The runner’s mind fully engaged

Written on Oct 8th, 2012 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Training

By Marlene Farrell

For local runners, the smoky air has stifled our ability to do what we do to keep ourselves healthy and sane. Some of us exercised, with little joy, in the compromised conditions while others aborted their outdoor exercise entirely. My sympathy is with the runners who have fall marathons and training logs, previously considered objects of pride, now left jarringly blank or scribbled over in frustration.

So I wonder, what is my brain missing when I don’t run or my run is of feeble extent? I found some clues in an intriguing Running Times article by Ed Ayers. In a piece titled “Moments,” Ayers divides our cognitive experience into two categories, associative and dissociative runs. Dissociative, for me, refers to my wandering mind that notices the quail crossing the road, decides what to pack in the kids’ lunches, makes a check-list for the day ahead and thinks about the novel in which I’m currently absorbed. This type of running both relaxes me and helps me focus when I return to daily needs and duties.

Associative running is when I’m engaged, both with my surroundings and my inner workings. It’s when time is irrelevant because I’m inside a moment, not analyzing or critiquing. I am my breath, my foot rolling on the ground, bounding forward, my stretching arch and contracting calf. Instantaneously I am my hip, thrusting forward, feeling the limit of joint and muscular coordination, and the tiny hairs on my arm, bending in a slight breeze. I am not myself; my mental space is roving. There is some tiny lobe of my brain that “knows” how fast I should be going and is keeping track of how many miles are left, but the rest of me is freed to be.

I hope everyone experiences these two forms of engagement. Dissociative running typifies my initial miles or a difficult race when I’m scrambling for distraction. I can sink into associative running at a marvelous pivot point about four miles into a run. Endorphins kick in, but I think there is more to it than that. Associative running refreshes and satisfies me because I get a break from my overactive thoughts. They are eager children who chase after me but give up at four miles. I am often startled by the sudden stillness within me.

Actually, I can inhabit both associative and dissociative space at the same time, and often do. When I’m in the moment I can accept and adapt to change. For instance, roadside gravel, which can feel uneven and full of sharp edges, becomes smooth and cushy when I am running more effortlessly and am engrossed in the act. Just as easily I can fall out of my reverie, like the other day when a bug flew into my eye and irritated it for the remainder of my run.

Like anything I do regularly, this meditative movement can become second nature and habitual. I can call upon it to clear the clutter in my head while performing other basic tasks like driving, cutting vegetables or folding laundry. My recent short runs have limited my associative running. Subsequently, my well of quiescence runs a bit dry. But as I reflect on this more obscure benefit of long distance running, I’m psyched to go longer as the real fires die down.

Non-runners wonder what runners think about for hours at a time. “Surely, it must be quite boring,” they think. But I confess that “boring” is the last word I would use to describe my solitary runs. Boredom comes when there are too many options and I can’t figure out what I want to do. But when I’m running I want to be there. It is fantastic to be so single-minded for awhile.

My wish for all the runners in the area is a long, smoke-free run in which the moment can find us.

Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.

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