heart rate. When on an undulating trail there can be the feeling of flying, or gliding. It's the feeling of being healthy. It's appreciation for what I'm doing - of being in some small way like a deer that moves with grace over the land. I cherish this time because harder miles are in my near future. I cherish this time because there will be a time in my life when I can't effortlessly run in the mountains.
And yet, I'm quietly awaiting that first sign of fatigue in my legs. That old familiar friend will be here any moment now, as he is rarely late.
The second act is the period between the poles. It's the slow decline of my body, taking me from that first indication of fatigue all the way up to the point where my body wants to stop. Any runner's high has evaporated and I'm clinging to what's left of the mildly-painful miles.
I've been here before, you're fine.
Act II is a slow shift from being physically driven, to being mentally driven.
The third act begins when, without mental override, my body will simply stop. The third act hurts. I'm done, it's not fun anymore - it hasn't been fun for a while. I don't want to run anymore. I hate running.
I'm slowly learning that this third act is what distance running is all about. It's the play between physical and mental. There is a constant, minute-to-minute battle between an increasing physical desire to quit and the will to continue. How far can I push myself? If I stop to get a drink, or to admire a view, or because the body won that minute's battle with the mind, it takes a conscience and motivated decision to start again.
I've only been in this state a handful of times in my life. A true ultra runner might claim that I've never been there - that I haven't even started that battle with the mind. That the battle doesn't even begin until 50 miles in, when you still have 50 to go. Maybe. Or maybe it happens anytime you really push yourself. Maybe pushing yourself means entering the third act.
I don't often experience this level of clarity in everyday life. Where every fiber in my body is begging me to stop, and often wins. Yet, my mind gets to to override and say, "No, we're going a bit farther today, digging a bit deeper." Perhaps this is meditation in some pure form - the obvious difference between my thoughts and my actions. The mind is decoupled from the body in a way that's hard to notice in everyday life. In traditional meditation the monitoring technique is all about viewing the mind from a more objective position, simply observing thoughts. With distance running there is physical feedback - my body simply stops without constant override.
I use the word clarity, because it becomes hard to think of anything else. I find it hard to notice beauty, to eat, to hold a conversation. Music is loud, no matter how quiet. There is little else in my mind other than the intense desire to stop, and a decreasing will to continue.
Why am I compelled by this type of self-inflicted pain? Why do it at all? I battle this question every single time. Most people have no desire for this, and rightfully so. It's not for everyone, I'm not sure it's for me. But I have glimpsed the addiction that is this state of clarity. I go through many emotions - the elation of a feeling of health, to the awe of a beautiful landscape, to anger and depression, then resignation, and finally extreme fatigue in the most pure form of the word.
With every ounce of being I want to quit. But when I don't, and can override that desire by being mentally strong, then I've achieved something valuable. Something that is hard to achieve in everyday life. Something that makes everyday life easier by contrast. It's a tool that I find worthy of sharpening, and of which to be internally and innately proud. A tool that allows me to more easily go after bold goals. That something is addictive, even if it hurts, and more accurately, because it hurts.