Thoughts on Running: A Devotional Practice

(written AUGUST 2009)


I opted for a short 10 mile run today.  I am happy that 10 miles feels short now and I can tell huge differences in my recovery, rests days, and strides now than 160 miles ago.  As I was running at night and the waxing moon, orange as a tangerine and hanging low in the east, following me and peeking through trees, I let my mind go.  Sometimes it would zone out, sometimes associations of thoughts would move around in my mind.  I kept an easy pace and just ran.

It also became apparent during Saturday’s two mile speed run that my ankle is not nearly as tender as before.  The tendons have taken over a year to heal and my running, doing infantry training with heavy packs, and working on my feet as a bartender, hasn’t helped.   Starting this running program has, at times, made my ankle hurt worse.  But what I’ve noticed is that it has healed stronger after each run.  It doesn’t have the range as my other ankle, but the lack of a sharp, shooting pain, is most welcome.  Many runs in the past I’ve thought to myself how I wonder how well I could run without an ankle sending sharp pain to my brain every step (and my adjusting with a different stride and weight shift).  I am healing.

And this leads me to my latest thought and a theme, admittedly, that has been growing inside me for several weeks now (longer actuall) that ties to resiliency and overcoming trauma and flourishing.

I do not want to simply live.  I want to flourish.  I no longer like the way Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is portrayed (as I’ve done myself in the past), as a pyramid.  It places a lot of attention on the basic needs (food, shelter, etc…) and this makes sense because without food you die.  Yet inherent in this presentation is that this is what makes up mostly what we are.  This particular drawing is different than some in tha the top of the pyramid is quite large.  However the presentation as such seems to imply that what constitutes our life, our being, is the satisfaction of our basic needs.  It doesn’t speak of drives within us, our innate and natural tendencies, for example, to form bonds and groups.  It is to be reminded that this a diagram of needs… not psychological makeup.  My attention has turned more and more to understanding the needs to fulfill in that we flourish.  Is it natural for us to flourish?  I believe so.

This is a different view.  Take a veteran with PTSD.  Feelings of safety, of love/belonging, and physiological needs are all lacking.  Or perhaps they are there but he is unable to make the connection.  Being surrounded by loving family is not the same as being surrounded by and feeling the love of one’s family.

Which leads me to myself and the theme of several entries over the past couple of months.  The most noticeable difference has been my opening the windows of my soul to the world outside.  That is, allowing things to come in.  I’ve been very open, but I’ve had guards posted.  Yet there is more and it leads me back to thoughts of soldiering.

One aspect of our uniform is the pride we have in wearing it.  It wasn’t easy for us to get it.  We had to go through boot camp to get it and not everyone can do this.  This phenomenon is well documented in various social/organizational journals wherein in people that have to work and wait to get into a lecture rate the quality of a lecture as much more interesting than those who were allowed to come in off the street.  Parents have known that a kid will take more pride and ownership of something he has to work to get.  There is more group affinity after hazing than before.

Added to this are various added challenges within the military that boost our pride even more.  There is the ‘ranger tab’ in the Army, ‘combat infantry badges’, special forces, airborne, and more.  Within all of these are challenges that must be met.  Training that is too easy is not taken seriously.  Nobody does good work, and the accomplishment has all the weight of a free box of cereal.

On my run I pass by an area teeming with blackberry bushes and in the dark I can smell the berries.  It is time to pick them and make some wine, some cobbler, and other goodies.  I wonder if I can get a certain someone to go blackberry picking with me some afternoon.

A thought in the past, concerning a stand-offish attitude of some veterans to mental health (aside from the other usual reasons that are well known) is that I believe there might be something of an attitude of “I’ve already done my part… I’ve gone to war… it sucked… now it’s everyone else’s turn to do their part”, a mentality of entitlemenet in our relationships.  This is speculation on my part.  But as I turned a corner in the dark and pushed on to mile five I had another thought… to directly challenge this assumption with this notion: you were tested as a soldier and you passed.  Your accolations are well earned.  But now it is time that you are tested as a husband, a father, and thus far in this role you are failing.  My success as a Marine avionics technician does nothing to win me points as an infantry soldier.  I can carry lessons learned, but that is all.  I must meet the challenges of my position and do well in them.

It seems like a major “duh” to write this out, yet it is a way of thinking that I think is missing.  What is more is that when a soldier feels that he is starting to fail as a father, as a husband, his understanding of that role is really an extension of his role as a soldier.  That is, develop the mission plan and execute it.  Control for chaos and acheive the objective.  It’s about tasks and goals. What about the very real, but non manly attitudes of wanting to love and be loved?  These are very present in our soldiers but, it seems, that there isn’t any way to express them.

