Long-distance runner Julia shares her insights and tips.
Running for fifty years…
I was six years old when I decided that my purpose on the planet was to run; I had been born to run. Once I knew that I had come here to run, I wrote to God to ask him to help me win running races. I did win many races – because I turned out to be a fast runner. I ran all over the world, representing Great Britain and England in cross country and road races, over distances from 5 kilometres to the full 26.2 mile Marathon distance.
After many years of racing and chasing illusive goals I re-discovered what I’d known as a child – that I had been born to run. I realised that I hadn’t needed to write to God at all. After much seeking I had found the way to win; paradoxically, it was to let go of an attachment to an outcome. I had won my own race, by offering my running as puja and as a Meditation on the Move!
Racing is not for everyone, but I have always seen competition as a space that stretches me to find out more; in Latin, competer means ‘to strive together’. In my younger days it used to be a place where negative internal self-critical dialogue emerged, and so after some time I learnt to ‘retire’ this harsh voice and employ an encouraging new inner coach. This practice was a useful step towards simply ‘allowing’ and being still, with no thought or words at all.
Also, I discovered that for me, running as a daily practice works best. The act of stretching myself to see what is possible accesses anything within that is unresolved and reveals any limiting patterns from my childhood hurts. For me, running is a space of self-inquiry and self-reflection as well as being a powerful creative expression.
I have practiced running daily for the past forty years. There have been times of injury and illness, when I have rested when necessary and maintained a physical practice of yoga or swimming or gym work in the place of running. A daily practice worked well, because it’s where I meet myself. It has been a spiritual practice, a discipline where even if I don’t feel like going, I know that the benefits during the run and after are worth ‘getting out of the door’.
Certainly I recognise that running everyday is not for everyone. When I was running in the 80’s, my fellow runners were all running up to 100 miles per week; that was the culture I was in. It was also during the 80’s that running became a popular sport. People took to the roads and the hills and the trails, and experienced the joy of remembering the freedom of running many had known as children.
Running two or three times a week seems to be a rhythm that works best for many who have also other commitments. The biggest mistake I have found is doing too much, too soon, too fast. There is no rush as I learnt ‘the hard way’! It is not possible to rush fitness any more than we can rush night turning into day. Even loving running, it’s not uncommon to not feel like going. Every runner I have spoken to has had difficulty getting out of the door on occasions. But unless there’s a real need for rest, taking the first step is always worth it!
I ran barefoot until I was fifteen when I was asked to put shoes on for a race. It felt unnatural, but when I started to run on cinder tracks the shoes gave me some protection. I wore ‘green flash’ gym shoes in the beginning and progressed to very light running shoes. As running has become popular, the running shoe industry is huge. It is usual practice before running to address which shoes feels right and there are many people to advise on ‘which shoes to wear’. We are a study of one; what works for me does not work for all. I am still a barefoot runner at heart and choose to run in light flexible shoes that allow my feet movement.
My intention has always been to look after this body of mine; in the way a musician looks after their instrument and keeps it tuned. As a teenager and through my twenties I was working through an eating disorder. It was all tangled up with running and my hurts, so during that time I did not take care of my body well at all even though running took me deep into this issue and at times looked to exacerbate my struggle. Through deeply exploring my obsession and staying in running, I found a way to release the pain and tension that arose, ironically, in the running step.
I have coached many people and heard about their joy at feeling fit, the strong heart and lungs and lean body and the self-esteem they discover, and the space to let the mind be still, and so clear of chatter and distractions.
Running is a natural movement that mostly all of us did as children. It is how our ancestors survived, so it is very primal. Running in the elements keeps us in touch with the rhythms of nature, the seasons, the rain, the wind, the sunshine. Running over grass, along trails and over stony, rocky ground keeps the feeling of being a child alive. When running for miles, I feel that I am a speck in all that nature is. In urban settings, I have a sense of moving through as an observer of life. This has always kept alive within me the curiosity, passion and connection to all that is.
Running, a barometer of my ego
Although I like to run every day and for miles, I have seen through coaching others and through my own experience that we have an individual rhythm that works best for us. The best practice is to allow the running to take us where it will. I always ‘knew’ that I must listen to my heart, and to my inner voice, and trust that this would direct me and allow my creative expression its arena.
When I became attached to ‘being good’ to achieving certain times, to pushing for success and self- actualisation, my running always ‘went wrong’. For me it was a barometer of my ego, when I allowed the running to take me where it would. When I used the running space to clear any tension or pain within me, then magically my body would flow and run fast and free.
I have had many times when my body has been in pain, out of balance and I learnt that running showed up these imbalances and tensions, and gave me the space to explore, address and release them. Running was my nemesis and my salvation. I drove myself to gain approval and love and along the way achieved some great results. I enjoyed many moments of clarity, but the part that pushed too hard to seek ‘redemption’ outside myself eventually broke me down. At 28 years old I crashed with chronic fatigue and experienced public failure in a major games marathon. That’s when I started to unravel this pattern of overdrive.
