Don’t Call It A Comeback

Listening to podcasts has been an effective way to get through a pool running session. If you’ve never pool run, imagine the lack of scenery and fresh air of treadmill running combined with the absence of a runner’s high, and you get the idea of the unique mental challenge that agua jogging presents. One podcast I’ve enjoyed listening to is “High Performance Mindset” hosted by Dr. Cindra Kamphoff, especially one recent episode in which she interviewed Dr. Mustafa Sarkar about his concept of resilience. Dr. Sarkar has done extensive research in this field and worked with many elite athletes, and it’s his position that resilience is not the ability to bounce back from a setback; rather, it is a proactive — rather than reactive — skill. More specifically, Dr. Sarkar’s work posits that resilience is the ability to use personal qualities to withstand stress and to maintain functioning under pressure, thus, there is no setback to come back from. This definition of resilience resonated strongly with me as tomorrow I finally return to running after being sidelined almost five weeks due to a freak injury.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After reaching my ultimate goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon last November, Trainer and I had decided to concentrate on running track and shorter distances for the first half of 2017. This was partly for a change of pace, but most importantly, in Trainer’s view, to stay healthy since I wouldn’t be running Boston until 2018. I was mostly on board with this plan, but like a true distance runner addict, I struggled to not run more than the prescribed max of 3-miles per run. I soon found myself defying Trainer’s instructions, and at our Friday morning session on December 30, I finally stated that I would not be running less and that the idea of staying healthy was not a good enough goal since it felt like a participation medal…

rmr-1
Pre-run. So confident. Little did I know what await me.

Approximately 8 hours later, I found myself face down on Sunset Boulevard with my left knee in agonizing pain. On what was supposed to be a fun 6-mile run, I had tripped on a wire left out on the sidewalk and landed squarely on my left knee cap. However, having fallen before a few times, I dusted myself off and ran four more miles to finish my mileage. Because runner.

rmr-2
Not so confident anymore.

Although the pain was worse than my other falls, it wasn’t until the following Monday that I felt the need to have it checked out. I went to the ER, and one hour, one X-ray, and one set of crutches later, I hobbled out with the news that the X-ray indicated an avulsion fracture, meaning a fraction of the bone had been torn away from the patella. Yikes. It was at about this time that I would have given anything for that participation medal of good health.

rmr-x

ye-7

This diagnosis meant no running or even any cardio involving my legs for six weeks. In my twenty years of running, this was unchartered territory. Through any injury, I was able to at least do spinning or elliptical or the above-mentioned pool running to maintain cardiovascular conditioning and some muscle tone. Now, instead of going full-press into track season and running dreaded 600s, I found myself on crutches with six long weeks stretching ahead. And this is where Dr. Sarkar’s definition of resilience came into play.

One of my strongest character traits is being proactive. This quality manifests itself in my having put in place a solid foundation and structure through which I have navigated not only this and other physical tests, but also general life situations. Naturally, as in this case, I was not pleased with this occurrence. Of course there were moments of fear, doubt, and anger; however, through years of experience, and trial and error, I defaulted to a system that works.

The first building block is a spiritual practice. For almost twenty-five years, I’ve spent almost every morning with some quiet time. I usually spend a half hour in prayer, contemplation, reading, and writing, and this practice gets my head (mostly) straight and sets the intention for the day. It is not a guarantee that I’m not going to have hard times, but like any muscle, working this spiritual muscle provides a solid baseline, so that when difficult times do come down, I am in a better position to handle them. I am certain that the mostly positive mindset I maintained was the result of my faith and the purposeful attention I paid it.

Second, I have good people in place. Listen, as smart as I like to think I am, I only have so much headspace and expertise, so I outsource when necessary. For example, I have an awesome CPA, who advises me on what to do with my investments; OK, full disclosure, he is also my husband. Ha. And, in this case, I was aggressive in seeking the right people for my knee. I went to the best orthopedic doctors in Los Angeles, which meant that I could accept their diagnosis and prescription with full confidence, and thereby not have to waste time getting a second opinion.

