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The Art of Running

In Creative Living on October 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm

By Bekah McNeel

The starting line of a marathon is a funny place. At some unholy, still-dark hour a mob of adults in spandex hop from foot to foot like the kindergarten “potty dance” and nervously chatter. Piles of cast off warm-up gear lie along sidewalks where only the most loyal girlfriends, boyfriends, and roommates stand holding posters that say, “Run, Suzy, Run!” (Spouses, parents, and children will show up later in the race, with the crowd who is not trying to prove their devotion to anyone.) It’s a weird scene, even weirder because of how happy everybody is to be there—everyone except the boyfriends, girlfriends, and roommates.

The starting gun goes off, and for the next four hours we (me and all the people going my speed) lope along together. The first mile is mostly about dodging the people around you, as runners settle into their pace. It will string out considerably over the next twenty-five miles, but for a while there, it’s close quarters. Somewhere around Mile 4 or 5 things get roomy enough that I can look around at the faces of those with whom I will share this great accomplishment. Inevitably, as the miles wear on, I find myself looking for a pace keeper. Someone whose butt I can stare at for the next ten miles. Butts are perfect for this; feet move too fast, and heads are too far from the ground. A butt is close enough to the ground that I can watch for tripping hazards and it doesn’t move as much as feet, so I don’t get motion sick.

Finding a butt moving at the right pace invites me to ponder the shape of the various butts around me, and how surprisingly dissimilar they are.

When we hear the phrase “she’s a runner” a certain imagine comes to mind.  A long, wiry woman with the gait of a gazelle and the neck of a giraffe, rock-hard abs and defined deltoids. Those specimens exist in the running world, to be sure. But for every one of them, there are two stockier, curvier, or shorter types. There are women with hips, breasts, and behinds. I’ve now had three people say to me that they were surprised at the typical body types of runners and triathletes, both recreational and elite.

For years I thought that if I ran I would turn into one of those gazelle creatures with the silky swishing ponytail and the six-pack. Turns out no amount of running is going to get rid of the bust my grandmother gave me.

On my 25th birthday I took a ten mile run, and, instead of calculating how many calories I’d burned, I used it as an opportunity to give thanks. For the first time in my life, I gave thanks for my body. I didn’t look like the gazelle of my dreams; instead I was doing something I’d never dreamed of. I was training for a marathon.  I thought to myself, “If my body can do this, then it can’t be bad.”

I think that’s the most empowering thing about running, and why it’s caught on in such numbers. It requires that we free our bodies from the constant scrutiny of being “thin enough” or “toned enough” and simply enjoy doing something with them. I hear the same thing from people who dance.

People often use the saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” to describe certain endeavors. Like ministry. Or marriage. I always knew what they meant; but between Miles 7 and 10 I start to feel what they mean. My average training run is six miles. So Mile 7 signals to me that this is not a training run. This is not a casual jog, I can’t turn around whenever I want to. This is a marathon, and there’s a lot more ahead of me than behind me.

Endurance is a character trait. It’s one of the few that, in my experience, carry over from the physical to the emotional/spiritual. At Mile 7, the excitement has worn off and I start strategizing about how I’m going to make it to the end. I do some math, calculate water stops, plan when to eat my next Gu. Ultimately I realize that there’s only one way to get to the finish line: keep putting one foot in front of the other. Isn’t that so much of life? We calculate and plot and plan, but it all comes down to putting one foot in front of the other and being faithful to the course.

Somewhere between Mile 12 and Mile 16, I usually get a second wind. This is that endorphin-rush, zen place that runners wax on about as though suddenly running became a day at the spa. Well, it doesn’t transform into a massage and a mimosa, but it does become immensely pleasurable.  I become the pacer. My legs fall into a rhythm and my heart rate finds an easy jog. This is when I do some of my best thinking, and the miles start to fly by. The miles up to this point may have been social, chatting and cheering to make it up steep hills, or just to take my mind off the growing blister where my camelback is rubbing my armpit raw. But now, past the half-way point, it’s game time. Even if I’m with my husband or my running partner, I’m all alone during this stretch. Cruising.

Running by myself enables me to come as close to meditative stillness as I can in waking hours. Something about the slow burn of my quadriceps and saltiness of my skin is like white noise against the to-do lists and preoccupations that come with being clean and presentable. Whether I’m simply focusing on each step of a hard climb, or pondering a deeper dilemma to the pounding of my footsteps, those hours of running have proven invaluable to my mental and spiritual health.

The cleansing effect of running is physical as much as it is psychological. In addition to the endorphin rush, my body has its own rituals during the second part of the race. It begins to involuntarily perform, recalibrate and balance in ways unnecessary outside of endurance sports. Early in my distance running, I noticed that the skin on my arms began to emit a strange, bitter smell as I ran. Not body odor, but something less organic. I casually mentioned this to my doctor on my next regular visit and he simply said, “You sweat out all kinds of stuff, and you have all kinds of stuff on your skin.” The bitter smell meant that I was either flushing out or washing off, and I welcomed it from then on.

