I started running about ten years ago, during a dark season of my twenties. Yet another one of my relationships had ended in “failure” and I felt like love was something other people could make work, but not me. So I took up running as a sort of sanctuary, a reminder that no matter what happened, I could get away from everything if I just had the right shoes on.
That if I kept pushing through the pain, eventually all the sensation would fade away and I would feel like I was flying.
My biggest problem with running was always pacing.
I would start too quickly or train too hard or hear someone was running a 10-miler on my “day off” and I would join them instead of resting. You can do this for awhile, but not for long before your body starts to just basically boycott. This looks like every single part of you, at one point or another, spasming or screaming or holding up a metaphorical picket sign reading: UM HELLO, I GIVE UP.
One day you try to get up and go for a run and you can’t even walk.
This is what happened to me. Over and over and over again. I would talk this big game about how I was some super-strong runner when the truth was I was just good at pretending like I wasn’t in pain.
As much as I’d like to believe this was an issue limited to running, that would be untrue. We are basically the same, wherever we go. And my tendency to run too fast, to deny my injuries and to pretend like I was “totally okay” when everything was falling apart bled into everything in my life, like tie-dye.
Sometimes you think you’re hiding but you’re not. We are more transparent than we believe ourselves to be.
I trained for the Portland Marathon twice. The first time, about halfway through, I got a stress fracture in my right hip and had to stop running completely. This was the word from my doctor. He told me that if I ever wanted to run again, I would take six months off. I asked him if this meant I could do short little runs—you know, just to keep things going.
He lectured me about how some people are in wheelchairs and I should get a grip on myself.
I complained to a friend about this. She was a long-time runner and I hoped she would have some sympathy. She listened and nodded her head but reiterated what the doctor had said—that if I wanted to keep running in the long term, I should take the six months. “Play the long game,” she told me. “Do you want to be running at 60? Or do you want your last race to be your last race?”
As long as you are breathing
A few months later, when I got started running again, I called that same friend. I asked her if she had any advice for me this time around. She said that if my lungs were getting tired before my legs, I was running too fast. “You have to keep breathing,” she said. “Your breath is the most important part.”
Your breath is the most important part.
That stuck out to me. It’s what I thought about this morning, more than five years later, as I drove to Percy Werner Park and stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up up up into the woods. I thought about my friend’s advice: your breath is the most important part. I noticed the leaves were changing—just barely—which means that even though I stopped running for awhile, it has been almost a year since I started sneaking away to do this thing again.
Getting back into something after you haven’t done it for awhile is strange because in your mind, you can do things you can’t actually do. This is, come to think of it, basically the description of getting older. In your mind, you are bounding up the mountain like a gazelle—legs strong like tree trunks and lungs pumping air in and out. You are eighteen. In your mind.
In actuality, your legs are like spaghetti noodles underneath you and your lungs feel like they are on fire. As if you just smoked an entire pack of cigarettes—which you have never actually never done before.
You are awkward and flailing.
You are nauseous and wheezing for air.
It’s such a strange thing to feel like such a beginner at something you used to feel pretty good at. To feel weak where you once used to feel strong. It’s a strange thing to think about all the ground you’ve gained with everything you’ve lost—you know? Such a strange paradox to think about all this way you’ve come, and how you’re still here, the same old place you’ve always been.
I just kept reminding myself, as I stood at the bottom of that hill, of what my friend told me that day all those years ago—not to out-pace myself, to let my legs get tired before my lungs. Breathing is the most important part, she said. Maybe it didn’t matter how fast I climbed this mountain, or how I looked doing it, as long as I just kept breathing.
How good this looks on Instagram
I started up the hill thinking about pacing—about how often in life we push ourselves to do things we don’t want to do, that are impractical or unreasonable for us, and for what? Who are we trying to impress? In and out, in and out. That’s all that matters. Alone in the woods, with headphones in, I realized running wasn’t so much a sanctuary of aloneness for me these days as it was a way to come home to myself.
In moments, I would try to muscle my way up the hill and lose my breath. Then, I would pause. In and out, Ally, in and out.
So much has changed in the past ten years and also nothing at all.
I am not as strong as I once was, and also stronger than I ever thought. (Tweet that)
I wondered if this isn’t the reason so many of us are so lonely in our crowded, busy, Instagram-filtered lives, if this isn’t the reason we are anxious and depressed and drinking ourselves to sleep at night: because we’re doing all the things everyone has told us we’re supposed to do, the good things good people do—we’re running up these giant hills—but we aren’t even breathing.
Our bodies are full of energy, residual fire and passion. But we are out of sync with our breath.
Our hearts are hopeless and tired.
I’ve been taking yoga this past year and my yoga instructor says you can do yoga without breathing, but if you do, you’re not really doing yoga. You’re doing something else—flinging yourself into handstands and warrior two and whatnot. It looks good. You know, on Instagram and whatever, but what’s the point? I can’t help but think about how good a life can look on Instagram and how truly terrible it can feel to be actually living it.