Further, I had the right person to get me through the next six weeks. Not only did Trainer have expertise in rehabbing knee injuries, he had already instilled a system of prehab that I knew would hold some of my conditioning and possibly even accelerate my recovery. In emphasizing prehab in our sessions, we had been proactive so that in situations like these, we would not lose too much ground. Trainer and I hardly missed a beat in our training. I didn’t take any days off. When I couldn’t use my legs, he improvised, and I did my upper body work while sitting on an exercise ball. We did more core. Like a lot more core. Too much core. No really, I was over it.

rmr-3
Too many planks.
rmr-4
No wheels; no problem.

Ultimately, the MRI results determined that there was no fracture (the floating piece may have been an old injury), and that instead my issue was a strained quad tendon. Although I no longer needed crutches, I still could not resume running until three more weeks, which would bring the total to five. However, just as Dr. Sarkar proposed, resiliency does not have to imply a marked setback. Below are some photos of the type of work I’ve been able to do while injured; except for not being able to run track or road running, I am functioning at a high level despite my knee not being at 100%.

rmr-5

rmr-6

And tomorrow morning I will run for the first time in five weeks. Trainer says if this active running “hiatus” works, then we’ll do this every year*, further adding to the veracity of Dr. Sarkar’s argument. I mean, can it really be a comeback if a five-week running break is built into the training plan? Regardless, it is comforting to know that despite not having my running legs under me, the learning curve will be much shorter due to the solid foundation and training structure that I had put into place prior to this injury, and now instead of trying to catch up, I can look forward. In fact, my new training journal arrived today to commemorate this new chapter. Here’s to picking up where I left off.

rmr-journal

Hope everyone has a great running week!

*He is just kidding. I hope. There is no way I’m doing this. Just saying.

Book Review: The Raft Is Not the Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan

It’s true. The same person whose last two book reviews were on Crazy Rich Asians and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, now presents you with her thoughts on … a conversation about political activism in the context of Buddhist-Christian awareness?!?

TNH

Did I mistakenly pick up this book thinking it would give me tips on adventure/survival skills? Nope. An ongoing conflict for me has been reconciling my political activism – specifically my rage against social injustice – with a spiritual practice. While I agree with the viewpoint that anger is an emotion that should be avoided due to its corrosive nature, I also strongly oppose the idea of being indifferent to the suffering of others. I hoped these conversations between two spiritual teachers would help me find an answer to this conundrum.

A note about the format. The book is comprised of the transcripts of recorded conversations between Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, and Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest that took place in 1974, around the end of the Vietnam war. The former was exiled for his actions against the war, while the other was imprisoned for the same. Usually I’m not fond of this format; however, the back-and-forth style conveys a sense of intimacy between these two, and is an excellent model for reasonable dialogue. Neither is lecturing, both are curious, and the respect is evident. The reasonableness in the tone of these two in discussing the very things you are not supposed to bring up at a dinner party – religion and politics – is an excellent example of how to hold valuable discourse.

In some areas the discussions got a little too out there and hippy-dippy for me. The first chapter is entitled “Memory, Eucharist, Death.” So yeah, once they start presenting thoughts on what Jesus really meant by “This is My flesh,” and what we are really ingesting, I tend to zone out. I’m a cultural Catholic, because…Filipino, but I just see it as a ritual. Like putting up a Christmas tree. The only satisfactory explanation I’ve heard for what the body of Christ “really” meant was in the book/movie Alive about the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, and they resorted to cannibalism to survive. One of the survivors basically said “Hey, Jesus gave His body so we could have eternal life, and our friends who died in the crash gave us their bodies so we could live. [We should totally eat them.]” That seemed practical to me.

The book tackles a wide range of topics, and one of the more interesting ones was on self-immolation, something I knew little about other than to think “Dude, that’s intense.” But TNH throws out some ideas for the reader to mull over, which even if I didn’t completely buy, provided some information about the act and certainly added some nuance to my opinion. In the chapter entitled “Communities of Resistance,” Berrigan touches on a sense of Jesus being in constant movement and the concept of action, which is a message that resonates with me. I do spend time contemplating and reading about spiritual matters, but I prefer to keep my feet moving in spiritual action.

