On weekdays when I run it’s often on a local campus, where I meet up with a friend who works there and we just kind of meander over the hilly streets and through surrounding neighborhoods. Without any pre-set course in mind, we just kind of go where the run takes us that day. No two runs are ever identical.
On Sunday mornings, there’s a group I meet in a park where we run the exact same route. Every single time. The same path, the same direction, the same turn at every intersection. No two runs are ever identical.
A Tale of Two Runs
No two runs are ever identical. Period.
No matter where you are or who you are with. There is something unique on every path that’s never been there before. What’s more, you’ve changed too since the last time you ran it. In fact, you are changing the whole time you are running any route.
You know what else is true?
No two runs are every truly different, either.
There is always something familiar and known when we enter into our stride. Not the same. Not different.
The trick is paying attention to what appears uniquely that day, as well as acknowledging what’s held fast. The familiar shows up uniquely, and what’s new rings the bell of the familiar.
Join Me in Boston– During Your Next Run
In a few days I will be running a new course. In an unfamiliar city. Over a distance I haven’t run in 20 years. With more than 30,000 I’ve never run with before. You see, I’m entered in the 126th running of the Boston Marathon and every aspect of that day will be new– except for what is very familiar.
Let me explain.
I asked some veterans of the race about their “mental map” of the course and I discovered how my fellow runners approach specific segments of the race, how they get through the challenge while savoring the joys of the course, and how they experience one of the greatest achievements of their athletic lives.
While I’ve never actually lived through any of the exact details of what they’ve told me, I found myself identifying their experiences with places I’ve run, emotions I’ve felt, insights and visions and connections I share regularly and have enjoyed throughout my many years of running.
I put together some of their thoughts– and mine– to illustrate this paradox. Read on to see what’s unique to the Boston course– and yet what may be familiar to your everyday run next time out.
So even if you never run Boston, you can join in.
Come run with us.
TAKE THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
“I love the start seeing a sea of runners ahead of you going down the descending grade as your adrenaline and emotions are getting the best of you. That’s why you go out slow, easier said than done.”
“Of course the start line and that first mile are a rush – seven thousand people in your wave all shuffling toward the start line, subtly speeding up their walk until you cross the timing mat and everyone starts to really run, still pretty tightly packed. Then down you go… the first stretch is a downhill out of Hopkinton – all you see ahead is a sea of bobbing heads and shoulders, undulating down the hill and… we’re on our way!”
The beginning of every run is what I consider a fork in the road of our lives. Before we begin, we are on a certain path– our civilian life, if you will. Responsibilities, constraints, details. But when we take that first hop, feel our knee bend, then extend and swing the other along like it, we take the first step along a new path. We have veered off into different territory– along with everyone who’s ever run before us and with us. The people who inspired us, taught us, protected us. Made us laugh. Made us think. Given us a reason to run. It is the road less travelled, but we are not alone. And that makes all the difference.
“A mile or so after the start, you hit a stretch of quiet where there are very few homes and even fewer people lining the roads. It’s the brief calm after the boisterous clamour of the start. All you hear are runners’ footfalls, breaths both heavy and light, an occasional cough or throat clearing.”
“I imagine it’s the time when most of us consider the enormity of what’s ahead, take in our overall fitness, assess our current pace and prepare for the grueling miles ahead of us. It’s really what most marathons are: a lot of quiet miles. But Boston has precious few stretches like that and the closer one gets to the end, the louder and more explosive the impact of the crowds become.”
“the course gets quiet, no cheers as its not a spot accessible to spectators . It’s then I think of why I am running, who I am running for as I listen to nothing but feet hitting the ground.”
Buddhist teachers and Catholic mystics, among many other spiritual traditions, emphasize the importance of silence as a way to center ourselves in the awareness of the present. No matter how noisy a race or run can be, if we seek we will find a quiet moment within. Here we can listen to our breathing, feel the miracle of running on this earth, and be present to the moment we are experiencing. In this silence, we can find our why– the pieces of our life that running makes better.
