The Spirit of the 17-Miler

3.09.10: A long run house of worship


When I was a about six, my mother—a yoga teacher, avid meditator and practitoner of all things counter-culture and spiritual--gave me a book called “The Missing Magical Energy” by Shahastra.

The book tells of an Earth consumed by sadness and how all the other planets in the solar system combine to send love to our whimpering planet and how that love makes Earth smile again.

I saved the book.

When I pulled it out recently for my kids, my husband mocked it’s early 1970’s, Berkeley vibe and oversimplified message. But my kids? They loved it. Of course, that probably has more to do with the colorful and vivid illustrations and the stars and planets (“Star!” little Alan cries every time I read it). The message is not lost on them, though, and they don’t think it is weird at all.

And yesterday, despite months of bad runs, negative feelings, apathy and lack-of-motivation, I channeled my children’s blind acceptance of all things hippy-dippy and stumbled upon my own missing magical energy.

Maybe it was the movie I saw last night (a documentary called “Spirit of the Marathon”), which told the stories of athletes of all levels and what running 26.2 means to them. Or maybe it was seeing Kelly Corrigan read at a library in Boston with another mom friend.

Corrigan writes about motherhood and life and gratitude and family in a way that must speak to thousands of people since she has become a bestselling author and is now an essayist for O magazine and Glamour. Her writing is lyrical and her message simple: be grateful for what you have. Enjoy motherhood. Love your babies. The hard things in life are what make the good stuff sweeter.

At one point in her talk, Corrigan said she believes that you never really become an adult until you lose someone you thought you could not live without. It was one of the first times I have cried in public in years.

And Sunday, around mile 8 of my 17-miler, I did it again.

I was alone on my run, feet on the pavement, heart racing, fueled by a combination of caffeinated Gu, the first spring sunshine after months of winter and a run that was already going well. Last year, I would have called this emotional sucker punch “the dark place,” but yesterday, it something else, a kind of fuel not even Gu could provide. And instead of fighting it, I let it in.

I thought about the painful things I have been through in my life, particularly losing my mother at 16 and instead of getting angry and running on that, I cried. I cried for her grandchildren, who can read the book she gave me, but can’t hear her voice or sit in her lap or feel her arms wrapped tightly around them.

I felt sad for my 16-year-old self and thought of how much my own children need me--to pour the milk, get the cheerios, change their diapers and kiss their boo-boos. And I know I am tough and strong, but I needed my mom then. And even now.

I was awed by myself at 16 and wondered if maybe I was even stronger then because then I was not afraid to cry, not afraid to say I was sad. That is true strength, not running faster or being thinner or being able to carry more weight. It is being able to say you are sad when you are sad even if that makes you as vulnerable as a toddler.

And as I ran, I felt grateful. Grateful that I have these legs that can carry me so far and the pain threshold that allows me to feel the cramping and burning, legs-like-lead sensation and keep my pace when so many others, including my own mother, do not. I was grateful that I had a mother who told me to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” who taught me that sometimes to get to the spiritual and emotional, you have to transcend the physical first.

I felt grateful for the family I have built with my husband, a man who knows me better than I know myself. Most of all, I am grateful for my children, these tiny little humans who look like my mother and mirror all of my bad behaviors. I am grateful at how they force me to really look at—and improve—myself.

I was also oddly grateful for this loss I carry with me, not because I would not love to have my mother back, but because it made me who I am and I am strong, so strong it scares me at times. Sometimes I forget that so it is good to remind myself. Physical pain is nothing compared to real emotional pain and this inner strength I have I owe to that. By Mile 15, I was sobbing, shoulders heaving, face scrunched up like a crazy person and I still ran faster than I have in a training run in months, faster than I did in any training run last fall.

It was almost spiritual. I finally connected to something real: anger only gets you so far.

I finished yesterday’s 17-miler with an 8:24 average pace per mile. To qualify for Boston, I need an 8:23 pace and long training runs are typically completed at a minute per mile slower than race pace. I am close. And maybe getting to the next level means letting in the hard feelings, focusing less on the physical and more on the spirit. It is not the first time I felt emotional while running, but it is the first time I really let those feelings in instead of pushing them away. And it was as though I relit my spiritual pilot light.

I came home and told my husband I saw G-d on my run. He looked at me like I’d just plucked a squirrel from a tree and licked its furry head.

“Seriously?” he asked. “Did you hit your head?”

Typical response. After all, he is an avowed atheist and I am more of the I-don’t-know-and-don’t-care religious doctrine. If I can’t see it, smell it, taste it or touch it then I probably don’t believe in it.

One run is probably not going to change a lifetime of worshipping at the church of reason and intellect. But I can’t deny what adding the spiritual component did for me. It brought me back from the running dead, the monotony my workouts had been infused with lately. I’ve been emotional. I’ve been physical. But spiritual? That’s new.

For many, Sunday morning is a time for church and family and while I may wear Lululemon and Asics instead of the church going wide-brimmed lilac hats and sensible pumps, maybe it helps me feel just as spiritually rich. And maybe that is not so weird, after all.

Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.