I’m a runner.
That’s a hard statement to say without sounding smug or sanctimonious, isn’t it? It’s also a hard statement to use in response to the question, “what do you do for fun?” because most people cannot wrap their heads around using “fun” and “run” in the same sentence (despite the rhyming possibilities).
What makes me a runner is not the amount of miles I run at a time, nor the amount of runs I complete within the week. What makes me a runner is that for years the sport has called me back time and time again. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had an injury or frustratedly curse running’s name and swear it out of my life forever; I come back when I’ve healed. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have time in the mornings — I’ll go at night.
I’m a runner who doesn’t run to music.
That’s a hard statement to say without sounding really f*cking crazy, isn’t it? Let me explain. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it wasn’t the case until very recently. I never trusted people who didn’t run to music. Sadists, I assumed.
It was a Saturday, a twenty degree morning and my friend Dani and I were going on a six mile run; the first long run of our current half marathon training cycle. I wake up at 8:30, have my oatmeal by 9:00, brush my teeth, do some writing while I drink my water and before I know it, it’s 11:00 and Dani is outside my dorm. We drive to the trail, suck down a few Go-Go Squeez’s, put in our headphones, start the timer and we’re off.
Only one problem — my AirPods aren’t connecting to my Apple Watch. I know I charged them, I say to myself. Ok, don’t panic. As our pace picks up, I’m anxiously taking the AirPods in and out of my ears, hoping that I start hearing the first lyrics of “Plastic Hearts.” The message on my watch remains unchanged: “Cannot connect to Ethan’s AirPods. Make sure Ethan’s AirPods are turned on and in range.”
THEY ARE TURNED ON AND IN RANGE! Fury fills my entire body.
Nothing. No music. Now I am starting to panic because we are at .34 miles and it’s already felt like a few hours. How am I supposed to face the 5.66 miles ahead without the empowering, thumping beats that fuel my fire?
I’m a runner, I remember. I’m a runner because I love the lessons it teaches me and this must just be another. If anything has taught me patience — a lesson I often have to relearn — it’s having injuries and not being able to run when I want to. As I begrudgingly continue, I decide to channel that patience into the run and just be grateful that I’m able to move … the endorphins will come regardless of music, right?
In the area of discipline, I am extremely lacking when it comes to pace. Even though I get horrific shin splints if I run too fast, I often get too into it, speeding up to an unsustainable sub-eight minute mile.
But as I hear the sound of my breath and feel my mid-foot striking the pavement, I have no desire to go too fast. Instead of hearing music in my head, I hear nothing but silence and my body’s whispers. Little messages of, engage your core so your back doesn’t hurt or land higher up on your foot to avoid a heel strike.
I start to speed up naturally, but a little twinge along my tibia reminds me that it might be better to stay slow; maybe I can avoid the shin splints.
I get into a good rhythm. My form is strong and I feel completely focused on my breath. Occasionally my thoughts will start to drift: What are we getting for lunch after? Those girls just passed us, let me go faster! I have an assignment due at 11:59 pm tonight.
Instead of following these thoughts down the multiple rabbit holes they could lead me, I am able to just notice them and let them go. My thoughts become billowing plastic bags, momentarily plastered against the car windshield, blocking sight, then sliding up and gusting down the highway — gone as fast as they came.
I glance down. My watch reads 4 miles. How did that happen? I’m dumbfounded by how quickly this is going. Time begins to dissipate. Time becomes fragile without the definitive beginnings and ends to songs in a playlist. I look up from my watch and around me. I notice the crystal clearness of the baby blue sky. I notice the blinding white light of the sun being reflected off the iced-over snow.
All of a sudden I feel a euphoria. A different kind of “runner’s high” than I had ever experienced in the past. My past experience of runner’s high was the ego boost I got from my speed increasing as the music wound me up. I would almost see myself from the eyes of people in cars; Creating stories in my head of what those people thought about my form, my pace, how I looked in my skin-tight Nikes. That high included the illusion that I was separate and better from the people sitting behind wheels. The idea that I was morally superior and most attractive for running.
But now as I run; musicless, high and fully immersed in the beauty of the Saturday morning, I feel completely awake and alive. I feel here in the moment and at home in my body; an overwhelming sensation that I’m in the right place at the right time.
As I continue and pass the five mile mark, I start to feel and hear my breath become heavier. My euphoria cracks and shatters like a mirror and I start to berate myself for feeling tired. I begin to wish I had my loud music to drown out my heavy breathing.
But then I begin to understand that the blaring music used to distract me from that feeling, drowning out my level of fatigue but also my humanness. I clearly judge my tiredness and really need the music to drown out my thoughts of not good enough, not fit enough, not fast enough. Turning up music and increasing speed was my hardwired response to those judgements.
Now — without music — I have to face that I am, in fact, getting tired and I drop my pace even more. My body is clearly asking me to.
As I hit six miles, I reflect on how I was able to (or, had to) accept everything that came up during the run and the open-hearted awareness I felt when I wasn’t creating stories about how great I was for being a runner.
Poet and spiritual teacher Dorothy Hunt says, “Peace is this moment without judgement. That is all. This moment in the heart-space where everything that is, is welcome.”
It is amazing the peace that I have experienced now that I have allowed all my thoughts (even the negative ones) to just be without judging them or trying to escape them. I’ve welcomed my harsh inner voice and without music, I can hear it fully. When I hear that voice, I run with it — not away from it — and it dissipates naturally.