by guest writer Angela Sullivan
The first miles of my ultra distance races are sublime. An eagerness to start down the trail provides an adrenaline push that sparks well-rested legs. The alert mind is rapturously taking in the sight of hundreds of runners jostling and laughing as they shake off their nerves and start a journey that will test their strength, nerve, and will. The great collective push never fails to delight me and it buoys the first hours of effort.
But once the excitement and adrenaline begins to wear off, there is a moment of recognition that there is a very long way to the finish and it’s time to focus and get my head in the game. The body is demanding attention and the relentless nature of the trail begins to take its toll. Falling into a negative loop in my head about the miles ahead and those emerging aches forces me to dig deep into my yoga and meditation practice to refocus on the moment. How is my body moving through space? Am I lost in thought? Am I really appreciating the scenery? Returning to my physical and mental center I am refreshed and grateful for my yoga practice.
A run that exceeds a marathon distance can be best undertaken with skills developed through a smart yoga practice. Ideally, the practice incorporates dynamic movement, unwavering mental stability, and a willingness to return again and again to the present moment. The smooth motion of yoga with with its efficient firing of nimble muscles in perfect order for effortless action mirrors the physicality of striding along a forest trail.
Physically, a body must be both strong and flexible. Postures in yoga highlight particular muscle groups. If they are tight, the posture facilitates a process of teasing out some ease and pliancy. Muscles that are weak or underutilized will be strengthened in a practice. Yogis are constantly calibrating how much effort is required to maintain a one legged balance or perhaps a squat position. We become sensitive to just the right amount of effort required to sustain a posture or flow through movement. This dance of strength and flexibility occurs along all the main planes of movement in the body.
Becoming acquainted with subtle sensations will allow you to discern both subtle and gross tension in the body. It can be the perfect antidote for the numbing disconnect that creeps in over long grueling miles on trail. Being attentive to how we are holding our bodies and how we are moving is essential. It is much like a car tire being a few degrees misaligned. A few miles is no big deal, but over thousands of miles it can destroy a new tire. Our bodies are similar to that unbalanced tire. We have to pay attention to our alignment and ease of movement in order to avoid the “wheels coming off” on our run.
When one undertakes a long distance trail run, the body must be able to move dynamically and be stable in all the directions of movement. Sure, it is mostly perpetual forward motion, but there is constant calibration of muscular effort and a compensatory reaction of the muscles as certain muscles fatigue and others kick in to pick up the energetic slack. Just like a yoga posture!! When a posture is held, there is a constant awareness that some muscles are overworking while others are relatively relaxed. We learn to read the smallest signals. On trail we have to be able to make micro adjustments as the miles pile up. Tension around the shoulders must be released. Pain in the hip may arise from overuse. Can we distinguish where the effort is accumulating and can we shift it?
But what is truly magical about the yoga practice is what is revealed in the mind. In my yoga classes, the students will be distracted by other people in the room or sensations in the body, or simply be getting lost in daydreams. Bringing them back to an awareness of breath and the bodily sensations associated with the breath is the beginning of a strong mindfulness practice. When we can return again and again to the direct experience of what is actually happening on the mat, there can be a deep sense of relaxation. Sure, a posture may be uncomfortable or the hamstrings unbelievably tight, but we begin to see that those sensations are fluid, changing and ultimately impermanent. My Dharma teacher, John Travis, uses the mantra “It’s like this now” to keep us directed to this moment. The stress of ruminating on what has happened or what is about to happen falls away. Yoga requires you to stop and sit and notice what is happening in the body and mind. There is magic in the deep relaxation of the body.
Moment-to-moment awareness cultivated on the yoga mat can be the perfect antidote for the numbing disconnect that creeps in over long grueling miles on trail. The mind can easily become lost in a pleasant daydream or anticipating some point in the future, like an aid station or a finish-line. Lost in thought, it is possible to go for miles without actually experiencing scenery or the beauty of the trail. Projecting into the future can also take a dark turn if we allow our thoughts to take a small ache in the body and blow it up into a race-ending injury.
Whatever is occurring will change over the course of the race. That intense discomfort can completely disappear and that cheerful attitude and light step can change instantly, too. The deep truth that everything changes can be experienced directly on trail and it is a tremendous lesson of life. Just observing what the mind is doing and not being reactive to every thought can make the journey more enlightened and infinitely easier.
In addition to the many hours logged running, my best training tool has been my yoga practice. Incorporating the skills developed in a yoga practice has enhanced both my physical and mental performance. Being attentive to how we are holding our bodies and how we are moving is essential. There will always be challenges on an ultra distance race, but a mind full of the moment is open to the experience of moving, breathing, and making contact with our gorgeous Earth one footfall at a time.