This Time Last Year

I’m gonna start this one off with a great big, extremely uncool admission: I make New Year’s resolutions. And I don’t mean the sort of ironic, detached resolutions like “floss more” or “remember to fill up the Brita before a night of drinking” – I mean the borderline-embarrassing, overly-earnest kind of resolutions. The stuff that self-help books are made of.

I’ve always found other people’s New Year’s resolutions particularly cringe-worthy, which might sound a little strange, coming from a habitual resolution-maker. But I’m not alone in my casual disdain for public commitments to self-improvement. The “new year, new me” proclamations we’re treated to over social media every January feel infinitely mockable, in part because the brutal self-assessment that underscores any really worthwhile resolution tends to betray our most deeply held status anxieties.

Truly earnest resolutions – goals like “lose weight” or “earn a promotion” or “get better at managing money” – strip us down to the shortcomings we feel most devalue us as human beings. New Year’s resolutions are confessional statements; they expose your internalized sense of self, along with your often-absurd ideas about how if you could just be thinner, or richer, or more outgoing, or successful, you would be happy.

Which brings me to this time last year, and my own resolutions for 2015.

Looking backwards through space and time, at the me of one year ago, the word unhappy doesn’t really fit. Lost might be a fairer assessment. Because in my day-to-day, I was happy, surrounded by wonderful people and free of any immediate stress or burden. But there was a larger spectre quietly dogging my steps, something akin to existential dread. Let me explain:

My early twenties were over. The carefree college years, when it felt like I had all the time in the world to figure out my future, had quietly slipped by. Suddenly I was surrounded by friends with careers, families, marriages, mortgages – all the trappings of a grown-up existence that I wanted, sure, in an abstract sort of way, but that I’d never really properly gone after.

My own life looked and felt as though it had fallen together by accident. I hated my job. What had started as a stop-gap solution, a means to pay the bills, had become increasingly difficult to walk away from. I felt stuck in the relative comfort that comes with seniority, raises, promotions, benefits – so what if I didn’t like the work? I’d be stupid to walk away, right?

My marathon debut the year before had been a demoralizing experience. As it turned out, I wasn’t the great marathoner I’d thought I could be. And the progress I’d been making to complete my Bachelor’s degree had stalled. I struggled with school, and my experiences in post-secondary didn’t exactly foster academic self-confidence.

All of these things, on their own, were just fine, but in combination, made me feel increasingly inadequate. So that by late December of 2014, a sort of paralyzing fear had crept in: maybe this is it for me.

Maybe I’m not going to reach my potential, or realize my dreams.

Maybe this is all there is.

And so my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 were big ones; so big, in fact, that they almost frightened me to say out loud. I was going to quit my job. I was going to redeem myself in the marathon. And I was going to go back to school.

2015 was a breakthrough year for me, but it didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up on January 1st, ready to take on every challenge that scared me. I struggled, and worried, and stressed, and cried. I went back to school, and came up against the same challenges and limitations as before. But I kept going, in part because I was surrounded by people who supported me, who made room for me to fail, and then to try again. Never underestimate the value of these kinds of people.

It was nearly halfway through the year, in the high heat of summer, when my frustration with my job finally reached a breaking point. I made a rash decision; I quit without a plan. For three years, this job had been my safety net, and I’d clung to it reluctantly because I lacked both the confidence and the clarity necessary to go after what I really wanted. When I gave in my notice, I was terrified. I felt as though I was free-falling without a parachute. But I kept telling myself over and over again: it’s going to be fine. When has it ever not been fine?

It actually got a little worse before it got better. But it did get better.

I found a new job, a wonderful new job as it turns out. After a great deal of stressed-out studying and hand-wringing, I managed to pass my courses. And through all of this, marathon training went from feeling like a chore to feeling like therapy. Running was my rock. My coach became like a spiritual guide.

I’ve always thought of epiphanies as a kind of hackneyed Hollywood cliché. Real moments of clarity aren’t made in a split-second – they come from the sort of slow-simmering introspection that gradually resolves itself into a clear direction. And I guess, when you think about it, my 2015 started off with a good six months of the slow-simmering stuff, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. But when the long-overdue clarity came, it came in an instant. Right in the middle of all the pain, all the worry, all the stress, all the work, suddenly everything was clear.

C.S. Lewis talks about pain and hardship as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Whether or not you identify with the religious element of that statement (and this is something I go back-and-forth on quite a bit), I think that’s true. This year was not easy on me; at times, it was downright painful. But what emerged from the pain was that sense of purpose and direction that had been so sorely lacking in my life.

