There are several articles and studies available noting the positive health impact of getting outdoors and doing exercise. For those of us who think back to our pre-Internet days, this is unsurprisingly common sense. Peace of mind is possible by the tranquility of a nature walk. Even more impactful, effects of moderate regular distance running can aid the brain in regenerating younger brain cells leading to better memory and focus.
As someone who likes the outdoors and now tries to run 50 miles a month, I know acutely what it is like to want these positive benefits. I also remember how difficult it was to get outside and start to exercise.
Currently, it’s too hot to run outside where I live, let alone go for a tranquil walk. Going to a gym might seem like an easy solution, but it turns something which normally takes around 30 minutes with minimal preparation and baggage, to a more complicated car trip, gym membership, packed bags, etc. It’s at least 30 minutes just to get to the gym. So that’s never going to happen.
What I’d like to share with you is a different kind of benefit and experience of where my simple journey to outdoor exercise has taken me. And in reflection, perhaps you too may find that with moderate stretching and growth in mind and body in your own life, you too are being offered a similar opportunity for well-being.
KNOW YOUR BODY
When I first started running, it took me awhile to get my “running legs” back. I hadn’t really run since high school. It took awhile for me to get my stiff hips from years of sitting in front of a computer to even move in a cadence resembling running. My body had changed through age and while I mentally knew how to run, my body had either forgotten or could not physically do it. Lesson Learned: your mind and your body are not together. You think you know how to do things and now you find out that you actually don’t.
Luckily like riding a bicycle, it comes back. The next obstacle was cardio fitness: were my heart and lungs up to this? I am certainly bigger and heavier than I was back in high school. And my bones and body certainly felt more fragile and less flexible than they did back then. Some lessons learned: Take it easy on yourself. This isn’t about pushing your body beyond its limits. This is about finding where your body is. What pace works best for you today?
PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE
In the beginning I just walked, pacing out a half mile or more. In time, it was easier to jog and then run these distances which had now become familiar. What is familiar overcomes what is impossible. After awhile, my body was able to rediscover and reclaim more movement and flexibility. But the first step was simply to get moving outside.
I trained as a sprinter and mid-distance runner in high school. I wasn’t anything phenomenal then, but now I could reach pacing that seemed appropriate and encouraging for someone my age. I noticed that I could still belt out a fast first mile. That pace and distance was still set in my mind and memory even as I was learning what my 40-something body could do (or had to do now to adjust) beyond that first mile.
After several months, I could finish 5K very easily and reliably. With the wonders of technology, I could look at the stats on my various runs and see where my own energies peaked and waned. Those stats and insights would float around in my head on my runs.
I could also track weather and became acutely aware of how temperature and humidity could assist or hold me back. More lessons learned: The pace you pick will change along with the time of day and weather. If you accept that, it’s not a weakness, it’s knowledge about yourself that helps you understand your pace and place in the world.
DEEP LISTENING TO YOUR RUN
There are lots of voices that come up before a run and a lot of time to think during them. What happens in those times can slow you down or motivate you more. First, there’s the voice of temptation to get you not to go. “Do I have time for this today?” “What if it rains?” “It’s too hot/too cold.”
Then there are voices that tell you to knock off early: “If that traffic light doesn’t turn green, I’ll take a shortcut and run less today…” “My stomach isn’t right or I’m a little tired…what did I eat, did I have enough water…” But after awhile, since I wasn’t competing for time and had no coach yelling at me, this all got simplified into: “Run a little more and see if you feel differently after X minutes.” Another lesson learned: Your mind will almost always turn to something else in time.
SIMPLIFY YOUR RUNNING
Nowadays, I have simplified my life and habits around my runs. I made it easier for me to put on my gear and whenever the weather cooperates and the work and family schedules allow, if I got an hour, I am out the door. That may be a personal thing. But just as we take time out to check email, get up to “stretch our legs,” etc. this is what I do with that time.
A friend of mine calls it “Two smokes and a cup of coffee.” The time many people take to do those repetitive habits is the time it takes to comfortably put in a 30-minute run. And you would be surprised what those 30 minutes of time can do. Just as we wonder how fast the time may go sitting in front of the computer, you’d be surprised how fast that time outdoors can go as well.
PAY ATTENTION WHILE RUNNING
I get some of my best ideas while running on the trails. But they only come in flashes and I am unable to fully develop them all because that requires pen and paper, which is a different activity requiring a different posture. In much the same way that a homily may succeed (or fail) in tying the Word of God heard in Scripture with a life-giving message meant for us here today, my runs have become moments to let aspects of my life move unfiltered through my mind in conjunction with the unfolding of the Book of God’s Works.
It doesn’t always make complete sense, but here are some snippets of “Running Homilies” that have bubbled up.
St. Mary Magdalene and Pokemon?
We recently celebrated the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, the First Witness of the Risen Christ whom she first mistook for the Gardener by the Empty Tomb. I am reminded of her as I pass a number of people hunched over their smartphones out searching for Pokemon. What are they looking for? What do they see? Don’t we Christians also draw attention at times as we go about with our families in our own peculiar fashions seeing something that others do not?
Run & Pray
One of the motivators I do when my mind wanders during running is to pray the Rosary. (It’s personally funny that I found myself turning to prayer while running.) The words of the Our Father, Glory Be, Hail Mary/Holy Mary, all take on a particular cadence between breathing in and breathing out. It’s becomes a meditation on breathing.
I’ve noticed these prayers break up the vertical relationship between us and God, and what is above and below. Breathing also reveals the horizontal relationship between Christ/Mary and us. Sin and death are exhaled. Forgiveness and promises of what is life giving fill my lungs. Might similar prayers in everyday activities have the rhythms that open up and sanctify these activities in a new way?
God lives in your neighborhood
At my current pace, a rosary takes just under a mile to pray. I always seem to do it in the middle of my run, never the beginning or the end. It unifies my body and soul to the earthly terrain I travel.
Later in the day, I can look back and extract my GPS location, my running map, and my exact pace at any given moment. But it’s much more likely that I will look at a patch of running trail or roadway as I drive by in my car and simply say, “I ran there.” My feet were actually on the ground there. And I will marvel at how my feet have connected different neighborhoods where I live with the prayerful experiences that I had. And it seems the mystery of the Incarnation embraces me again and tells me to tell others what I have seen. My commute around the neighborhood now is a pilgrimage with God.
- Have you let your body get away from you, not just because of age, diet or lifestyle, but more profoundly because of distraction? Is there something you haven’t done in awhile and need to rediscover the joy of being able to do it again, now?
- What is your relationship to the world? Is it apart from you, worrisome or burdening? How can you rekindle an eagerness to greet each day as gift and immerse yourself in it?
- What is the Book of God’s Works telling you today? What role do you hear in it for yourself? What pilgrimage are you on and where does God appear?
© Copyright 2016 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Running Prayerfully, September 2010 (featured image); Our Daily Prayers, July 2011; God Lives in your Neighborhood, July 2016. All Photos by Jay Cuasay. All Rights Reserved.