I wore black December 31, 2016 when I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Let’s just say I was celebrating the death of the year 2016 — it had been a rough one. Between ending JVC, moving back to St. Louis (where I had lived during undergrad), going through a gnarly break-up, watching the election of a President I completely oppose, and starting another yearlong service program (this time with AmeriCorps), I was ready for a fresh start. By the end of 2016, I knew I wanted to make a gesture that would symbolize the beginning of something new for me, but I just was not sure what that would be.
As I began to think, dream, and plan about how 2017 was going to be different, running the Go St. Louis! half marathon crept into my mind. Now, I was not a runner; I had never been a runner. I had gone running before, sure, but I had never trained for a race, nor had I run one (of any length). For all of those reasons, and the fact I was not sure I could actually do it, I decided to to try. By doing something I had never done before I was welcoming in activities, energy, and ways of thinking I had never experienced.
Registration opened in early January and I started training later that month, but the race was not until early April. Because it was something I planned to do by myself for myself, I ended up training and running the race alone. As someone new to training, I had no idea what to do. The race committee put together training plans on their website, so I started by printing one of those out and followed it as best I could. My goal was twofold: 1. to run the half marathon the whole way through (no walking, even if that meant I would run at a slower pace) and 2. to finish the whole race. I was running 5-6 days a week starting with just a few miles every day and building up to longer distances over time.
In the beginning, I ran inside at the YMCA, and then at the Saint Louis University Recreation Center. By the end of February I started running outside when the weather wasn’t too unbearable. Sometimes I would listen to music as I ran, but later in my training it became distracting. I would turn my music off and run to the mantra “om mani padme hum.” There was something about the mantra that focused my mind while also not taking me out of the present moment.
Using a mantra during training did not spontaneously occur to me. I had shared my running goal with a good friend and mentor, and he asked how I stayed focused during my longer runs. I admitted I was having trouble when I ran more than 5 miles, so he sent me a chapter from Eknath Easwaran’s “Passage Meditation” and offered using a mantra as an alternative to music. Eknath Easwaran explains mantrum as such:
A [mantra] is a spiritual formula of enormous power that has been transmitted from age to age in a religious tradition. The users, wishing to draw upon this power that calms and heals, silently repeat the words as often as possible during the day, each repetition adding to their physical and spiritual wellbeing. In a sense, that is all there is to a mantram. In another sense, there is so much! Those who have tried it — saints, sages, and ordinary people too — know from their own experience its marvelous potency.
Even before employing the use of a mantra in my running, training had become a spiritual exercise. The combination of discipline in training, uncertainty in if I would be able to finish the race, and faith that the work I was putting in would get me to my goal proved foundational for something larger than myself. Those factors combined created a healing space into which I could enter through those many miles. Running became therapeutic. I was able to problem-solve, reflect, and both figuratively and literally move through the things that were holding me back.
Training was more than just running. There were many factors I had to take into account as I continued to train, including diet & nutrition, social life, and injury. I became more conscious of what and when I was eating and made sure I was staying hydrated throughout the day. I loved hanging out with my friends, but I would leave in the middle of a gathering to go on a run and then return, otherwise that day’s run would be lost. Throughout the process, I had to listen to my body and know when to push harder or be gentle with myself for fear of injury. Training became the thing around which I scheduled my life, and I didn’t mind that. I had not been this dedicated to anything in awhile and I could see the progress and results as race day drew closer. In Ram Dass’ commentary Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita he says, “sacrifice comes from the same root as sacred, and sacrifice has to do with making something holy” (109). During that spring, the time, energy, and concentration I expended on running became holy. I was running to train for the race, but more than that, I was running to reclaim my goals, my body, and my mental space. Running gave me the medium to do that.
The day of the race I remember waiting in the starting line around 6:00am talking with someone else who was stretching. He asked if I had ever run a half marathon before and I told him that I hadn’t run any race before. He was skeptical, and so I left him to his opinions and moved to a different spot. I ended up running the whole 13.1 miles without music or a running buddy. Just me and my thoughts. It was an incredible experience and one that showed me how important reality testing is when it comes to the things we think we cannot do. Sometimes we create our own limitations. We create them out of fear, anxiety, doubt, criticism, or ignorance (among other things). After many laps around Tower Grove Park and an additional 13.1 miles through St. Louis, I had become a runner despite the doubts with which I had started.
Photo by Liz A.