Today I ran 17 miles, in preparation for a possibly-foolhardy marathon attempt in about two months. It capped off two weeks of serious training that also contained 3 out-of-town meetings, 3 weekend hospital shifts, my first week in an online Economics class, an improvised beer-and-pizza reunion with a dear friend, and the re-launch of this blog. I am writing this about 3 hours later, on the couch from which I have no intention of moving ,except for personal hygiene, until after the sun goes down. Nothing actively hurts, but my legs weigh a ton, and I have about enough energy to snack and type—nothing more.
I really wore myself out on that run, mentally as much as physically. I pushed myself to the very limit of my perseverance, and the resulting lethargy makes it clear at a visceral level that I need to drop everything and rest. My brain isn’t suffering, but it’s definitely not up for looking at work emails or planning travel. Trying to imagine getting up and cooking a meal or walking into the village is entirely beyond me. For the first time in my brief running career, I have worn myself right out.
I’ve been exhausted before, but have been terrible at realizing it. I ignore the gradual accumulation of clues that indicate that I’m losing ground: sleep deficits, short-temperedness, increased anxiety, decreased energy, hampered creativity, obsessing about irrelevant details, defaulting to rich, succulent food that feeds emotional needs rather than physical ones. I find myself blaming other people or outside circumstances with reckless abandon, rather than holding myself accountable for organizing my response to my own life. It creeps up on me gradually, this stealthy cocktail of stress and self-neglect until one day it spawns something prominent enough to catch my flagging attention and I recognize that it’s time to get back on the rails.
Running serves as an excellent barometer for monitoring how tired I am, and also a useful metaphor. Overtraining—pushing the body harder than its resilience can accommodate—has mental and emotional effects that feel astonishingly similar to the dragging deficiencies that appear when I’ve been ignoring my stress level for too long. The difference is that I’m willing to change my training schedule to avoid physical injuries and loss of performance, whereas I was never willing to monitor my inner and outer life to ensure that I remained consistently functional and capable of full engagement in my world. The more I run, the more that is changing. Sheer exhaustion like today is a wake-up call to pay more attention, to calculate the risks more cautiously, to make sure that I stay focused first and foremost on the long view. I don’t want to run a marathon if it’s going to diminish my joy in running, do lasting damage to my legs, take me away from the other activities that have a rightful place in my free time. I want to run that 26.2 miles and feel good about it before, during and after. I want to test my body, push its limits, increase its capabilities, but I don’t want to wear it out. I have plans for an active, energetic future and I want today’s pursuits to feed that vision, even if it means coming up with new and creative ways to give my body what it needs without driving myself crazy in the process.
Recognizing the truth of wise attention to my physical self has made it far easier for me to understand the analogous task of husbanding my emotional and intellectual energy. Hearts and brains, like legs, need exercise but not too much. Feelings and thoughts need attention, but not all of them all the time. Some patterns of thinking fail to produce any progress towards greater resilience, creativity and strength. Some emotional habits only re-create situations I already know I dislike. I’m comforted by the idea that there is no good and bad in these contemplations; there are results that are more and less pleasant, and there is action which is more and less skillful. My task in attempting to create and preserve a peaceful inner landscape is to become more skillful at preserving and exploring peace; my task in attempting to teach my body to run marathons is to become more skillful at preserving and exploring sustainable stamina, strength and mental discipline. Each of these feeds the other, but the task is fundamentally the same.
This may sound contradictory, but I firmly believe there’s a place for exhaustion in all this. There’s a place for testing the envelope, for seeing what happens when all the stops are pulled out. There’s only one way to know for sure what we can do, and I think part of a wholly-engaged life is to find out. The point is to make it deliberate, mindful, part of a journey we have chosen to take. It’s healthy and invigorating to nose around outside our comfort zone, to question and test our assumptions. Research suggests that getting stuck in a mental and emotional rut is as debilitating to quality of life as sedentariness. To live in this place of exploration all the time would be desperately taxing, though, if we just started holding ourselves to a new standard with no preparation. Just as a runner banks energy by skillful attention to sleep, diet, hydration and relaxation, a person trying to live with full and active presence in her emotional and intellectual life needs to become skillful at banking the self-awareness, self-love and self-confidence required for that challenging, unpredictable journey. She needs to set and maintain emotional boundaries strong and flexible enough to protect her freedom. She needs friends and family she can trust not only for support but for honest, loving feedback. She needs time and space and activity that are hers alone.
Humans are fond of creating challenges to pit themselves against. We may be hard-wired for it. Part of that effort is pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion and feeling the inordinate, even paradoxical, surge of pride that goes with just barely making it. I’m all about that particular thrill. But I don’t want to feel it just today. I want to feel it over and over again in all the parts of my life. And that means knowing when to take it easy, when to stop, when to push forward and when to pause. Tomorrow I will rest, stretch, sleep extra, eat good food and let my body recover. As I look at my relationships, my work, my inner child (inner parent too) and my comfort in my own skin, I must make sure that I take enough rest to preserve the peace that makes growth possible in that realm as well. There is room in the examined life to train hard and well for better love and deeper understanding. There must also be room for rest, for self-nurturing, for saying When. This is a long race, and it is not to the swift; it is to the wide-awake and to those who are at peace.
©Mary Braden 2015