‘In the Zone’
There is much talk about being ‘in the zone’; I have experienced this in a few races and in training too sometimes. It feels like there is nothing else to do but allow the creative flow, a feeling of timelessness, alertness, and an abundance of energy. I have experienced this in key races when the pace was fast – I was at the top of my game, running my best times, winning a race and there was no push. There seemed no effort – I was ‘out of the way’ and my own unique spark of creativity was allowed its full rein – there was nothing in me saying whether it measured up or didn’t! It was in these moments that I knew all that was needed was to pay attention; look after this body, allow the flow through it, and meditate on the move.
(But then sometimes I forgot… and would aim for a big race and get caught up in the training to achieve it. I would then become focused on the outcome and do ‘everything I could’ to make certain I achieved the goal. Tense and too much focused on adding up the mileage each week I ignored any inner message from my body or wiser self. This led to, yes, achieve my goal but also find myself exhausted after it, or get ill or injured even before I reached the start line… )
There are many different ways to train for running. It is my belief that the key to enjoying running is to run easily and within what we can do. If we can talk while running, this indicates that we are running aerobically, which means we are getting the oxygen we need from the atmosphere. It is the best way to build a strong cardiovascular system and want to keep on running! We all have a different physiological make-up, which means we have different responses to training; but easy running is a good way to begin. It builds an aerobic base, and is also a more relaxed space to listen to our body. However, should we want improvement, there is a lot of advice available about how to progress.
Release of tension
I have found that running reveals tension within the body and the mind. Running shows me the space to see if anything is ‘going on’ within me – worry or unresolved pain, or tension showing up in the body itself. This orientation has meant that running is a place of self-enquiry and self-reflection for me. The rhythm of the run, the breath, and being in nature can allow tension to be released. Even an urban run can have the same effect; the cars whizzing by can focus me into the step. I have discovered that if I stay in the step, the next takes care of itself.
I help myself through stretching, yoga and conditioning work to support and balance my body, so that the running step is smooth. Eating well and having energy makes my running enjoyable and there are many products on the market to help keep energy flowing by drinking or taking a sports energy gel as I run.
I have found that using the rhythm to say mantras has helped me to heal, release tension and clear ‘stuff’. I have said mantras the entire way round 26 miles of a marathon. Once I repeated ‘I love you, thank you, thank you, I love you’, without stopping. I didn’t get involved in the outcome – I let the race take care of itself. I have chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, sung the Gayatri mantra, and Om Tara Tu Tara Ture Soha’d my way through woods and streets – sometimes silently in my head, sometimes out loud – and returned freer and clearer. In races I have used mantras to clear the ‘I’m expecting you to win’ wound from childhood. Running can be hard at times, especially as I have always been a runner who likes to stretch; so I can see that a mantra could be a way of ‘taking me out of my body’ but I have used them to help me clear tension and distress in the body (due to old hurts or created by a current situation).
Running from the Hara
Through aligning the spine, opening the chest and the heart chakra, and relaxing and focusing on the energy in the Hara, I have found that a feeling of invincibility and freedom can be attained and it helps me keep just on top of the pace and to not perceive pain as pain. I have found it valuable to remember to run from my center, to let the next step take care of itself, reminding me that running is a meditation and that if there is no tension and then ‘easy’ is the first word – it all springs from there.
Easy, Light, Smooth, Fast
A few years ago I interviewed Chris McDougall, the author of a book called Born to Run, which I had enjoyed reading. He wrote about the Tarahumara, a Native American people of north western Mexico, renowned for their long-distance running ability. They run for miles as a natural way of life, the men, women, children, the old and the young. Micah True, an American ultra-runner, came in contact with the Tarahumara and established a relationship with them. He learnt from them that if you practiced running ‘easy’ and then concentrated on being ‘light’ and ‘smooth’, ‘fast’ comes by itself.
There are many aspects to the running practice to pay attention to: endurance through running many miles, strength through using the muscles to run and practicing strength, conditioning and flexibility exercises which all build core strength. This all helps running to be Easy, Light and Smooth. I have found that the skills I have mastered in my running, the vibrant health I enjoy, the stillness within me, the ability to be present in the running step means that my life is more of a meditation. My creative spark of consciousness is in my every movement, in each breath and in each word.
Julia Chi Taylor, is a development coach, runner and writer. She lives as a nomad travelling the world with her husband Anadi. She runs, writes and works with people wherever she is, and charts her travels and her running adventures in a daily blog called ‘Julia’s gone running’ on her website runningconscious.com; a site which brings people together in expressing their creativity, exploring relationship and connecting through sharing their experiences.