Running Toward a Life Without Misery

Apr 19, 2024

Living Life Free of Misery

My high school friend group, made up of me, my cousin Vaughn and our buddies, was a fun bunch of thrill-seeking adventure junkies. We loved the adrenaline.  We loved skiing down powdery mountains and soaring off of jumps, speed climbing up sheer mountain faces, flinging ourselves off cliffs into refreshing water below, doing tricks on water skis, and even shopping cart races through empty parking lots. We had a blast challenging each other. And then, as is the fate of most high school friend groups, we grew up and moved away from each other. We left for different colleges, began our careers, and got married. Vaughn left for Washington State, and we didn’t connect as often as we had … until he called me with another adventurous escapade.

“Hey, Curtis, I have our next adventure.” Vaughn sounded excited.

“Great, what is it?” My mind began whirling with all of the possibilities. This was probably something big. Something crazy. We were adults now, with more money than we had in high school. He would probably say jumping out of a plane, swimming with sharks, backpacking across Thailand, or wrestling alligators.

“We’re going to run a 200-mile race.”

“What?” I said, astonished. “Run 200 miles?!?!”

“Yeah! It’s going to be EPIC!”

I retorted, “Vaughn, you know I hate running, right?”

Many people claim to hate running, but it’s a very commonly disliked activity, and I was passionately against it. I despised it. Running seemed excruciatingly boring, painful, and pointless. I could think of plenty of significantly more efficient and more enjoyable alternatives: biking, skateboarding, rollerblading, skiing, ice skating, scootering… etc. Why would I ever choose running over any of those? 

“Yes, I know you do, but it will be epic!”

“How is that epic?”

“Curtis, who do you know that’s done a race like this?”

I didn’t know anyone who had run a distance as crazy as that. It would be epic to accomplish such a gargantuan feat.. “Is it even possible?” I questioned. (I realized much later that Vaughn had actually said ‘200 mile relay race’, but in my astonishment, I missed the word relay. I genuinely thought we would each be running  200 miles.)

“It will be awesome.” Vaughn urged. “Are you in?”

In a moment of impulse, before I really considered my decision, I said, “Okay, I’m in. That does sound epic.”

I tried to shove the words back in my mouth, but it was too late.

“Okay, but you’ll have to promise me one thing. Promise me that you will run every day, except Sundays, for three months. Every single day. It doesn’t matter how far you run, you just have to run. Will you do that?”

That didn’t sound too difficult.“Okay.” I replied. “Let’s do this.”

Amped up on the image of myself holding a 200-mile race medal, I went immediately to Runner’s Corner in Orem, Utah and bought my very first pair of running shoes. They were the Mizuno Wave series. They looked sick. Now I was even more pumped to start running.

With all of this energy, I drove straight back home and set out on the Murdock Canal trail behind my house. I was armed with all $135 dollars of my sleek new running kicks. I looked up the trail with eager anticipation and excitement. Even with the thrill of buying some really cool-looking foot candy and the thought of an epic adventure, I only made it a whopping 0.6 miles. I couldn’t go any further. I was bent over drowning, gasping for air and not finding it. I felt like a fish out of water, curled over with my hands on my knees.. “What have I done?” I thought. I can’t do this for three months! I called Vaughn and complained to him between gasps. “I can’t do it. Running is the worst.”

He wasn’t letting me out of my responsibility, “Sorry, You promised me three months.” …and I had.

The next day I made it to 0.75 miles. And the day after that I made it past a mile. Even though I was making progress, every second was horrible. I hated it. I kept my promise even though the progress was laboriously slow., Every day I heaved the thin Utah air in and out, drowned in pain, and cursed Vaughn’s 200-mile race. Every day I laced up those shoes and every day I despised it.

Along the way, I got every single running-related injury you could think of. I started with shin splints, then plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, piriformis syndrome, and a host of others. I was certain the runs were out to destroy my body. With each new injury, I called Vaughn, and he replied with a peppy, “That’s okay! Run through it.”

The whole experience was miserable. There was not a single step I liked, not even close. Somehow, I suffered through the full three months. I had made it to the last day. I stood at the same starting line on the Murdock Canal trail, the same place I had started this wretched journey three months earlier. That first effort was so short I could see the 0.6-mile mark from where I was standing, the endpoint of my first torturous run. It was funny enough that I gave a little chuckle. Then, I called up Vaughn.

“I made it to three months,” I told him.

“Great! Way to go!”

“No! You don’t understand. I made it three months..”

“I know. That’s Awesome! Good job.”

“I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. I’m done. Three months is all I promised you. After this run, I will never put running shoes on my feet for the rest of my life.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll let you do that, but only if you promise me one more thing?”

“Promise you what?” I sighed in frustration. I had already promised enough.

