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January 9, 2010 / elodie kaye

State of Innocence

All of my runs these days are such that I can afford to think of anything, everything or nothing.  Though I have a few races in the back of my mind, I like to have a base of at least 25 or 30 miles a week before I begin thinking about structured training for any race.  Right now, I’m back to a state of innocence.  Like a new runner, all that really matters is to run a little more each week at any pace that lets me keep running, week after week.  What I think about matters not at all, so long as it allows my body to keep moving.

There is an openness to every run.  So long as I am out the door and moving, it can be whatever I want it to be that day.

Some of my runs put me in a state without thought.  I am aware of the sun, the sky, the road, a traffic light, an errant soccer ball, and can react to all of them, but it’s with a feeling that all of these elements move together in an elaborate clockwork.  I kick away the soccer ball because I am simply meant to, rather than because it’s in my way.  The traffic light turns red in front of me, but green to the left because I am meant to go that way.  It feels as though the road and the sky flow past me rather than my legs labouring to move me, and I feel I could go on like this all day.

Runs like that are wonderful, but I only get them after I’ve attained a certain degree of fitness.  They’re uncommon for me after an injury or even during the recovery from a long race.  In both of those situations, I’m simply too tired on my daily excursions to achieve this meditative state.  After a while, I grope my way toward this state once a week or so, but this is not why I run.

Related to this meditative state is one of complete, laser-tight focus.  Every muscle in your body is directed at catching the red-shirted runner ahead, or getting to the flag which marks the mile before the clock ticks over, but it’s with a sense of expectation that of course, you will.  There is no panic, no anxiety about failure. There is pain, but there is also an electric thrill that you find yourself stronger than you thought, that the task is easier than you imagined.  The sensation of exquisite pain, and the decadent pleasure of unleashing strength you didn’t know was in you, co-exist simultaneously.  Peacefully.  You don’t know how long you’ve been running like this, how long you can continue, how much farther the race.  You don’t care.  Your body is consumed in fire.  All you want is to keep running.

I’ve only been there a handful of times.  I’ve talked to other, more seasoned, runners about this, so I know I’m not crazy.  It seems to be rare.  You can race, even PR, or win outright, and not feel this way.  It’s difficult to get this feeling in a training run, mainly because most runs don’t have such tight goals, and you typically don’t run as hard.  I’ve had it twice on the track, and a few times on tempo runs.  Both my 10-mile and half-marathon PRs were marked by finishes where I found myself in this state for the last 4 miles.  You don’t know at the time what is happening, but if you keep mile splits, they tell the story.

The most painful aspect of these experiences was the discovery that they are so rare.  After both of those races, I had a terrible hangover.  It goes without saying that it’s not possible to reach this state without training very hard, and very long. That is why I run.

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5 Comments

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  1. Vern Myers / Jan 9 2010 10:16 pm

    Yes, Elodie… I’ve been there too. It’s a zen-like experience. I suppose that most runners that have run for a while have been there. Any runner that’s been there knows exactly what you’re talking about. It’s an almost unspoken bond between runners. You mention it. They nod. You see it in their eyes. They know. Or a certain fire you feel when another runner talks (or writes) about his or her love for the sport. You sense why they feel that way. You know.

    It’s one of the reasons we continue running. Yes, it happens only occasionally, and you can’t predict when it will happen. It only lasts a few minutes, sometimes a few seconds. I’ve never felt it in a race. Most of mine happen on long, solitary runs, usually halfway or sooner, before the pushing through fatigue takes over. Once in a while, late, along with that second wind that sometimes washes the fatigue away.

    Thanks for making me stop and remember. Most runs make me feel good. Some make me feel great. A rare few put me in that special place… but I’ll run as long as my legs will carry me, looking for the next one.

    • elodiekaye / Jan 10 2010 12:25 pm

      Wow, that is so cool that you can see if another runner is having it. I’ve never seen anyone else when they’re in that place. Either that, or I’m just not very good at spotting it. A friend of mine who plays baseball though, says he’s seen it. He talks about the eyes, too.

      None of the runners I asked mentioned getting ‘breakthrough’ on long runs, so I haven’t been looking for it there. Now I’ll have to do that, though maybe I don’t run long enough yet. Or perhaps my long runs are too slow. See, that’s the trouble, no one I’ve talked to about this seems to know how to make more of them!

  2. Vern Myers / Jan 10 2010 2:42 pm

    If we knew how to make more of them, we’d run that way every day! I thought about it more as I ran this morning. I had a good run today, felt great, maybe felt almost on the verge of it for a few seconds, tried to surrender to it, but it didn’t happen. I thought about the incidence on a long run either just short of the fatigue point, or at the second wind after the fatigue point. I wondered what they have in common. I’ll have to analyze this further when the “breakthrough” moments happen again, but I think it MAY be something that tends to happen for me on a long run, because that’s when I settle into a rythmn of stride and breathing long enough for an almost hypnotic effect to develop. And I think the timing (just short of fatigue/second wind) MAY indicate that it’s more likely for me just below anaerobic threshold; in one case, on the way in; in the other case, on the way out. Just theory at this point, but worth further observation.

    • elodiekaye / Jan 10 2010 10:16 pm

      Well yes, I guess I was hoping to be able to run like that all the time… is that wrong of me? 😉 I was sort of trying to describe two different states: ‘zen’ and ‘breakthrough’ for lack of a better word. They’re related I think, but not the same.

      My zen runs are relatively fragile. Surging on the flats or up a hill, can shake me out of it, maybe not the first time, but generally doing anything that causes more and more discomfort messes it up for me. On the other hand, getting to zen seems to be somewhat more reliable. I still can’t take it for granted of course; sometimes I’ve gone months without seeing it, but as long as I’m running more than 25 miles per week, they come back. I’ve never had a whole year go by without one.

      The breakthrough runs are significant for the degree of pain — a lot of pain. It’s not that I didn’t feel it, it’s rather that the pain seemed irrelevant at the time. I don’t mean pain from injury, this is your garden-variety anaerobic fire. I knew that running faster = more pain, but I wanted to do it anyway. That breakthrough state didn’t evaporate, even though I sped up and felt more pain. I assume it has to catch up with you eventually. On all of the occasions it happened to me, some circumstance (the finish, fading light, change of terrain) made me stop, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to end.

      After the first time it happened to me in a race, I learned from other runners that some of them had gone .years. without it happening to them again. That was unbelievably depressing.

  3. Vern Myers / Jan 11 2010 12:27 am

    Yes, now I see that you’re talking about two different things. My comments were speaking to the zen run. And I agree; discomfort seems to inhibit it. Much more likely when otherwise feeling good and when conditions are pleasant.

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