Running: My Moving Meditation

Me, My Body and The Path Before Me

“Running strips me down to my barest self in a way that is empowering. It’s just me, my body, the path before me, and some sort of energy that feels more given than acquired. I am propelled, step by step, mile by mile.” Photo by Gretchen TenBrook

I recently completed my 8th marathon — another marker of my passion for running that has faithfully carried me through the last decade of my life. Each race in itself, from marathon to 5k, has been a journey that started long before the finish line. In fact, when I think about all of the miles involved in training, I have probably run more marathons than I can count. However, it’s not the distance that matters, but rather the faithfulness to whatever each day on my training plan asks of me to be and do.

Running is not only key to my physical fitness, but also to my mental and emotional well-being and spiritual growth. It is a transformational endeavor in that it is a moving meditation that calls me to a keen awareness of the moment at hand. It forces me to move forward, step by step, on both my best and worst days. That sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?

Running has a way of making me feel profoundly alive, even during those times when my aching body would prefer to quit. There is something about the palpable sensations in my body that render all other stimuli null, dropping me out of my busy mind and allowing me to just be. The rhythm of my breath and the sound of my feet on the pavement seem to carry me along in a sort of timeless fashion that both challenges and calms me at the same time.

Ironically, I trained for my first marathon while undergoing ECT treatment for major depression. Looking back, I’m shocked (literally and figuratively) that I took on such a monumental task during such a time of severe emptiness and fragility.

But now, it makes sense… Running was actually my saving grace during that time in that it allowed me to feel… Amidst an overall disorienting numbness that alienated me from everyone and everything, even my very sense of self, it gave me a reason to get out of bed every day.

I remember going to my treatments and being hooked up to the ECG machine before being put under. The recording revealed a resting heart rate in the low 40’s, endlessly setting off the alarm to get the attention of the care team. Strangely, my profoundly slow pulse reflected my apathetic state, but even more so, a heart that had no choice but to increase its capacity and efficiency due to countless hours of endurance training. Paradoxically, I was strong amidst a terrifying weakness that had me existing on the margins of life.

Whether I have been depressed or not, running has proven to be a cathartic activity in that it strips me down to my barest self in a way that is empowering. It’s just me, my body, the path before me, and an energy that feels more given than acquired. I am propelled, step by step, mile by mile. In such a raw state, whatever is brewing inside of me surfaces naturally and effortlessly. I am left only to embrace whatever is with a sustenance I never knew I had. I witness the person I am in that very moment with no means of denial or resistance. There is great freedom in that.

Sometimes, when I sense a restless emotion deep within, I put on my running shoes and hit the road, trusting that somehow whatever needs to emerge with do so. It never fails me. Some of my best runs have been accompanied, or even driven, by waves of grief or leaps of joy. Sometimes, in my more expressive moments, I wonder if passers-by think I’m crazy, but I really don’t care. To provide the world around me with a little live entertainment is not exactly bad, after all. I usually don’t run with music, but when I do, Christina Aguilera’s “I Just Wanna Feel This Moment” can have me swirling down the suburban sidewalks, to anyone’s amusement or alarm.

Running also has a ritualistic quality to it that makes me feel like I am engaging in a sacred offering — to myself, and to Something Beyond, which I can only describe as Good. There is a sanctifying aura about pulling on my favorite Athleta shorts and whatever singlet is calling my name for the day, in addition to securing my long hair in a ponytail and bending down to double knot the neon laces of my Sauconys. Almost like a priest donning vestments before mass to welcome God in the company of whoever and whatever shows up… Again and again, I’m ready. What lies ahead, I do not know, but I choose to face it. I step out in faith and let each step inform my way.

In addition to the solitude that running offers, it connects me with strangers who somehow feel like family. We runners faithfully exchange glances, nods, waves and other gestures of solidarity that bond us in a common journey that transcends our unique stories. We are all out there for different and often inspiring reasons, but nothing matters more than the moment at hand.