LONG LIVE ROCK
“The biker bar in Ashland. Heavy drinking and hard rock.”
“Ashland: in the first mile or so, runners scamper into the woods to pee.”
“I also love the dogs in Ashland; and now learned one has terminal cancer.”
Running can seem like it’s a spiritual practice–but let’s not get carried away. It’s also just fun. Rock ‘n Roll, dogs, the the childlike peculiarities of our bodies. It’s fun to be human and experience parts of our run that are just that– human and real. It’s also terminal. It will end. Don’t take it for granted. Eventually, one of your runs will be your last. And you probably won’t know until it’s over. So find the moments in each run to celebrate your freedom, liberty, and the privilege you have to indulge in it.
LOOK IN THE MIRROR
“In Framingham, there is a glass store where you can check out yourself in the window’s refection.”
Find a place on your run to look at yourself– in a physical reflection or a personal one. There’s no better time to get new perspective on who we are becoming, physically and otherwise.
NO SHADE / NO SHELTER
“In Framingham, by the railroad tracks- the most desolate section of the course. Also, the section of the course with the least shade.”There are going to be times where you are exposed and vulnerable. Be aware as you go through these stretches on your run, remember later how you got through the worry, the discomfort. Summon that energy of success and sense of achievement when you face adversity in your life.
THE HAIL MARY
“Natick: very nice town center where you can experience an adrenaline rush from the crowds.”
I’m sure Natick is a lovely town. However, I only know of it for one thing…Natick is the hometown of Doug Flutie, a Boston sports legend known for his famous Hail Mary pass in 1984 to beat Miami. Talk about an adrenaline rush! Take a minute to appreciate all the unlikely, wonderful surprises in your life. Maybe even say a prayer.
THE QUIRKY LANDMARK
‘”At about 7.75ish miles in. There’s a Wendy’s at the top of this little hill and my coach always called it Heartburn Hill”Look for those hidden little markers, even in plain sight, that make you smile and remind you of important people in your life. Or make you laugh. For example, I ran into an old friend of mine unexpectedly on an otherwise unremarkable corner that I rarely run by. Now, even months later, when I come at that corner from that direction, I think of him and smile remembering our friendship.
“Wellesley scream tunnel by the college”
“The scream tunnel of course. Always my fastest mile.”
“passing the Boston Children’s Hospital cheer section. Seeing the kids and their families and hearing them cheer for you was so emotional for me…”We are often called on to give. Some of us get quite good at that and forget what it’s like to be able to receive. To receive other’s gifts to us graciously, to feel heartfelt appreciation, and to harness the goodwill from the exchange to bring us to better places in our lives. On your run, find something to receive– whether it’s a wave and a smile from someone along the way, or the shade of a tree, the warmth of the sun, the cool of a breeze or chirp of a bird. Much is being offered to you. Don’t squander it.
“the Mile 13.1 mark in Wellesley Center – big crowds cheering, and psychologically a big spot: halfway done, now it’ll be less distance to the finish than the start…”
“… the two enthusiastic young lady runners I once overheard on the first of the Newton hills saying ‘Is this heartbreak? It’s not too bad at all’ [actually a couple miles away from the famous hills].”
No matter which side of the hill you believe you are on in your life, the midpoint of your run can be a reminder that our lives, like this run, won’t last forever. And we never know how much time is left– or what it will be like for us. There will be a day when you really wish you were on this run, feeling this fatigue, being in your body and strong enough to continue home. Don’t squander it.
“At Newton Lower Falls where our wives dutifully unfurl the same signs they have been using for years. They are back home before we hit the hills.”
The familiar can give us assurance and help us feel safe. So that even in an ever-changing world, we can rely on some stability and tradition. Especially when there are people in our lives that have been with us through ups and downs. Find moments on your run to celebrate the familiar, the time-honored places, people, things that are there for you, time-and-time again.