Ultimately, this book gave me much solace and confirmation that my passion for justice and my anger at certain political structures did not have to give way for spirituality; that neither necessarily excluded the other. As the Foreward states so well:

“At last I had a world where spirituality and politics could meet, where there was no separation. Indeed, in the world these two holy teachers described all efforts to end domination, to bring about peace and justice, are forms of spiritual practice.” — bell hooks

Earlier this year I attended a conference to learn effective strategies to address systemic racism. At times the work to be done seemed overwhelming, but many of us left hopeful as well. We were sent off with two words that best summed up the essence of this book and what a life in the pursuit of social justice feels like: Love and Struggle. I particularly like the idea of “And.” If you have a similar question or enjoy theological discussions or would like to know the payoff to the story that begins “A Vietnamese monk and a Jesuit priest meet in a Paris suburb…” then this is a must read.

Running Mantras and the Mantram

Running mantras are common motivational tools used during races or difficult training runs. I’ve used “Drop the hammer!” if I’ve got enough in the tank to finish strong. (I also love but have never used “Release the Kraken!”) If I know it’s a hilly course, I may say to myself something like “I eat hills for breakfast!” When I feel my pace is a little too peppy at the start of a race and will only lead to a horrible crash, I’ll repeat “Smart and Steady.” And on particularly difficult training runs, I’ll pull out the old Muhammad Ali “Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

Whatever gets you through, right?

Last week, however, I started saying my spiritual mantram during my training runs. I have done this intermittently during my pool workouts when I couldn’t use an iPod, switching between chanting my mantram and reciting a poem (Invictus), but since I don’t have to do kickboard work very much, this practice has not been done on any consistent basis.

I follow a spiritual practice that, in addition to meditation and a handful of other practical applications, includes the recitation of a mantram. This can be done whenever, the more the better. I will usually write three lines of my mantra when I wake up before I meditate, and I try to remember it throughout the day if I start to get worked up about something. It gets my mind straight in the morning and serves to calm me down in moments of stress. I love the explanation that the mind is like an elephant walking in a festival procession. As it walks past fruit stalls, the elephant’s trunk goes here and there, up and down, throwing back any fruit it can reach. So that the poor people who own these stalls don’t lose their inventory, the elephant’s keeper will give the elephant a bamboo shaft to grasp in its trunk. A well-trained elephant does so, and now that it has something to hold onto, it has no need for its trunk to wander and eat anything it can grab. Well, the mantram serves the same purpose for our restless brain – it gives it something to grab onto. I have found it be an invaluable tool in keeping me centered and balanced. Sorta. It’s relative. Definitely more than if I didn’t say it.

It didn’t take long to choose my mantra, and I use one that is time-tested. It has a message that resonates with me, and when I say the long form, as I do when I run, it is chanted in a beautiful sing-songy sound. It can also sound like a heartbeat. One yoga practitioner said it’s like when you’re in the mall and there’s a cacophony of noise, but your mantram is like a steady drumbeat that gets louder as you focus on it, and soon it drowns out all the other sounds. Awesome, right?

Anyway, my tailor is Hindu, and we started talking about the mantram, and he mentioned that if I said it 108 times a day, I’d have a good day. “Why 108, Kenny?” Well, turns out there are 108 beads on a mala, a set of mantra counting beads. Well, I want to have a good day! I want to have several good days! But when do you have enough time to actually say a mantra 108 times? Oh, duh, I run. So, I started last week, and, well, it was awesome. I’ve now done it on three runs. A mile or two in, I turn off my iPod (what?!?) and just start chanting silently the long form of my mantram. Mostly it’s cool to just not have my iPod on for a change, but I also found myself really feeling the rhythm of my footsteps this morning. It seemed to follow the drumbeat that the yoga practitioner told me about. And then I had the Moment. It was fleeting but impactful. For just a beat, my heart swelled up and opened, and I felt what I can only describe as Joy. It closed back up real fast, but it was a pretty cool moment nonetheless.

Of course I’ll keep using the more sporty and motivational running mantras, but I hope I’ll also continue this practice of reciting my spiritual mantra on at least some of my runs. I didn’t mean to find spirituality in running, but it’s pretty awesome it found me.