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Keep on Running - In Dedication to Mandy Steinberg

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Not all exercises are created equal.

My grandfather, or gramps as we affectionately called him was a disciplined exercise man. It wasn't so much the amount of exercise he did but rather the 100% commitment with which he did it. He never missed a day unless he was ill and flat on his back. Every morning you could catch him pounding the streets of Oaklands and Houghton in Johannesburg followed by a few lengths in the swimming pool. Come rain or shine, winter or summer, there he was, pushing himself until his goal was reached. This was his uncompromising routine throughout his life until his early 90's!

 

I wish I could say I shared his love of running but sadly I didn't. As a teenager I dabbled in jogging with my mom and a friend but I honestly hated every agonising step! I host the DL Link Show on Chai FM and one of their annual fundraisers is the Jerusalem Marathon. I'd interview runners who would share their tips and inspiring stories and as much as I admired them I'd always add, "Rather you than me!"

 

Well I found myself having to eat those very words when surprise of all surprises, I was invited to

take part in the marathon on behalf of the DL Link. Even though the thought of running terrified me and filled me with dread I didn't hesitate to say 'yes'. I figured I'd WUN (walk and run) the 5km race. The DL Link allocated a Cancer Warrior to each runner. The idea of the runners experiencing the highs and lows of jogging in a marathon is a powerful metaphor for what the warriors have to go through every day on their cancer journey. I was paired up with Mandy Steinberg so I called her and introduced myself. I told her I was going to give it my best shot and she was thrilled with the idea of me running in her name.

 

I did what all prospective marathon runners do and went and bought a training bra and running shoes. With everything in place I took to the streets. I can laugh out aloud when I think back on that first morning. I ran about 20 meters and it just felt wrong. I am a walker. I love walking and have no problem walking long distances but ask me to put a spring in my step, pump my arms and accelerate and I start looking for reasons why I shouldn't be doing it. However, I persevered and when I reached around 100 meters a voice in my head whispered, "Stop". It was such a tempting instruction but I decided to ignore it, after all, I had only covered an embarrassingly short distance. "This is important!", I told myself, "I am a marathon runner in training! I have to persevere!". A couple of hundred meters later and the whisper became an ear piercing scream. "STOP!"

And I did.

Who am I to argue?

Stop! And I did. Who am I to argue?

Early the next morning the internal wrestle and arguments between mind and body continued but I decided to take it slow and set small targets for myself. When I ran my first kilometer without stopping I celebrated like I had just completed the Comrades Marathon!

Knowing that I was running for Mandy was a huge driving force, however, I was still in an ongoing battle with my mind that kept telling me how painful it was, how tired I was and that I should stop.

 

A turning point was when Nicci Robertson, of Reinvent Health, invited me to be a guest on her podcast. She is an avid runner and shared a valuable tip with me. She advised me to treat my running like a Mindfulness exercise. In case you don't know, Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware of where you are & what you’re doing without being overly reactive. Basically it's about fully attending to what is happening now without getting lost in thought.

 

Treat running like a Mindfulness exercise.

I was curious because I practice Mindfulness everyday, however, I figured it was a good thing to be distracted while running because then I wouldn't notice the discomfort I was experiencing. I quickly realised it was the other way around. The discouraging voice in my head was coming from the part of me that is activated when we are lost in thought. It's called the Default Mode Network. It's part of the brain that lights up when the brain is idle and it's involved in self conscious thinking, daydreaming, judging, ruminating & projecting. In fact, recent research has found links between activity in the default mode network with depression and anxiety. So the voice that kept urging me to stop was coming from my DMN (default mode network) and I could switch it off by bringing myself back to the present moment.

 

Be with the pain and discomfort.

This is how I practiced it. Every time I found myself listening to my inner critic I would bring my awareness to it by saying, "Oh, that's just me thinking" and then I'd pull myself back into the moment by focusing on my breathing. You can use any of your senses as an anchor back into the present moment. The challenging part was 'being' with the pain and exhaustion. If my muscles were tired or I had a stitch, instead of trying to ignore it or label it 'good' or 'bad', I would bring my full attention to the discomfort with a sense of open curiosity. The more I was able to do this the more I noticed how the sensations were continually changing and moving. What started out as sharp pain would dissolve into a minor 'hum'. I wasn't rejecting what was going on, on the contrary, I was able to be with every feeling & every difficult breath, moment by moment. After a while I noticed the voice had disappeared. I was in a rhythm. I was flowing. I was running.

Just two weeks before we were supposed to leave for Israel the marathon was called off. Covid was spreading and countries were beginning to shut down.

 

There is a well known quote by Arundhati Roy, "The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it". I think the same goes with experience - once you push yourself to a certain point, you can't go back to where you were.'

"Once you push yourself beyond a certain point, you can't go back to where you were."
Something had changed in me. I had awakened a part of me that could transcend the the inner critic. No limits, no stories, just an open minded approach to everything. Believe it or not I decided to carry on running and have introduced it as part of my exercise regime twice a week. Nope, I am not running long distances nor will I be taking part in a marathon anytime soon. I now run 4.6 km's and I'm really happy with that. My gramps would be proud!

 

Don't give up.

While running recently, I noticed that when I get tired I tend to slow down, lean back and put my hands on my hips. It doesn't help at all but rather makes me feel more sluggish and eager to stop. I decided to do something that seemed counterintuitive. Instead of slowing down, I lifted my head, put my shoulders back and gently leaned into the exhaustion. I pushed my body slightly forwards which gave me the momentum to keep on going. At first it was uncomfortable because instead of slowing down to catch my breath I had to pick up my energy and pace. While doing this a song by The Eagles came onto my ipod. Amazingly, the chorus was "Keep on running!" I smiled to myself at the synchronicity of it all. It was gentle at first and then it sounded like the entire band was cheering me on! "Keep on running!"

 

I am reminded of a recent inspiring interview I did with Extreme Swimmer Ryan Stramrood. He's completed 114 Robben island to mainland crossings. He is not stranger to extremes challenges. He echoed my experience of the discouraging voice and how by pushing through we are able to experience extraordinary things. When the brain tells us to stop, there's still lots more in the tank. He keeps on swimming!

 

We are living in challenging times

We are living in challenging times and many of us are suffering from Covid fatigue. There are days when we just want to lean back and resist everything that's happening, to put our hands on our hips, slow down and say "Enough!".

I get it. I feel it. I understand.

And...

You can choose to lift your head, relax your shoulders and lean into the discomfort and difficulties ahead. Keep moving until you build momentum. Every time you find yourself lost in "what if" thoughts and your mind is filled with fear and terror, bring yourself back to the moment. Be with the challenge. The pain will eventually abate, things will shift and a magnificent new world will be realised.

 

Keep on running.

In November 2020 Mandy Steinberg lost her battle against cancer. I was not able to run through the streets of Jerusalem with her name on my back but I run with her name in my heart every time I take to the streets. Rest in peace Mandy.

 

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