I also usually stop sweating after this point, unless it’s abnormally hot. I’ve never been one to pee during a long run, or to sweat inordinate amounts. People tried to tell me for years that this meant that I was dehydrating. However, recent studies have shown that our bodies are master regulators and that what I was experiencing was perfectly normal for a fully functioning execretory system.

It’s not just my own odor that I notice. My awareness of all smells intensifies as I run. The heavy, regular breaths bring in more stimuli, and the flow of air clears the passageway. I love running in spring, because the mountain laurels and honeysuckles that are about in our area give off the most invigorating smells. I’m also more sensitive to bad smells, of course, and it makes me much more aware of the surrounding dumpsters, car exhaust, and fast food chains.

For me, like most marathon runners, there comes “the wall.” This can be anywhere from Mile 18-22. During my best race I made it to Mile 23 before I hit it, but usually it’s waiting for me at Mile 22. The wall is where “game on” becomes “the fight.” And that’s how it is until Mile 26. Every step is a fight; the field has spread out so that it’s entirely possible to be running alone. Whatever was helping at Mile 12 is not working anymore, and there is one small reason to keep running: the last three months and the last twenty-one miles have all been in preparation for these last five miles.

If you’re ever temped to run a marathon in order to look cool, just take one look at the limping, sweaty, salty, puffy finishers and ask yourself, “Does that look cool to me?” Better yet, go camp out at Mile 22 and ask the runners passing you if they feel like Olympic superstars.

So that’s Mile 22-26, the fight. But a marathon does not end at mile 26. There’s still .2 miles left. These are the glory strides. The finish line is in sight, the crowd is roaring, the finishers are among them, and their cheers mean the most because they know how much my feet hurt. And there’s no longer the lingering question of whether or not I’m going to make it. I’m there. And I’m flying toward that finish line with energy released from somewhere deep within, reserved for moments of triumph.

Distance running is empowering. The demons we face could be as physical as cancer or as emotional as heartbreak, and somehow every step of a tough run feels like an anthem to the ability to thrive. We love it in movies like Rocky, Rudy, and Chariots of Fire, and we love it in ourselves. Hollywood so tritely dubs it “the triumph of the human spirit.” To put it in more certain terms, it is our ability to take back our lives from the forces that steal our agency, our ability to overcome obstacles, and the way we become stronger through struggle.

And then I cross the finish line. Twice now, upon crossing the finish line, I’ve cried. One would think that it was from the blisters, aching feet or general soreness. Or from exhaustion. But it’s not. These are the kinds of tears that I cry when people stand up and applaud for an honored veteran or when a child with Down syndrome gets a part in the school play. They are tears of overcoming. Tears of triumph. Running a marathon is not as momentous as fighting in a war or flourishing with a learning difference. But it’s the same elemental place in each of our hearts that wants to raise our fists into the air and let out a roar because victory is upon us.

After this glorious, moment, my emotions normalize, and I go get my medal (like the rest of the finishers), get my free snack food, and survey the landscape, so very different from the start.

The finish line is actually pretty comical at times. For every person who crosses the line with arms in the air, in the throes of elation, there’s one who crosses nearly doubled over swearing that they will “never, ever do anything like this ever again.” Lots of people have marathons on their bucket list. Cross the finish line and it’s checked off. But for others, the process makes the finish all the better, and they’re ready to feel that again.


Landscape Sculptor

In Art, Nature on December 1, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Still Photo of Rivers & Tides documentary taken by Margot Harrington (

Andy Goldsworthy loves to play outside.  The landscape sculptor can be found tossing armfuls of snow or dust into the air for the wind to take away.  Or flinging iron-rich mud balls into a river and watching the resulting red, underwater explosion.  He uses sticks to create spider-web-type structures.  He builds with rocks and leaves.  Always keeping an eye on the surroundings encircling his creations.  Aware of what’s underneath.  He also works with clay, sand, ice and snow.  Almost always out of doors.

~ HR

Go Outside

In Nature on November 5, 2011 at 11:16 am

Photo by Doug Stutler

By Bekah McNeel

I don’t know when I decided that I hated nature, and I don’t know what it was that pushed me over the edge. But I do remember thinking, “Everything out here is trying to kill me.” I was in college and I was wearing flip-flops in the West Texas desert at Big Bend National Park. Far from the wooded canyons and creeks of my Hill Country childhood–though even there cactus and cedar splinters abound–I had decided that nature was for ascetics.

