The Metaphorical Trail Runner

‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.

Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.

Keep head upright and look ahead.

Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.  

I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally. 

Watch that step

Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.

This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness. 

Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead. 

The road ahead

Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.

Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.  

Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.  

For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.

Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk. 

I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life. 

Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?

Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.

Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?   

Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.

It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!

It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.

** elisabethgrantart.com 

Why I Am Blogging

There is hope! (sunrise run on Ben Vane, West Loch Lomond, Scotland. 9 Dec 2017)

Shortly will be the first anniversary of this blog. It seems appropriate to share how it’s gone as well as my aspirations and thinking behind writing about life, faith and running. 

I started with not much of a plan, just a sense of wanting to say something. Each blog has been different and unpredictable with varying lengths of time between each blog. The creative process involved has been surprisingly enjoyable. Thank you to those who have taken time to read and given encouragement. In our media saturated age I am well aware there is competition for your attention. Choosing the broad themes of life, faith and running has suited me. It has given freedom to write about most things. Some say a blog should be focussed. My decision has been to incorporate the broad (life and faith) as well as the specific (running). To keep the blog within a narrow framework doesn’t appeal to me. Also not sure I could sustain writing about similar things for long. 

So a ‘life’ theme is sufficiently wide to cover most things! You can’t get much more general than ‘life’, a great catch all that gives me freedom! Sharing parts of my history has been helpful personally. Helpful in the sense of becoming more aware that all of my life experience needs embracing. I am being challenged to own my history. As Henri Nouwen says…

“many of us have lost our sensitivity for our own history and experience our life as a capricious series of events over which we have no control“

Reaching Out, page 68.

To the extent I share my hope is to be honest. The bad as well as the good. Sorrows as well as  joys. Living with regrets as well as fulfilled ambitions. My experience and perspectives belong to me. The hope in sharing is that some of that may resonate with your own life. 

Nouwen again…

what is most universal is most personal and indeed nothing human is strange to us

Reaching Out

When it comes to writing about my faith as a Christian it is personal but also I hope relatable. The Bible describes the coming of Jesus as ‘good news’ (‘gospel’). The call to follow Jesus is part of life itself, precious but not always easy to share and express. Nevertheless it would be dishonest of me to separate life and faith. It would also not be right to paint a picture that trust in Jesus leads to the removal of doubts, fears or anxieties. Dark days and sometimes confusion is part and parcel of being human, whether Christian or not. There is also brokenness and a gap between what I say I believe and what I actually believe (i.e. do). What light there is I only reliably find in the Bible as God’s Word to mankind.

The great paradox is that despite struggles there is also great joy and encouragement. I am on a journey with a promising destination. Speaking of journeys and destinations leads me to running.

To write about running could mean a non-runner will not readily relate or share the same enthusiasm. However as mentioned elsewhere (see ‘about’) I view running, particularly endurance running, can serve as a helpful metaphor in travelling life’s path. A path we are all on.

Gingerbread muffins – currently don’t bake but greatly appreciate the results. 

I have never done hot air ballooning but might be interested in giving it a go. Thus far I have exhibited virtually no carpentry skills but admire those who can make beautiful things out of wood. Not sure if assembling Ikea flat pack furniture counts! Nor do I share my wife’s ability and enthusiasm for creating colours and abstract art. My life though is enriched when I am enabled to enter into ‘their’ world as they communicate their passion and demonstrate their abilities or creations. A window of opportunity may be opened to me or my imagination is sparked. That is my justification for occasionally rambling on about long distance trail and mountain running! Pushing yourself to discover your limits is a discipline that demands both the physical and the spiritual.

Thank you for reading and trust you will continue to join me in the future.