This mysterious sense of community is heightened in races, as we stand at the starting line in a great mass, all of us holding the tension of anticipation. Similarly, as we traverse the course in varying paces and forms, we somehow all contribute to a cooperative energy that drives us to our common destination. Sometimes I have the privilege of hearing glimpses of powerful stories during such times: “This is my 50th marathon!” or “Yeah, I’ve been running since my wife died last year. Gets the grief out…”

The 2013 Boston Marathon, scarred by the bombings at the finish line, gave me a surreal experience of this greater sense of community that I never thought was possible. Stopped at mile 25.8, according to my GPS watch, we runners shared water bottles, space blankets, legs cramps, useless cell phones, and a fear for the well-being of our loved ones for an hour that felt more like an eternity. Later, after scaling fences to meet my family on Columbus Avenue, I left the city with a sense of horror that was strangely accompanied a deep sense of gratitude for the caring capacity so alive and well in the hearts of mere strangers amidst tragedy.

Running not only has bonded me with others who enjoy the activity, but also with the greater world of all creation. No other venture has so tangibly aligned me with the vitality of nature, in both its glory and torment. Summer runs confront me with stifling heat and humidity that force me to search for my breath lost in the suffocating elements. Somehow, I mesh with the drops of sweat that drench my clothes, mimicking the juiciness of the abundant life around me. Fall outings greet me with crisp air that awakens my lungs and glorious golden trees that show me how life can be so paradoxically vibrant in its final stages, similar to a hospice patient embracing her death.

Training in the winter of 2014 presented a unique challenge with brutal elements I’m not sure I would have agreed to endure had I known before their onset. Yes, we New Englanders remember that winter of weekly Nor’easters, record snowfall, and nowhere to drive, shovel snow, or walk, let alone run. My weekend long runs consisted of endless Netflix episodes on the basement treadmill, or crunchy strides through snow with ice-laden lashes and frozen toes on the carriage roads of Commonwealth Avenue. Yet my commitment amidst such harsh conditions and limitations rendered a strong finish in the dawn of spring.

If I had to pick a race that has the most meaning for me, I honestly don’t know which one it would be. Each marathon to 5k brings with it a certain petition to dedicate my energy to someone or something that needs love, whether it be myself, or another person or cause. Running for charities, like The Ally Foundation, has given added meaning to my efforts. In that case, I run in honor of my childhood friend, Ally Zapp, whose life was taken from her when murdered by a repeat sexual offender in a rest stop bathroom in July of 2002.

The 2016 New York City Marathon offered me yet another special invitation, inspired by a dear friend, to dedicate my run to the life force that carries all of us: our breath. At first thought, such a simple notion may seem boring, but breath is the very foundation of all life. It is what both gives and takes our very being and sustains us on the winding journey in between. To breathe is not only to lend oxygen to my working muscles, but also to ground myself in the eternal rhythm of releasing and renewing, giving and receiving, dying and rising…

As my body ached to stop short of the finish upon entering Central Park, I kept saying to myself, “Find your breath, Gretchen, find your breath… Its there for you… Find it.” And I did, again and again. This mantra of sorts kept me going and gave me a spirit that refused to stop. I rounded the corner onto Central Park West with an undeniable determination that carried me beyond my limitations to a place where I was thriving through a Power that felt both relentless and finite at the same time. I trusted only the stride I was in, and in doing so, found myself crossing the finish a bit light-headed, yet restoring myself in the very breath that got me there.

I’m not sure if another marathon is left in my 47 year-old body whose glutes and hamstrings have rebelled from all the pounding over time. But in any case, the discipline of sorts has not only taught me how to strive to my potential, but also how to honor my limitations. It’s all a matter of listening to whatever each step is telling me, and then finding the willingness to say “yes” to the invitation embedded in the moment. As Rumi wrote so poignantly, “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.” Or in my case, as I start to run. It is, indeed, my moving meditation.

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