“I struggle with the newton hills so hoping one day I can enjoy that part pain free.”We will each have our struggles– some will be recurring, others appear suddenly, or slowly over time. Running is really good at pointing out when we struggle. There’s no place to hide. Yet the struggle can also be what meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls ‘the magic moment.’ It’s our chance to do something differently, to acknowledge the adversity, and simply resolve to get through it. If we have to keep coming back to the struggle and our resolve to address it, it’s ok. It’s the magic moment again. Just pick yourself up and go at it again. This happens regularly to me on difficult stretches of a run. So keep going.
SNIFF IT OUT
“And BC where everything smells like beer. “Next time out, really make an effort to take in the scents you can identify on your run. Our smell is probably the most overlooked of the senses when we run.
DO THE WORK
“While Heartbreak Hill is a great relief to finally summit (the Newton Hills are done!), everyone learns that the big mental work really begins at the top of that hill – it’s only 5 miles to go, and mostly downhill, but as some people have put it: “The last five miles are the second half of the Boston Marathon.” Legs are tired, whole body is tired, there are still some small uphills sprinkled into the net downhill stretch.”
“Beacon Street seems like a mini marathon in itself getting there”
“That damn overpass into Kenmore Sq. That hill sucks!”There are no shortcuts on the marathon. The only way past is through. Don’t shy away from putting difficult elements into your runs, particularly once you are fatigued. Yes, they will hurt. The more you can master them in your runs, the better you will master adversity in your life. Don’t let yourself be defined by your adversity. Instead, identify with your response– your rise into your own power. Sustained by that view of yourself, you can better conquer the heartbreaks, obstacles, insufferable opposition, traffic, and all the annoyances great and small that complicate our lives.
WHEN YOU SEE THE SIGN
“Brookline when I first see the Citgo sign”
“Finally catching a glimpse of the Citgo sign, [which is at] around mile 25. “Is there something that signals to you the end is near? In Boston, it’s the Citgo sign across from Fenway Park. Take a moment to be grateful for the run while you are still enjoying it. As I often remind myself in my exhaustion near the end of a run: as hard as this is, this could very well be the best part of my day. Don’t squander it.
BE WHERE YOU ARE
“,,,and then to go under the little dip and hill before Hereford Street you start to feel the crowd.”
“And the last two “hills” – coming up out of the Mass Ave underpass, and then “Mount Hereford” – the two blocks of Hereford Street that can feel like Heartbreak Hill after 25.9 miles. These are memorable – the last big hurdles before the shuffle to glory down Boylston St.”
“Boylston St, only .3 miles long, can feel interminable.”
Running keeps us from deceiving ourselves. There’s no teammates to blame or to carry you to victory. Much like life, you have all kinds of support, but no matter the race or the run, you start alone and you finish alone. No one will have the same race you had, no one will have the same life you had. No one will completely understand your struggles, your burdens, your drive, your vulnerabilities, your pain, your joys. So run in awareness of where you are, who you are, why you are doing this. Run your own race.
TURN, TURN, TURN
“Final turns onto Boylston are the most amazing right and left you’ll ever take! – [right on hereford, left on boylston]”
“…and once you turn on Boylston Street you feel like Brady walking onto Gillette Stadium!”
“Near the finish line where the memorials are now in place from the bombings; still brings me to tears every year I run by them by the Finish Line always will be with me.”
Life is everything at once. Feel it all when you run–and you will live your whole life more happily at every turn.
See you in Boston.
[NOTE: There’s still time to join my team. Just click here –> DONATE NOW <– any amount will be appreciated by me and even more so, by the patients and families at Boston Children’s Hospital]
Thanks to the following runners for contributing to this article: Samantha Gasbarro, Mike Doherty, Joe Caruso, Josh Brand, Frank Gens, Warren Kerper, Brittany Broderick, Steven Iannacone.