Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Run in the Life

I have never been consistent with exercise in my life.  Circumstances have rarely allowed me to be totally inactive, but like many people I grew to regard it as a chore, rather than a natural part of my daily existence.  I exercise because it's good for me, not because it fits organically with the rest of my life; and that's assuming I exercise at all. 

That's why whenever I adopt any sort of intense physical routine, it always ends up feeling like a project.  The kind of thing some hack director might make a documentary of, something like "my month of huffing and puffing before succumbing to the inertia of habit".  And in a way, I guess that's what this post is: documentation of the particular gauntlet I'm pushing myself through these days.

It would be narcissistic to just assume that you (the reader) care about the specifics of my sweaty exertions.  But since returning to Eugene, I've been trying to take better care of myself, both physically and mentally.  Exercise is a big part of that, and in writing about it I hope to encourage myself.  If it's of interest to anyone else, that's gratifying too.

So here's what I do, and I've been doing it for about a week now: some time between the hours of noon and two o'clock, I put on some gym-type clothes and walk about three quarters of a mile to the start of a running trail in Amazon Park.  I find myself at the head of the trail, located on the corner of 24th and Amazon Parkway.  I do some quick stretches, take some deep breaths, and admire what has thus far been some very pleasant weather.

We have such wonderful parks in town, it's a shame not to go run around in circles through them.
And then, the running starts.  If it's not obvious, I am not in what you might call "excellent physical shape".  I'm certainly not conditioned for any kind of distance running, though I'm a fair enough sprinter over (very) short distances.  So until the day I develop the necessary stamina, I limit my speed to what one might call a slow trot.  The goal is to get my heart rate up, rather than cover great distances or move at high speeds.

About a hundred meters down the way is the start of a one kilometer loop, and that is the course I follow.  Thus far, I have stuck to running one loop per day.  Experienced runners may scoff, or encourage me to try for more, but believe me, I'm only being realistic about what my body can do right now.  The first time I did this run, I almost threw up afterwards.  Since then I've become more and more used to the effort, but I don't want to push myself too soon and wind up hating the activity, or being angry at my body.  If this running is supposed to be good for me, then it should probably feel good when I do it.

The dirt beneath my feet is soft, and the trail is usually quiet and (mostly empty).  Cars noisily drive by just to the right, but the setting still feels very peaceful and natural, and I find it a perfect time and place for thought and reflection.  A properly paced run, it turns out, can be the ideal background activity for many kinds of thinking.  Sometimes it's a struggle to keep negative thoughts at bay, just like at any other time, but it seems like committing my whole body to one task has a way of blunting their impact.  Perhaps I'm not as mindful as I aim to be, but on the whole I don't feel bad, and that's a victory as far as I'm concerned.

Just after the loop turns back, and just before the six hundred meter post, is a park bench where I like to stop and rest for a few minutes.  I'm not completely out of breath by this point, though I am still not entirely sure if I could run the whole thing without stopping.  Of more immediate concern is the pain in my calf muscles.  Maybe it's poor technique, or maybe it's just lack of conditioning, but by the four hundred meter post my legs are usually aching noticeably, and I'm grateful for a chance to recover.  I sit on the bench, feel my heartbeat, gently stretch and massage my calves, and appreciate the natural beauty of the scene.

One of my short-term goals, of course, is to complete the loop without having to stop.  Hopefully my legs will soon become more cooperative in that regard.  But for now, I think it's good to have a moment to sit in silence and let the world happen all around me.  In the distance I can usually hear kids playing at the swimming pool, or animals moving around in the grass and in the creek.  Sometimes runners or dog-walkers pass by.  I've walked through this trail many times in my life, and all of these things are familiar to me.  But it's a comfort to experience them all the same, knowing they're as much of the world in this moment as I am.

Once my legs are back in order and my heartbeat has gone down again, I stretch some more, take some deep breaths, and trot out the last four hundred-plus meters, back to the start of the loop. The sun's behind the trees now and I have a little more shade, which is gratifying, but the workout is much the same as it was on the other side.  This time I have the creek on my right and a view of the park's grassy lawn

The end of the loop has a drinking fountain and another bench, usually just the thing I'm looking for.  But something notable happened today: I found that after taking a sip and walking back to the bench, I didn't really want to sit down.  My legs ached, yes, but not quite as much as they had before, and not quite enough to sit down.  As I said before, I've been at this for about a week now, and it's remarkable to think how quickly my body is adjusting to its new demands. 
This particular trail is sponsored by Adidas, a bit of an eyebrow-raiser in this Nike town.
I'm not sure when I'll be pushing for plural kilometers, or increase my speed, or even how long this particular regimen will last. If today's any indication, I certainly have it in me in the near future to really work up a sweat (without doubling over in unendurable pain).  Working out in the park is a lot different from using an elliptical machine or a treadmill at the gym: it's harder on the feet for one thing, but it also requires a different kind of goal setting.  There's no screen in front of you to count out the minutes or suggest benchmarks to hit: you need more determination to get the same benefit.    Still, I think I'm adjusting to it well.

My primary goal achieved, it's time to walk back home.  Walking is an exercise in its own right, of course, and among other things this routine allows me a good excuse to walk more when I might otherwise be sitting.  Running or walking, it feels good to get out and move.  When I finally return, it feels even better to wash the red dust off my feet and cool down in the shower.

So that's my run, today and hopefully for many days yet to come.  I know that it's been a big improvement in my life, and I can't wait to draw more benefits for my mind and body from it.  They say humans were built for running, and while I've never really lived up to it with my sedentary lifestyle, it will be fascinating to discover what my body can really do.

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