Mystical Side of Running
by Sudhira Hay
Sue Osborn, course record holder in her age group (35-39) at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships, recognized early on that training is a form of meditation all its own. The feeling of peace she got during those silent hours, either running, swimming or on her bike, became her favorite thing. "When you train for Ironman [a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike and a 26.2 mile run], you spend a lot of time with yourself," Osborn points out. "During a long ride, the first few miles are like being in a city. Thoughts are running through my mind. Then everything starts calming down."
In 1998, Osborn started taking meditation classes, partly to see if she could extend the peaceful feeling she had during training. She found that some of the simple techniques outlined in the class were things she had been intuitively doing on her own for years."If I was out of shape for some reason, I would focus on my breathing, or try to empty my mind of thoughts," she says. "The difference is that now I can recognize the technique for what it is and get better results, because I am doing it consciously."
Osborn remains an amateur athlete, juggling a grueling training schedule and a full-time job. In 1993 - when she broke the record - she took almost a year off to completely focus on the Ironman. Since then, she has returned to full-time work in magazine ad sales. She does not feel that this limits her potential for progress, however. "I have not been as fast as I was in '93," she says, "but I definitely feel I can get back there."
This is where she feels that meditation can play an important role. She meditates every morning, using it as a special quiet time in which to focus herself. In between activities, she also takes a minute or so to meditate. "It helps me to quickly change focus from one thing to another," Osborn says.
Does her meditation help with the discipline of getting out the door for a long session, day after day, year after year? "It's more the effect I get from training that helps," she admits. "I love getting out on my bike in the mountains, that focused time with myself."
Les Drake, a cyclist whose favorite event is the 3,000-mile Race Across America, uses meditation as a recovery tool, a way to bring the body to the ideal state for regeneration.
Drake practices Transcendental Meditation (TM), which uses a mantra to focus the mind. The objective is to bring the mind to REM state, a "sleep" state that promotes physical recovery most efficiently. Most people naturally enter a REM state for about 5-25 minutes four or five times in eight hours of normal sleep. In the Race Across America, Drake used TM in three 20-minute sessions a day for his rest breaks. "In the race, competitors want to spend as little time as possible sleeping," he says. "Using my mantra, I could very quickly enter a state that was most beneficial to my body."
Drake has attempted the Race across America three times and completed it once. In 1990, the year he finished, he relied heavily on TM. "I explained to my support team what I was doing," Drake remembers. "It was important for them to understand what was going on."
In that race, Drake bruised his kneecap. Not severe at first, it quickly grew worse until the team had to keep it constantly packed with ice - while he was riding. Finally, when it looked as if he might have to pull out of the race, Drake decided he would try one more rest break. He went into meditation as usual, but at the 20-minute mark he did not come out when prompted. After another 20 minutes, one of his crew gently touched his shoulder again. "I came bursting out of my meditation," Drake says. "I did not need any more ice, and I started pedaling out of there at 25-30mph. The team was stunned. It was almost," he hesitates a little, "a spiritual experience."
Does he consider meditation to be a spiritual practice? "It's good for my soul," Drake says. "I felt in the race that I was drawing on another power, and that gave me a deep sense of gratitude. There were times when I felt very calm, as if some energy were hovering around me, protecting me. It started on the third day and lasted until the end of the race."
Will he continue to meditate after his athletic goals are achieved? "That's a little final," he laughs. "I hope to be riding when I'm 50. But the answer is yes." He pauses. "If you are trying to achieve goals, if you have the need to excel - I don't see how any athlete can do it without some form of meditation."
Sri Chinmoy is a meditation teacher who lives in New York. Although he draws deeply from traditional Eastern philosophy, one thing he advocates that departs widely from tradition is the importance of physical fitness. The inner life and the outer life go hand in hand, he feels, and backs it up by sponsoring non-competitive events of many kinds (running, ultra running, duathlon, triathlon) all over the world.
From his youth as a decathlon champion in Pondicherry to his completion of 22 marathons and eventual weightlifting feats - in November 1998 he lifted a total of over 92,000 pounds in three hours - Sri Chinmoy is a living example of what he teaches. He explains that an important part of being on this planet is to explore the unlimited potential of the human spirit. Through this philosophy of self-transcendence, he inspires thousands around the world. "Our aim should not be to surpass others, but to constantly surpass our own previous achievements," he says. "Athletes should bear in mind that they are competing not with other athletes but with their own capacities. Whatever they have achieved, they have to go beyond."
