Finding my happy time
By Marlene Farrell
Recently I ran in the early afternoon. Conditions were ideal — 70 degrees with a refreshing breeze. A blue enamel sky, vanilla pines, and an empty road were one version of autumnal perfection.
There was only one problem. I hated every step of it. I wasn’t injured or ill and yet bliss evaded me. My guilt at not enjoying such an opportunity compounded my dislike. I ran faster at the end to hasten the shower that would wash away the memory of a run gone bad.
Knowing myself, I could almost predict this loathing. If I had the exact same run at 5 a.m. or 8 a.m. instead of 1:30 p.m., I would have been striding along happily and mentally reorganizing my day so I could stay out for extra miles.
If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you know that I am one of them ‘morning people.’ Normal for me is getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to bed by 9 p.m. More typically, people have their lowest core body temperature at 5 a.m., inhibiting them from rousing until closer to 7 a.m. If I were tested, I’d guess my temperature starts rising a couple hours earlier than most.
But getting out of bed early doesn’t explain why an afternoon run has to be so difficult. There are, in fact, reasons why the afternoon should be a better time to run. I don’t need a headlamp or layers. My muscles are warm, and my heart and brain waves should be performing at higher rates.
One key is the half-hour I give myself to wake up before running. That time is rich in ritual. Alone, my actions are a meditative practice. I am immersed in the foamy roughness of the toothbrush against my teeth, the slipperiness of a contact on my fingertip. Downstairs I’m awakened by the pungent odor of the compost bin where I tap the old coffee grounds, replaced by the strong aroma of new grounds. I listen to the trickling percolation as I unplug the GPS watch, and pull my hair back into an adequate ponytail. I don’t get the muscles firing until I head out but my mind is revving up, slightly caffeinated, ready for miles of wonder.
In the afternoon I have no ritual. Some days I wear running clothes all day waiting for the window of time to crack open. On other days the window is wide open but I hold off an hour to let lunch digest. Either way running seems an interruption rather than a gateway to flow.
To improve an afternoon run, I could start with preparatory rituals. I could turn off the computer and relax for 10 minutes with a book. Then I could let myself drift into a short nap. When I wake, my running clothes could be waiting.
My instinct tells me that rituals alone won’t cure my sluggish afternoon runs. I did some armchair investigation of cortisol, a hormone that cycles daily and affects mood. It’s low at night when melatonin, a calming, sleep-inducing hormone, spikes. My body starts producing cortisol when I flip on the light in the morning, but also pumps more with exercise or stress. It prepares my “fight or flight” reflexes that were necessary in the evolutionary past to deal with acute physical stressors, i.e. an attacking lion. Cortisol, as part of my stress response (no matter how benign the stress really is), helps me harness my glucose stores and send them to my muscles with increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. My senses are sharpened, and pain, like the typical muscle ache of a runner, is blunted. Other bodily functions, like digesting food, halt.
These are put to good use in the morning. I am that zebra running from the lion.
If I run after lunch, my blood and oxygen have bypassed my brain in favor of my stomach and liver, and it is hard for me to reverse it without the cortisol spike that I get naturally in the early morning. I am less zebra and more hippo, content to wallow on my couch. And without helpful rituals I quit after a short run and never enjoy the endorphin euphoria that I get on my longer morning runs.
Preparatory rituals and running longer might improve my afternoon runs. But I’m also learning to lower my expectations in the middle of the day, and save my energy for the following morning, for my next Happy Time.
Marlene Farrell, a Leavenworth resident and long-distance runner, helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club. If you are interested in helping out the Striders in some fashion, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.