Out of practice

I was diagnosed with asthma at age seven, about 20 seconds into the first run of our school’s new lunchtime fitness club. After exploding from the starting line and sustaining a flat-out sprint for the first 50 metres of a 1K course, I slumped down on the curb and tried to catch my breath. My buddy asked me what was wrong. “Dunno,” I answered. “Probly asthma.”

In reality, the only condition I suffered from was an underdeveloped sense of pace. The furthest I’d needed to run up to that point was from home plate to second base – hitting a triple in T-ball is tougher than it looks.

I was even less prepared for distance running when I took it up as an adult. I was coming off a phlegmy decade of chain-smoking and was a good 50 pounds overweight. My gait never exceeded a shuffle unless I was giving chase to an ice-cream truck.

The popular Couch Potato to 5K program (c25k.com) was made for schlubs like me who couldn’t run more than 10 or 15 seconds at a shot. Starting with 20-minute walking sessions with seconds of light running sprinkled in, the program helps the chronically inactive build up their strength and endurance so they’re able to run a full 30 minutes within nine weeks.

It’s an effective regimen that delivers what it promises so long as you stick to the schedule, and it helped me learn to enjoy running – eventually. For most of the program, at least the first six weeks, I hated every slow, sweaty, breathless workout. I stuck with it in the early weeks not because of how running made me feel, but in spite of it.

I’ve been sidelined with a stress fracture for well over a month now, my longest break from running since taking it up about eight years ago. Fortunately, the leg’s just about healed and I should be able to hit the road in another week or so. I’m interested to find out how much of a toll this injury has had on my fitness, though. I’ve been laid up before for much shorter stretches, and returning from a break of even a week or two can feel like you’re right back at square one.

As I’ve been preparing to run again – digging out hole-less socks, trying to remember where I stashed my water bottle – it’s been valuable to think back on my bloated beginnings with the Couch to 5K program. Remembering how unenjoyable it can be to run when you’re out of shape will help me keep expectations in check.

Reflecting on those miserable early workouts has also made clearer the message my Zen teacher shared in one of her recent dharma talks.

“Here’s a new mantra for you to try,” she said. “Fake it ’til you make it.”

That phrase seemed to fly in the face of what I thought Buddhism was all about. Isn’t this practice about being honest with yourself, about seeing things as they really are?

But as I understand it now, with memories of those tough early runs for added context, her message had nothing to do with deception. Rather, it spoke to the value of staying true to your intentions.

Buddhist practice encourages the cultivation of several helpful qualities, patience, generosity and compassion among them. As is the case with running, development of these qualities comes from doing.

Rather than waiting to act upon a feeling of generosity, for example, the dharma suggests exercising generosity to develop the healthy desire to be generous. It can seem a bit backward, which is where the “fake it” part comes in, but it is a sincere and honest approach to spiritual growth.

I’ve experienced this to some small degree in my own practice. By making an effort to be patient at times when I’ve felt impatient, or to exercise compassion toward someone who doesn’t evoke much sympathy, my capacity in these areas has grown, as has the pleasure I get from practising them.

Running, however, has given me the clearest insight into this dharmic teaching.

I genuinely love to run — I love the physical feeling I get from it, the friendships that have been built around it, the rich moments I’ve experienced because of it.

I wouldn’t have experienced any of these had I decided to wait until I felt like running before taking it up. The act of running just plain sucked, for weeks and weeks, until I built up the capacity to enjoy it. Acting on the intention to stick with a program, rather than on my fleeting feelings toward that day’s workout, made it possible to continue to grow in the sport.

It’s worth remembering as I ease back into running. I’ll likely feel more achy and sluggish than I have in a very long time, but I’m confident that focusing on my intention get out and run, rather than my sloppy execution, will help bring me back up to speed.