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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

Away or Toward – Where am I Running?

Checking out the 50-mile course with Eli.

My first 50 mile run is coming up in three days.

Fifty miles is a long long way. And yes, it’s an unreasonable thing to devote yourself to. It takes months of training, and eats up your Saturdays, and way too much money in running shoes and other new gear.

And to what end?

Initially, it was an extension of my 50k (31 mile) run, the goal that got me through the 2015-16 cancer experience.

And it worked. I came through that first year after cancer healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the year after running that 50k in 2016 was not great – the stress of life took over and my running fell off. As a kind of pre-New Year’s resolution, I signed up for the fifty-miler just before Christmas.

Since Fall of last year, and more so over the past few months, I've been reading about the mounting evidence of the power of cardio to dramatically enhance health, including reducing occurrence and recurrence of cancer.

And, it turns out, the more the cardio, the greater the benefit.

So, the fifty-miler that began as a goal to bring emotional health grew to a far more intense physical discipline that would keep me healthy – maybe even cancer-free.

My friend Eli also signed up. As we trained and my body got stronger, I started feeling more and more powerful and hopeful in this fight against cancer recurrence.

Then some time in late-March or early-April, as our weekly long runs reached to, and then past, the marathon distance, my focus on embracing hope started to shift toward outrunning cancer.

"Yes! I can do it! I’ve unlocked the key to my future. Hah!"

My earlier 50k goal had been based on running toward hope – embracing the gift of life, no matter what happens. Running away from cancer, on the other hand, is about self-empowerment – taking the future into my own hands. It’s all about control.

And the one challenge of cancer is learning to accept your lack of control and still live a meaning-filled life.

Then last week I read yet another article about the challenge of ultra running, expecting little. But this one from The Guardian pointed me back to the place I needed to be.

Author Adharanand Finn says, “At first, what motivated me, and kept me moving in races, was the outcome. I wanted to reach the finish line and to bask in all the relief and the warm satisfaction that came with conquering these races.”

That’s me. Since first contemplating the 50, I’ve been obsessed with my pace and finishing time. My competitive streak has led to training too fast, which may result in a disastrous energy crash by the last portion of the race. As training progressed and I realized how long 50 miles really is, that original lofty pace goal has slipped by 1 mile a minute, then 2, then a meek “Well, they say the goal is just to finish your first Ultra.”

Finn continues, “Ultrarunners repeatedly told me that the key was to stay in the moment, to run the mile you’re in and forget about the rest.”

Staying in the moment is what gives me joy in my daily runs. It used to give me more joy, back before I got my GPS watch and started obsessively logging mileage and pace. (Which, I must say, are necessary evils of setting goals and staying motivated.)

Finn brings it all in to where I need it:

“Eventually, I realized the secret was to embrace the struggle… To stand in the midst of the storm, facing the oblivion, and to say to yourself: this is why I’m here. This is what I came for. … And there, out in the mountains, or even on a city running track, we find ourselves fully present in the moment.”

Running toward life is essential for me as a daily spiritual/emotional discipline. Running away from cancer needs to be seen as a hopeful by-product, not a guaranteed result.

Running in the moment, without fear, without regard for the momentary pain, with the knowledge of our place in the world around us, be that the mountains or the city track/street/office? Now that’s the sweet spot. That’s where I need to live all the time.

With all that wondrous insight, will I be able to dwell in the moment for eight or nine or ten or even (gulp) twelve hours on Saturday, in the sun or the rain, with or without sore knees and blisters? Without worrying about my pace or place?

I’ll let you know.

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