We aren’t born with purpose. We grow it, and the growing takes time. This time last year, I didn’t know what I wanted in life; all I knew was that I didn’t want to be where I was. That vague sense of unease was the first in a series of growing pains this past year, calling attention to a state of affairs in my life that I knew was not quite right.

So yeah, New Year’s resolutions are embarrassing confessional statements, sure. They’re statements about our shortcomings, and our unrealised potential. But they matter. It’s hard to take a good, honest look inside your life and face-up to what you could do better. It’s harder still to act on what you find when you look there. But it beats the hell out of looking back on another year gone by, and feeling like your life has stalled.

I’m happy I made those great big, embarrassing resolutions last year. Because 2015 was the year everything changed…

Chase big dreams.

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The Lost Miles: Distance running, flow states, and the key to happiness

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This week, I laced up and hit the roads again after a few solid weeks off from running (and, as you may have noticed, from writing). In years past, I’ve always adhered to a strict regimen of complete rest at the end of my season, but this year I toyed with the idea of running continuously post-marathon.

If my cross-country season is any indication, the idea turned out to be a bit of a flop. But it wasn’t a crazy thing to try: lots of great runners, my coach included, eschew complete rest in favour of a lighter day-to-day training period to recover after goal races. It’s one of those funny things in distance running that works for some athletes, and against others.

My own need for a period of complete rest wasn’t so much underscored in my cross-country race performances as it was in my easy training runs. I love running. But in the weeks that followed my fall marathon, I kind of hated it.

Running is much more than a workout for me; it’s an exercise in the maintenance of my mental well-being. A few short minutes into my run, the world around me starts to melt away. The frenetic mental processes that run at full-volume in the front of my mind for the better part of any day start to slide, very slowly, to the back of my brain. I begin thinking in a quieter, almost dreamlike state. I can lose minutes to this sort of solitary focus; on a good run, I can lose miles.

It’s an experience not unlike meditation, or even prayer.

I’m far from the first distance runner to make this observation. Boston Marathon champ Wesley Korir has spoken at length about the connection between his spirituality and his running. And this quiet, meditative state has as much to do with mental well-being as it does with performance. Just ask Canadian elite marathoner Krista Duchene, who’s advice about learning to “switch off” while racing the marathon was the difference between success and failure in my own October race.

In the day-to-day, getting “in the zone” on a mileage run can be extraordinarily useful. In psychology, this is called a flow state. Flow is a completely focused, single-minded immersion in an intrinsically rewarding task. Our emotions and impulses become channeled and contained. While the experience of flow is overwhelmingly satisfying and positive, it involves the sort of deep focus on nothing but the task at hand, wherein our emotions and even ourselves slip quietly away.

Positive psychology has recently begun to take a more in-depth look at flow states and the impact of their experience. Positive psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the achievement of happiness and satisfaction in life, rather than on the treatment of mental illness. To put it in short, extraordinarily reductive terms, positive psychology is far more concerned with what makes people happy, rather than what makes them unhappy.

People who experience flow on a regular basis tend to report a higher overall level of happiness and satisfaction in their lives. They also appear to be more resilient in the face of difficulty or adversity. Which might explain why you so often hear runners say things like “my workout is the most relaxing part of my day” or “running is my therapy.”

Running has carried me through some tough times. It’s a comfort to know that, no matter what’s going on around me, I can always bet that 7K into a mileage run, everything will look brighter. Which is precisely why I was so resistant to taking time off this year.

In my post-marathon mileage, my body had technically “recovered” – I wasn’t dogged by any major injury or ongoing issue. But I felt run-down and worn out. I couldn’t get lost in my running and let my mind go blank, because I was too preoccupied by everything that didn’t feel quite right. Normally when I run, it feels like my mind is floating somewhere outside myself, hovering nearby in a sort of half-realized transcendence. In those weeks after the race, though, my mind was in my feet. Ask any marathoner: that’s not a place you want to be.

A few days ago, I laced up my shoes and hit the roads after just over two weeks of rest. It was evening: the sun had gone down, and though it was raining, the unseasonably warm December air was still and pleasant. I felt my mind go blank as my body slipped into that old, familiar rhythm. I ran past cars, past houses, past parks obscured in darkness, past the twinkling skyline of a city that’s never quiet, not even at night. I lost seconds, then minutes, then whole blocks. The miles slipped away.

Crossing the bridge that leads from Rosedale into St. James Town, it felt like I was flying – a feeling of total freedom and ability, and one I haven’t felt since the marathon.

There is nothing quite like two weeks off to make you appreciate what a gift it is to be able to run. So here’s to the holidays, to the year ahead, and to the lucky ones who’ll spend it chasing down those transcendental moments, and making something truly beautiful when they run.

Chase big dreams.