On a side note I had a side thought on the side of my brain of a different side of masculinity in the military.  That was a fun sentence to write.  I had read an article recently about misogyny in the military and am letting this one stew for a while.  I’m trying to seperate the ‘hatred of women’ from ‘hatred of female assigned gender traits and behaviors’.  I do not believe, right now… I could be wrong, that there is a hatred of women in the military.  I do agree that with such a diminishing of the strengths of the female gender assigned behaviors and the acceptance of the male gender assigned values as the pinnacle to be a major factor in the predation of women (and non-predatory males) in the military.  This is not such an easy fix as the business that we have, of killing people, is very much a world for alpha “male” dominance traits.  That is, we want to send to a battle people (male or female) with the attitude of “Ill win this fucking fight if I have to bite, kick, scratch, gouge, bomb, shoot, stab, tear, claw you).  The alternative to this is a culture of warriors of peace entering battle, but this is so far removed from today that I struggle to even imagine what a battallion of Aikido martial artists entering battle would look like.  It goes without saying that the acting government that sends troops to war ought to have the same attitudes of the aikidoists.

Back to the earlier thought.  I was running and was around mile seven or so.  It was an easy run but I could feel a little soreness from the run the day before where I ran as fast as I could (to the point that my arm goes numb… damn birthmark).  I had been entertaining the thoughts above, of rising to the challenge, as well as what is a flourishing life and how I have become better by pushing myself, and so on and so on.  I imagined my running for the marathon and tried to establish some sort of mental toughness to ignore a little soreness.  Didn’t work.  And I’ve gone on enough ruc marches to know that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.  Pain is pain is pain.

I then rememberd the wonderful movie St Ralph.  The boy, very new to running, was able to push himself to compete in the Boston Marathon in hopes that the miracle (everyone said it’d be a miracle if he won it) would awaken his comatose mother.  Love is a propellant.

Back to my earlier entries.  I’ve become more and more accepting over the past year.  Recall what I wrote about using orris root and how it was symbolic of my saying to myself that I was ready for love to find me (that means… I am capable of recieving and giving love).  This is huge.  Keeping in mind this, and my experimenting with mental attitudes to ignore soreness, and also the various thoughts above, the thought crossed my mind that what if the marathon was an action of dedication.

Switch to memories of stories and accounts of pilgrims crawling up sharp mountain paths in Tibet.  Recall countless other stories of people proving devotion by something difficult.

Back to the run.  I had wondered if I could run a marathon in the past simply on grit.  A friend has told me that the last six miles is not about training but about that 8 inches between your ears.  I’ve wondered that, for it is this grit that we push onto soldiers on a long and difficult ruc sac march.  Aside from a physical fitness test it is really what we call a “gut check”.  We see who’s got “it” and who doesn’t.  Yet while I just passed 160 miles since I bought my Nike shoes and started doing this running, I’ve noted how running often and further has helped me prepare more and more for running.  Again, a major “duh” statement but I cannot emphasize how strong the belief that one’s grit is enough.  It is a prevalent belief, that I’ll pass or fail a test depending on my inner hardiness.  We try to push the notion of training and training… but it is at odds with our inner beliefs that grit is all one truly really needs.

Take this same reliance on grit and apply to relationships.  A soldier’s marriage may be in trouble.  How many, including wives, rely on the notion that “love conquers all”? That is, grit is all you need?

With all of these thoughts (and various associated thoughts) in my mind I wondered about the marathon.  My getting up and running every other day is from my desire to be able to run a marathon.  But is this enough?  Is it enough to do your best?  No.  This is shown in various studies that to ‘do your best’ instead of shooting for a goal, doesn’t produce as good results.  Would the idea of wanting to complete a marathon be enough for me to finish the last five miles?  The gut check?

Which brings me to the anatomy of a gut check.  A gut check has something that pushes it.  For some it is the reward of being part of an exclusive club after the event (you passed the ruc march, you graduate Marine Corps bootcamp).  What would fuel my own gut check in the marathon?  My hope, as of the last year or two, has been an earnest desire to be able to love someone.  I do not mean like, or love-light (ala Air Supply).  No… I mean the ability to truly love someone.  The key here is devotion.

My gut check.

The key to prepare for my marathon is my continued training for it.  Devotion.  But when I get to that 21 mile mark I will put before my mind that my continuing on, my not stopping, is an action of my belief in that I CAN be devoted to someone.  This is, honestly, a fear of mine, and as I thought of this, that pushing on I was proving to myself with every step that I could be devoted to someone, I felt a wave pass through my body.  The soreness was still there but it was changed.  Running in the dark changed to a devotional practice to a belief in myself.  It became much bigger than simply running a long distance.  For when you think about it, who the hell wants to run 26 miles for the fun of it?  But now I am chomping at the bits to do it.  I want to prove to myself that I can indeed be something for someone, that I can give myself to someone.

I am flourishing.


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