|Crossing the finish line, November 2009.|
In November of 2009, I ran my first half marathon - 13.1 rolling miles through the Tucson foothills. It was a great experience except for one thing: a nagging pain in my left foot that started a few weeks before the race and had become much worse by the time I finished it.
Last week, in April of 2011, I made a decision to stop running because of the continuing pain in my foot. Already, only a few days later, it seems absurd that I spent eighteen months provoking an injury that was at worst very painful, and at best, fairly painful. But I was driven by a rigid need for routine and a growing addiction to running. And really, is addiction too strong a word when you continue to do something with the full knowledge that it is hurting you with every step?
So what finally made me stop? For one thing, my foot was beginning to bother me during other activities that I actually value more than running, such as hiking. For another, J and I have just made the big decision to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, and I know that I have to start that journey 100% healthy.
But there was something deeper at work, too. Lately, I just feel compelled to move more slowly, more gently, more kindly through my life. Running had become an unkindness to myself, something that was brutal on my body. It in turn led to other brutal habits, such overeating, for which I then felt ashamed, and resolved to counter with - you guessed it - more running. It was a way to both impose and forgo control of myself: a vicious cycle.
What I've found since I've stopped running is that I'm able to be more moderate in all my habits, to be more physically and emotionally kind to myself. My natural inclination is toward the extreme (I swam four hours a day, six days a week as a teenager), but the older I get, the less I care about being extremely fit and extremely hard core. I'm amazed now by how much time and energy I have for other things - riding my bike, hiking, yoga, gardening - and that variety and energy are so refreshing. It's not so much that running occupied a lot of my time, but rather that it took up a lot of my mental space to levy that type of self-discipline. Which isn't always a bad thing; it just isn't right for me anymore.
It's hard to know, though, in a culture that proclaims to value hard work above almost everything else, just how disciplined one should be. A nice house, a fancy job title, a rock-hard body: all of these things represent our ability to discipline ourselves, to take "hard work" to extremes, to deny pleasure. On the other hand, daily kindnesses to ourselves - a long walk at sunset, a good glass of wine with a square of dark chocolate, time spent fully focused on family and friends - aren't well symbolized by material things, and so are often deemed frivolous or extraneous to the image we present to others and the blurry lens through which we judge ourselves.
I recently had a small crisis of faith (and by small, I mean resolved within the course of a single yoga class) during which I contemplated the notion that I'm not really a true believer in anything. I'd like to say I'm skeptical by nature, but it's more by experience. I'm wary of anything dogmatic, anything that requires some kind of deep sacrifice or adherence to a certain lifestyle or belief system. So what actually guides my life? I wondered as I shifted back into downward-facing dog. And then I realized that it can actually be easily summed up in one word: kindness. Kindness to others, to the planet, to our fellow creatures. Most of all, kindness to self, which seems to be the most difficult and essential sort to cultivate.
I was convinced that my daily habit of running was a kindness to myself, but at some point it shifted to harmful dogma, something I did because I felt I had to. Doubtless it will be replaced by something else, and the ongoing quest for balance will continue. But here in this moment, I feel remarkably kind, and free.