“Put it all away and just listen.”

“All right, Zen Master, what are you talking about? Put what away?”

“Everything! Put away your earbuds, your watch, and your phone. Stop worrying about how fast and far you are going. Stop trying to distract yourself with music. Just put it all away. Do you know where your turn-around point is?” 

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Good, leave everything behind and pay attention to your surroundings. Be present in the moment. Listen to the rhythm of your feet drumming the pavement, notice the way the pounding of your heart fuels your body, listen to your lungs fill with life-giving breath, feel the wind rushing past your ears.”

I wasn’t buying it, but it seemed simple enough, so I made this one last promise to follow Buddha-Vaughn’s instructions. I took out my earbuds, turned off the music, put away my phone, and set out on my “last” run, following Vaughn’s instructions to a tee. I listened to my environment. I heard the singing of birds in the trees, the musical cadence of my feet on the asphalt, and the refreshing breeze flowing past my face. I listened to my body. I heard the pounding quarter-note beats of my heart, the rush of oxygen in and out of my lungs and my muscles powerfully moving. This was my first 8-mile run, and as I approached the turnaround point at 4 miles, I looked across a grassy field as the brilliant sunset serenely floated in the sky above the sparkling water of Utah Lake. The earth’s atmosphere was streaked with the most majestically muraled magentas, gradients of gold, and palettes of pink. It was so magnificent I could only imagine God up there with his brush painting the sky with inspiration, displaying his majesty for all of his children down below to enjoy. As I indulged in this harmony of color, I also breathed in the gorgeous perfume of a row of lilac bushes as the aroma wafted into my nose and air deep into my lungs. My heart danced to a melodious birdsong floating through the air from a tall tree in the distance. All of this while being completely present in the moment. I was not chained to the past or longing for the future. I was completely present in that exact step, that exact moment.

With this convergence of beauty, fragrance, and song, along with being 100% present, A burst of potent happiness hit me like a punch of exhilaration to the front of my brain with vibrant euphoria. “Whoa,” I exclaimed, out loud. I couldn’t help it. The emotion just would not be contained. A cute couple walking past glanced at me with concern, probably thinking, Uh oh, who is the crazy man talking to himself? I couldn't care less. So this is the runner’s high. I was on cloud nine. I hit the turn-around point and floated home over the last four miles. It seemed like there was no effort at all. Upon returning, I dialed Vaughn and burst out with, “What is this?! What is this feeling?”

“It finally happened, huh? Welcome to running, Curtis. This is it, this is why I love it so much.”

We laughed and talked with excitement in anticipation for all my future runner’s highs. It was such a stark contrast from the prior day’s effort that I had to ponder what had changed. The day before I felt like I was drowning because I couldn’t get air, my body was injured, and each step was a laborious effort. The run hadn’t changed. The run was just as strenuous. The distance didn’t shorten. In fact, it was longer than I had ever gone. My shoes were the same. My weight was the same. My shorts, shirts, and socks were the same. Why was this run so different from any of the previous 71 runs? I realized the difference was that I removed misery from the run. 

I stopped fighting the run. I stopped blaming the road for my pain. I stopped resisting the struggle and flowed with the run. Instead of starting and ending each day’s effort with a frown and furrowed brow, I chose to accept the pain and even honor it for what it was doing for me instead of to me.”

Running has since become my zen time. Each time I run, I stamp all of my worries and cares into the asphalt and leave them behind me as I spend time in the moment. 

Running comes with pain, that’s just the way it is. Life comes with pain as well. Instead of accepting the pain and surrendering to life, I was adding misery to my pain. I hated every step and met each moment with ungrateful frustration. This attitude and action made my body tense and caused injury after injury. I was fighting the experience instead of flowing with it. When I finally surrendered and began to accept and honor the pain, my injuries stopped, and my body healed; even other unrelated ailments began to repair.

Pain is inevitable. Misery is optional. Pain is a necessary part of life. It exists to serve us by strengthening and nourishing our bodies, minds, and souls. Misery is what we do to ourselves.  We inflict it upon ourselves by blaming and shaming. Blaming things outside of our control for “doing this to us” and shaming ourselves for “not being good enough”. Blaming and shaming is our brain’s way of trying to shield us from pain and guilt by deflecting responsibility away from ourselves and fighting the realities of life. It’s like black tar that oozes and hardens over the shining gem of pain. When we scrape the tar away and surrender to the pain, even honor the pain, that is when we stop getting injured and start to feel that runner’s high. That is when we start to flow with life.

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering, which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” 

Life is not happening to us. It is happening for us. Pain is God’s chisel, carving out the old wood in our souls so he can pour in joy and love. Honor the pain by surrendering to it and let Him carve.

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