Running on empty

I like to run, but it doesn’t come easily to me.  I’ve always said, “I’m not a runner.”  When I was in high school I was always the last person to finish the obligatory weekly “fun run.”  (What sick P.E. teacher named it that, I ask you?!)  I walked the whole way, and whenever I tried to jog, my chest would seize up and I felt terrible.  So I would stop.

In the past three years I have obviously taken leave of my senses because I started jogging/walking short distances as a way to get some inexpensive, quick exercise.  I knew that I needed more exercise, and driving to the pool to get cold and wet on a winter’s evening (and to pay for the pleasure!) seemed ludicrous even though swimming is my preferred sport.  So I tried to run.  Fast forward three years and the distances I run have lengthened and I no longer feel like a fraud when I say, “I’m a runner.”  But it’s still hard!

At the start of the run I feel heavy and stiff.  Experience tells me this will get better (usually).  As I force myself to keep going (I have to now because I’m too far from home and it’s usually dark) I get into a rhythm and my mind begins the decluttering process.  Gradually I feel a little better.  And eventually I experience an unexpected feeling of euphoria.

File:Jogging Woman in Grass.jpg

How can it be that something that is so very difficult has the net effect of making me feel great?  This isn’t a blog post about the science of endorphins or the benefits of exercise.  This is a reflection on how sometimes the worst moments of our lives can produce unexpected effects.  Parenting can be such hard work at times!  I rarely have an uninterrupted night.  Sometimes my baby wakes me every 45 minutes.  Each of my children wants 100% of my attention, not the approximate 33% that is their theoretical due as one of three.  They argue and sometimes resort to violence.  I am referee, peacemaker, listener and consoler.  I listen to their feelings and want to have something helpful and encouraging to say afterwards.  I have put them first in my life, and sometimes this in itself is hard when I really wish I could have gone to a friend’s wedding that they weren’t invited to, or when I see my high-powered friends from my old life (read: pre-baby) and wonder where my career might have gone if I’d continued with it.  I sometimes wonder whether I’m cut out for this parenting business, but it’s too late!

I can well remember the same sensation during childbirth.  After the initial excitement that the contractions had begun, I felt frightened and wanted to somehow escape.  But logic told me that the only way out is through it: to carry on with labour and birth this baby.  It was intense.  It was scary at times.  But in that hard work there was also a satisfaction that this was somehow right.  Many people might say that I am crazy, but I felt there was a certain joy in the experience of childbirth itself, not just its end result.

Just like when I’m running, there are low moments.  I want to stop and walk (or call a taxi!).  I ask myself why I even bothered… I certainly won’t be doing this again!  I wonder if there’s a shortcut and I feel trapped in a situation from which there seems to be no escape route.   I find myself wishing my run away, counting down the steps til I get home.  I suspect it’s fairly universal to experience these tough times and wonder how we will ever get through it when we’re running on empty.

Just like in running, those difficult moments often precede a breakthrough.  The weight from my chest suddenly lifts, my stride lengthens and quickens.  I feel my head clear and my heart is beating in my chest like a drum in a pipe band.  I am energetic and filled with light.  The intensity and effort that happened only minutes ago is now forgotten and I am wholly in this moment, experiencing the beauty of being alive and free.

When I feel trapped in an intractable parenting problem I try to remind myself of those joyful moments.  Not just the ones I experience while running but the beauty of life with my children in general.  For me it’s the pure pleasure of watching my toddler running through the grass in little yellow wellies.  It’s the straight white teeth of my daughter’s huge smile.  It’s the devilish cackle my child makes when she’s made mischief and is waiting for us to discover it.  When life is hard it’s tempting to wish the days away, looking for the moment when things will get better.  But impregnated in the difficult days are moments of euphoria: flashes of light in the darkness.

We carry on as parents not because there is no escape, but because of those flashes of light.  And I suspect that even in the darkness we know that all shall be well, so we keep on running, one step at a time.

Photo credit: Mike Baird, Morro Bay, Calif, USA, Flickr.

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