Going the Distance

I’ve been recovering slowly from a couple of running injuries, and this week I logged my first “normal” mileage in several months.  It’s been a long haul, I ain’t gonna lie.  I hate being hurt.  It scares me, swings my emotional compass needle wildly between panic and denial.  I make decisions straight from the gut, drawing on equal parts catastrophic thinking and willfully sticking my head in the sand.  I go to extremes to ease my discomfort, from doing further damage trying to power through it to staying teeth-grittingly still, hoping it will all go away.  The pain itself acts like an uninvited guest in my brain, shadowing it with its own special brand of fatigue, depression, anxiety.

Running has forced me to acknowledge that my body has the final say in what I can and cannot do.  It’s taught me to listen, not for what I want to hear, but for what is actually there.  It’s taught me that the way to keep moving is to treat discomfort as data, to respond to pain with questions—What hurts? What eases it? What makes it worse? How bad is it? What triggered it? How does it compare to other familiar pain? —rather than anger or despair.  It’s taught me how to tell which pain demands a full stop and rest, and which pain is eased by gentle, progressive activity.  It reminds me several times a week that forward motion is the result of long-term commitment that includes training the mind and heart as much as the legs and lungs. 

I’ve run two (slow) marathons, and now that I see how well these injuries are healing, I’m thinking of training for a third. I love the training, the systematic, careful increases in weekly mileage with allotted days for rest and complementary exercise.  I love feeling myself change as my body accustoms itself to the increasing demands upon it, the moments of confidence and pride when a workout that exhausted me a few weeks ago is easy now.  I love resting with a purpose, letting my muscles and joints recover and become stronger.  I love the way it weaves itself into my whole life until everything I do is tinged with it.

I apply the same principles to my life as an activist, which involves many of the same mental and emotional challenges as long-distance running.  Especially now, when so much of the conversation about justice and equality is fraught with defensive, divisive rhetoric, it’s important to realize that the finish line in this critically important race is still where we’re headed.  We’re still aiming at the same goal of a better world, and the work that each of us has to do is still there to be done.  Those who wish to thwart this goal, who want to sabotage and marginalize the work we do, are eager for us to become to distracted and too frightened to continue. The rantings and outrage in the media and on the Internet are the hills and potholes along our route, they are not the race.  If we allow ourselves to be stopped by them, we will lose the fight.  Here’s what I’ve learned about training for the long haul, and getting there in one piece.

Have a plan. Nothing builds confidence like having an idea of what you are setting out to do and how you plan to do it.  New to the struggle? There’s loads of good stuff out there about how to pitch in.  Just like with running, there are people who have done this before and who are good at it.  Read and listen to and see what they have to say.  Pay attention to the ideas and strategies that resonate, and focus your inquiry there.  As you begin to imagine yourself applying these ideas and strategies in your activism work, don’t be surprised if you notice opportunities pop up in your life that feel relevant; life has a way of doing that.  Put your body in the company of others who share your vision. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and start learning to live there—it’s the most radical act of all. Your plan will start to take shape when you see a chance to make a difference and you think you have a way to do it.  Think it out, write it down. Run it by someone with more experience than you, ideally someone in a group likely to be most impacted by your action, to make sure you’re not heading into unintentionally harming those you want to support. Then have at it!

Take your plan with a grain of salt.  Every runner knows that a training schedule is just a guideline. It doesn’t have room for illness, for unexpected work deadlines or family emergencies or vacations.  It gives an idea of how to improve strength and endurance enough to meet the goal, but it doesn’t take real life into account at all.  The real task of training is to bend life and the training schedule until they align in a sustainable way.  I give myself a full 6 months to train for a marathon even though “official” training schedules are as short as 18 weeks for a relative newbie like myself.  But I’m pushing 50, and by no means slender, so I want to take a little extra time to get from each level to the next and prevent injury if I can.  In activist work, that kind of flexibility is key.  Don’t measure your effectiveness solely by your adherence to a deadline.  What matters is that you’re doing the work, attentively and without giving up; if it takes you longer than you anticipated, or you encounter setbacks that throw the plan into disarray, take heart.  If this were easy, it would have been done years ago.  Epic struggles take time.  The small steps that fail to yield the desired results may be the seeds of progress you haven’t even imagined yet. It all counts.  Pay attention to the impact of what you’re doing.  One advantage of going slow is that you can stop harm before it becomes widespread; if your plan damages those it’s intended to help, all is not lost.  Stop short, name the mistake and the damage it caused, repair what you can, and proceed with a changed plan.

