A couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of going jogging. This might not sound fun to a lot of you, but to me it is. The weather was perfect—probably 77—and the sky was clear. Just like last weekend, when I wanted to jog but literally did not have the strength.
Usually when I’m jogging, I think about the scenery, and watching for approaching cars, and, most often, how much longer (and farther) until I can stop. I count down the distance and the minutes, rarely going farther than the distance I have established as an appropriate maximum, and often running less than that distance.
That’s the thought that predominates: stopping early. Not jogging, but stopping, and sometimes, when I get a couple of miles away from home, I kick myself for running so far out and assume that the jog back is going to be torture, and that the only way to survive it is to suffer.
This day, though, things were different. Everything around me was very still—the grass was blowing gently in the breeze, but there weren’t any cars around. Everything just was.
So I decided that for the last mile, I would focus on every single strike of my feet on the pavement. I focused on my toe spread and striking with the ball of my foot, and lifting my knees with my quadriceps. I felt each strike pulsating through my calves and into my knees as they absorbed the impact, just grateful that they still have their original parts and seem to work without too much complaining.
And then, the unexpected happened.
I had assumed that thinking about each strike would make the last mile even more tedious. If you’ve ever tried to get into shape after being unwell—or just not exercising—you probably have experienced the “pain” of your goals being misaligned with your current state. Having not really jogged in several months, I assumed that thinking about every single foot strike would make the whole segment much more tedious than it would be if I simply were to think about something else.
Because that’s what we do when something is tedious. We think about something else. Especially when something is tedious—when it’s a struggle, which generally means we are expending any energy—we don’t want to think about it. Doing the dishes, folding laundry, taking out the garbage, watering the plants—all things we think are drudgery, so we don’t think about them. (But those are the little moments that make up our lives!)
Thus, we keep doing the same things, over and over. In my case, it is setting a goal to run a 5k in twenty-four minutes and never, ever getting there. Or saving more money. Or being a nicer person, or a better manager, or a better wife, or a more patient mother, or generally more empathetic. Or–present.
So, I asked myself this question: “If I don’t have the mental fortitude to think about each foot strike as I jog, why am I jogging? Why am I engaging myself in this particular struggle if I don’t have the discipline to pay attention to it and actually engage in it?”
The answer is simple: I assume it will be painful, or else not fun. Because it involves exerting energy, and sometimes sweating, and breathing hard, and potentially looking dumb. (Always looking dumb. No amount of neon jogging gear compensates for middle age and a red face.)
But those things are not actually painful—they’re actually opportunities for renewal and growth. Exerting energy properly produces growth and refinement. Sweating removes impurities from one’s muscles. Breathing hard also floods my muscles and brain with oxygen. Working really hard burns up all the trash in my body and cleans up my muscles and mind.
The jog turned into one of my most memorable experiences in 22 years of running, because I learned this from it: the things that I perceive as a struggle are simple learning experiences—and, struggle does not equate to pain. In fact, I felt much better after jogging than I did before. I may have looked a little worse for wear, but it felt really good. I felt light and joyful at the end. It may have been one of my only jogs in months, but it was my best jog in months.