In Search of a Limit: Part 1

During several runs this spring, I noticed that my left foot would go numb after only 4 or 5 miles, making it feel as though I had a medium-size brick at the bottom of my left leg. However, I realized something strange during longer runs: the sensation in my foot would restore itself when I continued to run a few miles beyond the initial numbness. Specifically, it would do so around after mile 7 or 8 of a run. I have noticed a similar psychological pattern on longer runs as well. Often times when running - as in almost all other moments of life - the mind’s inner voice will carry on about whatever it is caught up with at that time: future plans, general self-consciousness, someone’s annoying comment from earlier.

Random thoughts often take control of attention during the first stages of a run. But things change through the progression of a run. I continually notice the mind’s distracted state and bring its focus back to the run. Again around mile 8, the mental refocusing process becomes effortless: the mind quiets down its distracted patterns and sinks into the run. At this point in a run, I get a physiological sensation in the center of my chest that feels like an unlimited energy reserve.

Once this state is noticed, one can appreciate that a running state is no more difficult than a resting state. In other words, the mind comes to appreciate that there is nothing inherently more difficult about moving one’s legs forward than lying down on a coach. It is not the running that is painful but instead the desire to stop running. Personal fears, limits, and self-consciousness dissolve in this state because one can appreciate that they are all transcend-able if we just keep going.

For this reason, runs of 8+ miles are usually ‘easier’ than runs of shorter lengths. I often feel exhausted and mentally torched after 5-mile runs but rarely after 15-milers. 5-mile runs are part of life in the same way that meals, homework, and other daily involvements are part of life. All such activities are things to do in an average day. Running 15 miles dwarfs the significance of concerns that usually occupy the mind. Its easy to stress about daily concerns during a 5-mile run. Have homework waiting for you at your home? You’ll likely run faster to get back to it to ease your mind. However, the same approach is counterproductive during a 15-mile run. Running faster to get back to ‘normal’ life is of little use because the run will take long no matter how fast you run. Such runs encourage the mind to embrace the conditions of the run and leave other minor concerns by the wayside.

This same principle applies to reading, writing, schoolwork, and any other domain that holds the capacity for prolonged engagement. If fully engaged with, all such activities are opportunities for deep focus, satisfaction, and personal growth. The longer we work on a task, the more focused our attention becomes and the more our life’s meaning can take shape around development in that domain.

Almost every time after finishing a run of 8 or more miles, I wish that the run had no end. I’m left wondering how far the energy in my chest lasts until my mind-body hits its limit, the point at which I literally cannot take another step forward. Part 2 of this post details a recent attempt to find that limit.

Noah GreensweigComment