This is what happens when we stop breathing.
You can do pretty much anything without breathing. But why would you?
That’s what I thought about as I hit the running trail this morning, as I worked to find my breath in the sea of trees. I thought about how much slower of a runner I am now than I ever was before, but about how running isn’t the punishment it once was; about how much of my life I have spent putting on a great performance—making it all look good for Instagram—and how little time I have spent actually enjoying it.
As I climbed the hill in front of me, I felt my chest tighten and I slowed to a walk.
When you listen to your breath, it guides you. It will tell you exactly what you need to know. It will whisper secrets to you like, you don’t have to do it all. You can come undone. This isn’t a competition. You were not built to look good for Instagram. Over time, we really do get better at listening
Finding love and finding your breath
I went on a date with a guy recently. Then another date. Then another one. Things were going great at first—you know, the way you feel during the first part of a run. Like you could fly. Then one day he told me I was fascinating, which I took to mean he thought I was crazy and never wanted to see me again. I told him I never wanted to see him again, which was my way of telling him I was staring up that hill into the woods—thinking how I’m not the runner I once was, and how I’m the same runner I’ve always been.
Things are always more complicated than we want them to be. Most of us are running and hiding.
It is so very hard to tell the truth.
As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I looked up to see that giant hill. I am familiar enough now with this run, with its curves and loops and hills and trees that I should have seen this coming, but for a minute, I forgot. And when it came into view, I felt my heart sink into my stomach. My legs were already shaking and my forehead was dripping with sweat so that my sunglasses were sliding down my nose.
How was I ever going to climb this thing?
I did the one thing I know to do, which is to pull my attention to what is right in front of me. If you focus too far up the hill, you get overwhelmed and scared and distracted. You keep trying to decide if you can make it all the way up, which of course doesn’t matter nearly as much as just staying with your breath. If you are breathing, you can do pretty much anything. Your breath tells you everything you need to know.
I counted my steps. This is a trick I learned back in my running days. It’s a sort of hypnosis, distracting you from the shaking, from the panting, from the fact that you don’t know how far you can go, from the ache of knowing we really know nothing, and from the thrill of giving something a shot. So you just count, one two… fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… twenty three, until you lose count, or can’t count any higher.
Then you start over from the beginning.
A ways up the hill I felt my lungs seizing, to the point where I felt like I couldn’t get a gulp of air anymore. So I slowed my pace to a walk.
This is the kind of thing I used to kick myself for—for taking breaks in the middle of a run, for not being “good enough” to make it up the hill. I don’t do that anymore. These days I just try to look around and admire the scenery and acknowledge the miracle it is that my body has brought me all this way.
I mean, can you believe it?
My feet and my legs and my arms and my BREATH, oh this miraculous breath, has literally brought me to this exact moment, this perfect place here in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not nearly the runner I used to be. I’m the best runner I’ve ever been.
How to do pretty much anything
I found the perfect rental a few weeks ago. My house had been on the market for a couple of months and so I had been looking for a new place to go. I’d looked at 100 places and none of them seemed even remotely right, until this one. I drove out to see it and it was on the water—in the city but ON WATER—and I couldn’t think of anything better.
It’s all happening. That’s what I thought to myself. Everything was going just right.
I started making plans, as you do. Calling the movers and picking out patio furniture and thinking of people who would sit back there with me to watch the sun dip behind the mountain. Thinking of one person, in particular. Then, within a matter of days, everything came unraveled. The house. The guy. The relationship. All the things.
I tried to hold it together but we cannot hold these things together. It was never our job. All we can do is keep breathing.
In and out, in and out.
And now, I keep getting that feeling you get when you stare up at the mountain again after years of not running—into the forest of possibility. It’s exhilarating and also terrifying. I keep thinking about how I used to be so good at this—the packing and the purging and the moving on and the not knowing what was next, but how maybe I was never as good as I thought I was.
Maybe I was just good at pretending like it didn’t hurt so much.
I’m not nearly the runner I used to be. I’m the best runner I’ve ever been.
This morning as I finished my run and climbed into my car, I thought about how my whole house is going into boxes, a sort of dismantling of things so I can rebuild again. I don’t know if I can do it, but the one thing I know is I can’t stay here. None of us can. We cannot resist change. It is happening to us, whether we like it or not.
All we can do is keep breathing.
I am counting my steps… one, two, three… seventeen, eighteen… twenty three… and it’s all happening. For better or worse. This is it. This is my life, my incredible miraculous life and my body, my feet, my heart, my BREATH which have brought me all the way here, to this exact place, in this exact moment.
Isn’t it incredible?
I climbed into my car after my run, and thought about how life doesn’t have to be the punishment it once was. It hurts. There is no getting around that. But I am learning to admit how much it hurts, which makes it hurt a little less. I’m doing it. Imperfectly. Messily. Stupidly. Flailing and slogging and pausing when I need to and catching my breath. We are getting there. Slowly but surely.
I am learning I can do just about anything if just I keep breathing.
And maybe for now, that is enough.