Almost Composed

Meditation and curiosity

Runner’s High

December 22, 2013

Probably the fittest I’ve been was in my middle teens when we would play tracker in Somers’ park, chasing and fleeing from each other from morning until teatime. Exercise is easy when you don’t even know you’re doing it. We’d run miles in a day and much of this was at a full sprint as we tried to put as many corners between us and the pursuer. I didn’t often hide in the tunnels of bushes or in the large oak (christened the No Rope, No Hope Tree) preferring to have as many escape routes as possible. It was basically fartlekking all day. When we wanted a larger game, we’d move to Uffmoor Woods. Sometimes we wouldn’t see each other for an hour. The chases could go on and on until the runner managed to get out of sight and earshot. I’d stop running when I wanted to and then sprint off without complaint. There was no set route: I took each turn as it came. By day this seemed like the only natural thing to do; in my night thoughts I’d worry that anything could happen to one of us whilst we were separated.

Somewhere along the way running became exercise for me. It was tied to ideas of getting fitter and, lately, of posting better times in organised races. One of the pleasures of the last few years has been running with my friends in an amiable, mild-mannered wolf pack of thirty-somethings. I’m not as fit as I could be and there have been periods when I’ve let it slide but I’ve managed some regular miles every year since.

This year I entered my first races. The first big one was the Edinburgh Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon, running with Dan and Jenny at the start of this year. It was wet and windy but invigorating to have bands playing by the side of the course. The locals were cheering too: I saw a mother and son banging pots and pans on their doorstep in Leith. For most of the race I was trying to catch up to Dan. We’d started (too quickly) together but he began to outpace me. It wasn’t until two thirds of the race in after a portaloo pitstop that I gave up trying to catch sight of him and decided to run (survive) my own race.

As I approached the ‘1 mile to go’ DJ booth, Mr. Brightside started playing. Something about the familiar intro gave me THE SHIVERS as Owen Meany would say. A runner’s high. In Eat and Run, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek describes this as ‘satori’, ‘the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit’. Scott Jurek’s limit is clearly way, way beyond my own. I found this concept the most interesting in his book. Satori means ‘consciousness’ in Japanese… perhaps as if you were experiencing consciousness itself.

What brings on a runner’s high? I’ve only felt it that once while running. It was a kind of elation, hard to describe. Running naturally calls you back to the moment. Even as your mind wanders over the day or what you’re going to eat after you’ve showered, your awareness is brought back to your footing, deciding which turn to take, slowing your pace to conserve energy. This is very similar to the aim of mindfulness meditation: returning your awareness to the present moment by focusing on the breath. When I had my runner’s high in Edinburgh, I’d been keeping a close eye on my breathing and pace. Why that song? Perhaps my body was briefly tricked into thinking I was in my early 20s and dancing in Subculture again. The beat and arpeggio are uplifting. It’d fill the dancefloor at 1am but it’s never been a personal favourite. Even though I’d dance along with everyone else on a night out it’s not something I’d choose to listen to on my own. Maybe the appeal of ‘Mr. Brightside’ at that moment was that it helped me to feel that I was just one of the other runners losing myself in a collective experience. Maybe it was simply the atmosphere of the city and the race. I finished in 1:48.

I ran the Basingstoke half marathon in October. This course is more scenic than most town or city-based courses and the countryside is spectacular and… undulating. It was a hot race. Old ladies manned water stands at the end of their driveways. Kids squirted us with super soakers as we ran through a village. Their dads trained hosepipes on us. All magically refreshing but there was no runner’s high this time. After the category four hill at Farleigh and the big dipper my legs were fairly dead. I tried to capitalise on the last three downhill miles but it was all I could do to keep going. My legs wobbled as soon as I was on the other side of the finish line. I had to sit in a chair for a minute or two. We’d spent several weeks training on the course and had seen deer and kites as the autumn sun went down and we grew increasingly and happily depleted. My time on the day was 1:45.

The half marathon distance appeals to me: long enough to be demanding, requiring training and commitment; short enough to be manageable and inclusive. I’ve signed up to two more and a 20 miler at the start of next year. I’m hoping to improve on my times not by training ridiculously hard – life is busy at the moment – but naturally: by eating a bit better, running regularly and having a bit more race experience. I want to get back to that playful approach to running that I had when I was younger. I’m trying not to worry about times too much, focusing on enjoying the training and the race itself. I have a bit more to say about running and time but I’ll leave that for now.

What to make of all this? I suppose I’m turning towards wholesome pleasures. It should help that I don’t drink as much as I used to, certainly not as much as a 26 year old who’d just started working in academic publishing. Back then I might have left the office on a Friday and drank from 5:30 until the bar staff were putting tables on chairs. Training was consistently inconsistent. I’d run 5k every night at times, then nothing for months. Now we’re all a bit older, we’re more likely to socialise by jogging for a few miles after work or going for dinner and ordering green tea, perhaps a beer or two. That’s usually enough these days… apart from recently at Pete’s wedding where I got blotto on golden ale and smoked a Cuban.

categories: essays, reflections
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