Ultra runner Suprabha Beckjord has completed the Sri Chinmoy 3,100-mile race twice. "My first ultra was in 1986, when Sri Chinmoy lifted 200 pounds with one arm," Beckjord remembers. "There was a 200-mile race to celebrate."
Although she had never considered such a distance before, the spiritual support of meditation gave her the capacity to finish. In the 3,100-mile ultra, it is vitally important that she remains mentally in a good space; Beckjord found that the best way for her was to focus on the heart center instead of the mind. "Instead of staying with the mind - how many laps have I done, how long until the next rest break - I find it much more inspiring to focus on feelings of gratitude and joy," she says.
Beckjord sees joy as a major strength in a race where you have to run from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for 50 days. "If you can maintain a sense of inner joy throughout the race, then God's grace comes to the rescue," she points out.
"Sports is the toy department of life," says Paula Newby-Fraser, eight-time champion of the Hawaii Ironman. "I always wanted to make a career out of sports, not just do it until I could get a "real" job."
Newby-Fraser grew up in a predominantly Asian-Indian community in South Africa, an environment that exposed her to Eastern philosophy and religion at an early age. As a teenager, she learned how to meditate, using breathing techniques and practicing yoga. Now, after years as a professional athlete, she is more involved in coaching, and often uses basic concepts of meditation to help her pupils develop the mental toughness you need to compete successfully. "People need to believe in themselves more," says Newby-Fraser. "You don't have to lose your job and neglect your family to be a good athlete."
While Newby-Fraser's methods do not focus on meditation per se, she believes mental and physical training go hand in hand, each integral to the other. The advice she gives is elegant in its simplicity: Look upon a race as a continuation of the training. "Things happen in a race, the same as they do in training," Newby-Fraser says, "but often in a race people will wig out - they can't handle it. The real thing to remember is that, in a race, just as in training, it is only yourself that you are competing with. I have seen people drop out of a race simply because they are not where they expected to be. But if you have invested a lot of time, energy and emotion in this, you have to throw out your expectations and just keep going."
During a hard training session, just as during a race, the mind tends to come up with excuses for stopping. As the physical body becomes exhausted, mental discipline becomes more and more important. "In a race, you have to be focused on where you are," insists Newby-Fraser. "At the beginning, keep your energy for yourself, instead of doing the social circuit. Later, when somebody passes you, do not let your energy go with that person. 'Oh, great, that blows my chances of winning' is not going to help you."
Asked about techniques she uses to stay focused, Newby-Fraser replies that for her it is more about attitude. Having gone through both good and bad times, she knows that the emotional pay-off is huge when she succeeds. "I do need more still time," Newby-Fraser admits. "When I was racing and practicing meditation, my results were better. In fact, talking to you, I'm thinking why the hell am I not doing it now?"
I personally have used meditation in all these ways to enhance my experience as a runner. A long-time student of meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy, it is almost second nature for me to observe my thoughts and their effect. When I run, I find it best not to think at all. Thoughts can waste energy.
One way to keep your mind focused is to pick an inspiring word or phrase. Sri Chinmoy has often spoken on the importance of gratitude. "If I can offer my soulful gratitude to my Inner Pilot before the race and after the race also, then the power of concentration will remain the same throughout the race," he writes.
Repeating the word "gratitude" as I ran my last marathon kept me away from some all-too-familiar mental traps. I'm going too fast, I'll burn out. My knee is getting sore. How long do I have to be out here for, anyway?
The result of reining in my mind was that I kept my awareness on my needs of the moment - something else that Newby-Fraser stresses. I finished the Napa Marathon in just over four hours. Some of my friends were faster, some slower. I didn't let it matter, and I set a new PR.
A runner can take that achievement and apply it to other areas of life also. In the words of Sri Chinmoy, "Try to be a runner, and try all the time to surpass and go beyond all that is bothering you and standing in your way. Be a real runner so that ignorance, limitation and imperfection will all drop far behind you in the race."