I can vividly remember the first time I tried to tackle running Cowles Mountain (at 1592 ft, it's the highest point in the city of San Diego). I started off feeling pretty strong, and I noticed a skinny man just ahead of me, wearing Levi's and high tops. I figured I would blow past him in a few switchbacks. Fast forward half a mile later and he was almost out of my sight...but he was ahead of me! I struggled up the trail, but found myself frequently slowing down to a walk in order to catch my breath and give my legs a rest. Each time I felt sufficiently recovered, I would plug along again to push my way up to the peak. When I finally arrived at the top, I was rewarded with a high five from the elusive blue jeans runner. "Good job" he said. I was embarrassed. "Oh no, I was awful!" I corrected him. "How do you do it?!" I asked. He told me he was watching me as I pushed my way up the mountain, and then he gave me some advice that I really took to heart...
"You were trying too hard," he told me. "I saw that you kept speeding up and then slowing down. You were making it more difficult than it is. I'm not fast and I'm not the strongest runner, but I can run this mountain and so can you. Once you do it once, you'll do it every time. Guaranteed." He advised me to slow down a bit, to take shorter, lighter steps, and to not get so caught up in my speed. I took his advice. It took me two more attempts, but by the second time, I made it to the top of the mountain without stopping to walk! And he was right, I did it every time after that.
So what made it so easy? What was this 'magic' I had found that allowed me to tackle a challenging run with relative ease? The answer I came up with was reaffirmed when I read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I realized that the ease comes with the intention behind the effort. In Kevin Costner terms, it's about doing it 'for the love of the game.' So often we go for a run, spend an hour at the gym, or take a fitness class, because we feel it's necessary in order to look good. It becomes a check on our lengthy to-do list. It becomes a chore.
As McDougall explains, as a child, were you ever TOLD to run? No way! You were always on the run; you had to be told to slow down! You ran because it felt good. It's as we get older, and we start to become entrenched in the expectations of society and what we should look like, that exercise becomes a duty instead of a delight. McDougall believes that running is our birthright, and our bodies crave movement. He tells the story of ultra-runners who cover distances of 150+ miles, and then cross the finish line with no glory, no recognition, no notoriety. They run races because it gives them joy, and that is precisely what enables them to do it.
I suggest we broaden this theory on running to all forms of activity. Whether you feel good when you run, walk, practice yoga, lift weights, or even just take the stairs, do it because it makes you feel good. Not because you want to end up with a tight butt, or drop a few pounds, or fit into your skinny jeans. Sure those are great perks, and it is certainly a tribute to your health to stay fit, but let the reason for the sport stem from somewhere deeper. When you let go of expectations, and just allow yourself to engage in the pure bliss of the activity, it can become effortless.
So why did I make it up the mountain? I made it because I let go of any expectations, and instead I simply took pleasure in the movement. I let my feet feel light and easy, and I used the time as a meditation rather than a struggle. It also helped that each week I passed my mentor in blue jeans somewhere along the trail, and each time he would give me a knowing smile and a high five!
If you find yourself fighting to get out the door to exercise, my advice is simple: Don't make it about the exterior results; just do what you love. Remember, regardless of your size, weight, shape, height, or fitness level, we were all BORN TO RUN!
Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/lgh75