Running Alone with My Thoughts

It turns out the last 15 months have been pretty stressful. Maybe for you, too. After all, we all have sources of stress in our lives. There have been a few years in my life that I can look back upon as being the most difficult, emotionally. I can confidently say that I am square in middle a unique challenging period in my life. I’m not going to say a lot about it, specifically. All I will share is that I personally have fallen prey to a narcissist smear campaign that has done damage to me, my small business, and by extension, my family. I am, by nature, a non-confrontational person. Though I have papa bear instincts that cause me to stand tall and puff up my chest if my family is ever in anybody’s crosshairs, typically, I avoid conflict at all costs.

To be in a perpetual state of conflict for more than 15 months with no end in sight is emotionally exhausting. As I sit here writing this, I have the same pit in my stomach that has been travelling with me all this time. Though my wife has not been a direct target, she certainly feels it, too, by extension, and we are doing our best to shield our children from the impact, but I’m certain that on occasion we are short with them as a result.

I have been an on-again, off-again endurance athlete since I was 13. 31 years. I started as a competitive cyclist, and then I transitioned to running. After developing chronic back problems and undergoing surgery, I gave up running when a doctor told me I’d never run again. Then I found my way back to cycling, and eventually, had my greatest success as a competitive athlete when I started racing mountain bikes. I decided to defy that doctor’s orders several years later and tried running again. When I realized that my back held up just fine on the run, I began training for a single season dedicated to the triathlon, culminating with Ironman Wisconsin. I took some time off to build a business, recover from burnout, and then I started running again. And now, I’m training for my first season of ultra running, hoping to complete two 50K races and a fall 50 miler.

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time alone, in my head. If you’re a distance runner, cyclist, swimmer, whatever, I’m sure you, too have been asked more than once, “What do you think about for all that time on the run?” It helps that I’m a bit of an introvert. I’m comfortable in that space, inside my own head. But it’s not always an escape.

What do I think about for all that time? That’s not an easy question to answer, because it depends on just about everything. How hard am I running? What’s the weather? Am I on a treadmill, and if so, who is next to me or what’s on the television in front of me? What’s going on in my life during any given run? How do I feel? How old am I? What time of year is it? Am I training for something or am I just running to run? Or am I running to escape? It is the morning or the evening? It is light or dark out? What time of year is it? Am in the middle of a race? If so, what are my goals?

My thoughts run the gamut. Though, to be honest, lately, the external factors that are causing my life so much anxiety have invaded my mid-run consciousness. While I often like to see my running as a symbol for my ability to withstand adversity, running is my time and I resent that I often cannot let go of unhappy thoughts. During that “quiet” time, lost in my head, I struggle to escape the rush of emotions, the anxiety, the fear, the anger that have plagued me since I first started feeling like a victim.

Yesterday, however, I had a welcome break. With 40+ MPH wind gusts, I decided to go to the gym. I’m fortunate to have a gym close by that has an indoor track. I will take the track over the treadmill just about any day that I can’t, (or won’t) run outdoors.

I wear headphones when I run. Usually I listen to music. I’ve tried podcasts and audio books, but because I do tend to get lost within myself, when I regain consciousness, I realize that I missed a lot of the story. So it’s always a pointless endeavor. Music keeps me motivated and I’m never disappointed if I stop paying attention for a few minutes. Last Saturday night I loaded a couple of trance music playlists onto my Apple Watch. I hoped that the up-tempo would keep me motivated and the repetitive nature of trance music might help me again to lose myself.

Over the years, I’ve discovered and rediscovered various meditation practices. A few years ago I learned transcendental meditation. I was a fairly disciplined practitioner for nearly a year. I don’t meditate regularly anymore, but it finds its way back into my life on a semi-regular basis in variations of the traditional practice. For instance, while transcendental medication is typically practiced in a silent atmosphere, I find that some music helps to support my practice. I do find that running can have a rather meditative effect for me. Maybe the experience is what some call “runner’s high.” For me, it is a moment of pure transcendence. I think no thoughts. I feel no pain. In those moments, I am simply one the trail or the road. I care not about pace nor heart rate in these moments. My problems don’t exist. I’m neither hunger nor thirsty. I am weightless, in every way.

Though hardly “lost” in the wilderness of a great trail run while pounding out laps of the indoor track, the wordless beats brought me back to my happy place yesterday, if even but for a few glorious minutes. In those moments, I was bulletproof. Neither shortness of breath, lactic acid, nor external efforts to tear me down could pierce my consciousness. And in that time, though running among others on a small .1 mile track, I was truly, thankfully, alone.