So, naturally, I married an ascetic. A desert monk of sorts. A man who loves to be outside. And now we spend time outside. We run, we swim in creeks, we hike, we camp. I have discovered the state and national parks services. Maybe it’s my love for him, but more likely its that he is my very own “interpretive center.” South Texas wilderness needs an interpretive center. (For those who avoid the outdoors: an interpretive center is where they tell you what you are looking at and why it’s important and why you have to love it.)

For our first anniversary, we decided to take a trip to Yosemite. If I were to write a book called “How to Love Nature,” chapter one would be a guide to planning a trip to Yosemite. Surrounded by waterfalls, rainbows, cliffs, and sequoias I thought, “This is how people become naturalists.” Legend has it that John Muir actually cried out for joy when he discovered Yosemite Valley. He would devote his life to its preservation, founding the Sierra Club and battling against the reservoir that created the lake at Hetch Hetchy in the park’s NW corner. He explored every accessible inch of the place, even when accessing it meant that he had to build his own trail. We hiked some of those trails 130 years later. I get the obsession.

It’s a strange life change for me to sympathize with that obsession. Growing up, the Sierra Club was in a league with Planned Parenthood and Chairman Mao’s one child policy. Enemies of the faith. I didn’t know anything about it, but somehow it was synonymous with earth-worshipping paganism. Being somewhat at war with nature myself, I didn’t give it much thought. How bad would the world really be without mosquitoes and cacti?

Answer: terrible. For two reasons,

1) Mosquitoes and cacti are going to outlive us all. So if it gets to the point that they are dying off, well, the earth probably resembles Mars.

2) We need it all! When we eradicate the pests, we start messing with systems far outside our plans. Systems that include the Giant Sequoias, whales, cattle, and us! We cannot pick and choose our favorite bits of Creation. We need to work within the system, because we’re part of it. Do you eat meat or vegetables? Then you’re part of the system. Breathe oxygen? Part of the system.

Now, I’ve heard enough apocalyptic eco-scenarios to scare me into reusable shopping bags. What about conservation based on love rather than fear? If I love nature, then acting on its behalf becomes what I want to do. No longer is the Sierra Club my enemy. Now I’m glad for it to work and work hard. Not just so that we can survive, but so that we can enjoy surviving.

I work in a church office, where we are all about the head and the heart. I share a tiny office with two seminary students who drill each other in Hebrew vocabulary all day. It should not be surprising that I was having a hard time grasping the concept of “Fear God.” God was something that we scribbled on the whiteboard. He fit inside the bindings on the shelf of theology books. But when I peered into a violent whirlpool at the top of Nevada Falls, slippery granite beneath my feet, I was terrified by the same majestic cascade that had delighted me only a few hours earlier from a safe distance. I thought, “This is awe. This is fear.” That’s the closest I have come to understanding the fear of God. My heart was paralyzed but exhilarated. Free but trembling. There was something in the world that was beyond my control and comprehension, but here I was close enough to touch it. Close enough to see how beautiful it really was, but to be swept away if I ignored its power.

Photo by Doug Stutler

My husband the Nature Monk says that people need to spend time encountering things that make them feel small. Cliff faces, desert expanses, ocean horizons. We need a reminder that truth is less, “man is the measure of all things” and more, “what is man, O Lord, that you are mindful of him?” Less Enlightenment and more Psalms.

But treks through nature are not all grand perspective-taking. In an age of information barrage, where we have boundless productivity with minimal discomfort, there is something so right about going outside. About using all five senses to navigate. Out on a particularly grueling hike or trail run, a person must become consumed by their surroundings and how they are interacting with them. Each step down a slippery mountain pass in the rain quieted my mind because if I let one piece of my nerves be distracted from the vital task of searching for a foothold I would be in big trouble, and probably with an injury to show for it. That kind of singular focus resets the brain. It quiets the crowd of alerts, notifications, special offers, and expiration dates. I think its good for our brains to spend a few hours in survival mode. How can I do this unless I go outside? I’m not talking about a peaceful walk in the woods either. Yes, that’s where it starts. Walking without a cell phone. Nature is great for contemplation, a la Walden Pond.

What I’m talking about here though, is the wilderness. The wild. A place where environment and body collide and tasks are no longer options set against a backdrop of entertainment and luxuries. Where work is not a villain keeping us from relaxing. Being outside in this way demands that I turn off the noise and do the one thing that there is to do in this moment: take the right step or fail perilously.

It would be very Presbyterian of me to now say, “You can do this anywhere.” To talk about how your backyard can be your own little wilderness. Well, unless you live on the edge of the woods, desert, beach, or tundra, it probably cannot. You probably are going to need to work a little harder to love nature. Not everyone gets to take a week and explore Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Glacier National Park for a course in Loving the Great Outdoors 101. Many of us will have to settle for a prickly, buggy, humid whatever-state park. But my challenge is to find that piece of the world that helps you understand why people want to save it.

Photo by Hannah Amodeo