The hardest work is in your own head.  Legs will get stronger if you increase the demands on them; lungs will get more efficient, blood vessels will get more resilient.  It’s part of the design,  we can count on it.  Staying committed to the practice of self-strengthening, however, is like herding cats.  Our minds do not like the fears and insecurities that come along with keeping commitments; we can derail ourselves from the noblest of projects several times a day because we’re lazy, we’re distracted, we’re afraid to fail (or succeed), we’re uncomfortable, we’re stressed.  We have only to look at the enormous industry built to “support” people wanting to change their bodies to realize that it’s not an easy thing to do. Trying to make the world a better place is much the same. Some days we just don’t feel like it, and yet the work clamors to be done.  Learning how to tell which signals deserve our attention—is my inner resistance the product of exhaustion that means I need rest, or is it really a fear of being shunned and isolated by my white friends for speaking up about racism?—is a serious challenge.  Runners know how hard it is to get out the door on a sluggish day, and how often those runs turn out to be the most satisfying.  We know what it’s like to be halfway there and to feel like there’s no gas left in the tank.  It’s the same with the struggle for justice and equality.  In order to truly take care of ourselves, we have to recognize which of our inner signals are self-defeating and counterproductive and start ignoring them in favor of those we know are authentic.  This means looking squarely at the truth about ourselves, about what our weaknesses are and how they are likely to derail our efforts for justice. It means forgiving ourselves for being flawed, even embracing the flaws as signs of wounds that need healing. It means taking responsibility for the fact that our good intentions mean nothing by themselves, that the value of our work lies in its impact on others—as defined by their experience, not ours.  It means we have to reach a point where we claim our participation in the oppressive history and structures that make up our society, and simultaneously try to interrupt those structures.  We have to become aware that our reflexive anger at others is most likely triggered by our own fears and weaknesses.  We have to learn how to soothe and nurture our own frayed emotions in order to do our work from a place of groundedness and peace. Finding, recognizing and constantly returning to that center is the only way to make ourselves keep the commitment the work requires of us.  Just as the strongest, most coordinated athlete in the world can’t run a marathon if she doesn’t have the mental discipline to keep training, the most passionate, well-intentioned activist in the world will be useless unless she figures out how to stay engaged and motivated for the long haul.

It’s okay to fail.  Runners, like activists, have a dream-self in their heads that never gets hurt, never gets older, never slows down, never makes mistakes.  Marathons teach us to hold that dream-self lightly, as an inspiration rather than a role model.  We make mistakes.  Our bodies and minds fail us when we least expect it.  We get over-confident or under-confident and zig where we should have zagged.  We push too hard or not hard enough and find ourselves hamstrung by our own poor judgement.  Justice and equality work have the same pitfalls.  We find ourselves over-reaching and offending or under-reaching and being ineffective. We are called out on gaps in our our analysis and awareness that slap us with how much work we still have left to do.  We encounter stronger resistance than we expect, or our allies don’t show up as they promised, or the money doesn’t come through.  Our friends and families are indifferent or downright hostile to our efforts.  These aren’t signs of deep personal inadequacy to the task.  They are the natural defeats and setbacks of any long campaign, the signals that we need to pause, regroup and restrategize.  Often the feelings of disappointment and frustration that we feel when we encounter failure in this work stem from an inflated sense of our own importance.  We can learn valuable lessons about our own limits and the importance of trusting others to excel where we cannot.  White people are trained to think that our solutions are the right ones, that failure is a moral deficit, that a failure of our plan is a failure of ourselves.  The truth, as real at a community meeting as on the running trail, is that the only part of the journey that we can control is whether or not we’re giving it the best we’ve got.  The rest—including what our “best” may be on any given day—isn’t up to us.

Recognize the small successes.  There’s no way to get to the finish line without realizing how much we accomplished along the way.  We got off the couch.  We found shoes that fit.  We bundled up and ran in the cold and sweated our guts out in the heat.  We conquered 5 miles, then 7, then 13, then 18, then 20.  We ran through cramps, nausea, exhaustion, runny noses and tears.  Sometimes it took a few tries, but we kept trying until our bodies agreed to do what we asked of them.  Those successes are what get us through the dark places of despair, self-doubt and frustration.  They happen in the struggle for social justice too.  We find new ways to engage opponents in conversation, we connect with new allies in spite of differences, a congressman introduces the legislation we lobbied for, we face painful truths about ourselves with compassion, we find a creative and cheap solution to a thorny problem.  Every time we do this it is a step forward.  Even if the conversation ends without the resolution we want, or our new allies desert us, or the bill doesn’t pass, the progress was still real.  This is not a zero-sum game.  The hard, ugly painful stuff doesn’t cancel out or invalidate the good stuff.  Remembering those moments when our effort paid off, when the world responded to our attempts to change it, is an immensely powerful tool in staying motivated for the long haul.  Write them down, practice reciting them to the mirror, hold them in your heart. And if anyone else was there with you, remember them too. That shared energy is powerful stuff.

To a runner, everything reminds her of running.  Pain, patience, courage, failure, shame, persistence, laziness…they each have their place in the journey of training for a long, long race.  The struggle for justice and equality—and to be a worthy and valuable accomplice in that struggle—may require a different kinds of strength and endurance, but the lessons from the trail still hold.  The journey will be long, and for most of us there will be more failure than triumph. Not all days can be Race Day.  It’s worth figuring out how much rest is the right amount to allow healing and restoration without losing fitness.  Take that much.  It’s okay to let people cheerlead and support you, especially if you’re doing some cheerleading and supporting of your own.  We’re all in this together, runners.

©Mary Braden 2016

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