Running away from Nihilism

I spent considerable brain power last year trying to find “THE MEANING OF LIFE”. Lofty, I know. I found no universal answer to share here, but I found an answer for myself, and thus emerged from a quarter life crisis which had stagnated my whole being in apathy for quite some time. At the end of the summer I read Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. An insightful friend recommended I look into it after listening to me describe some of the things about life that left me feeling uninvolved with it, to put it mildly. A more descriptive account is that I was terrified that nothing meant anything, and it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, because the world would be the same regardless. I was accepting of being insignificant, but that acceptance became a larger belief that probably nothing else mattered either. Life would simply progress until it burned itself out, for me and for the rest of us.

 

As for the book, Frankl was a psychotherapist, and his book covers two main subjects- his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and the mode of therapy he subsequently developed upon his release, that sought to help patients find meaning in their lives. One poignant thing he points out about living in the camp is that it was evident when a fellow gave up trying to survive, and that the people who did make it typically had something to live for, to keep them interested in their own survival. That spoke to me- I wasn’t feeling meaning myself, purpose is another word that works, and I wasn’t super thrilled about spending more time living with the feeling I described above. So I realized that I had this problem, too, that I had lost a sense of purpose in my life and maybe finding one would pull me out of my angst and despondency.

 

I thought for a while that my ego was the problem, because maybe I was craving attention or recognition, some outward indication about the significance of my existence as I was not finding validation internally. However, my behaviors did not signal attention-seeking behavior. In the same span of time that I was pondering and self searching while trying to come up with a new life plan, I was deleting my Facebook account, posting less and less on Instagram, and letting the blog go. When I did post I’d leave off the slew of hashtags that used to accompany every picture. I didn’t care about the quantity of likes I received. I was beyond caring if people “liked” my life, because I certainly didn’t. The only approval I was looking for was self-approval. For my life, it is at least a boon to discover that I have finally shed the restriction of peer approval when it comes to my choosing my actions and behavior. I’m not looking to go full-tilt sociopath and turn away from all social signaling, but I can live a little more authentically because in most cases, my opinion is the one that is going to drive me.

 

So, looking for clues to what gives me a feeling of purpose, I examined some aspects of my life, including my hobbies and interests, my career past and present (right now I’m studying to be a personal trainer), how I spend my free time, and how I participate in relationships- family, friends, and romantic. I decided to put a particular focus on my running life, because it is such a big part of who I am and what I do, and of all the parts of my life, that held the most information over the longest period of time. When you land on the handle “shestherun” for social media, you might find yourself asking what else you are.

 

Even before reading Frankl’s book I had a sense that running made my life feel more substantial. I felt it before I ran, as in a general push from the universe to do it, while I was running, like I was exactly where I should be, and after the fact, as I looked to see where I had made progress and where I needed work. I didn’t know if running actually made me feel purposeful, but the fact that I kept at it and would come back to it after many set backs seemed significant. It showed I did have perseverance, even in the face of hardship or difficulty. What I found was just acknowledging that characteristic of perseverance, could energize me into creating a life more meaningful as a whole.

 

I think by now most of us recognize, either thorough experience or through some saccharine quote that makes its way onto our Facebook feeds, that the process of working towards a goal is rewarding in itself. I’ve experienced this in my running life, and not always because of some obvious accomplishments, as in finishing a marathon or placing in a race. Sometimes just showing up for a workout when I know I was on the verge of bailing makes me feel like a pretty super human being. The opportunity and ability to experience progress is what makes running so fulfilling to me, and I can absolutely apply that concept to other areas of my life to create more meaning.

 

What I took from realizing this is that there if I want to progress, I have to do the progressing. I think since running came so easily to me, I didn’t concern myself with much else. As I plateaued in athletic ability, and didn’t add some variety to the mix, either in the form of new challenges or new activities altogether, I became bored. Boredom turned into apathy, and apathy turned into depression. I DO NOT want to go back there. I also don’t want to pursue goals just because they make someone else’s life more exciting. I haven’t found that to be very fruitful. For example, I used to think I’d like to be a good cook, and now I realize that I am perfectly happy making simple meals for myself, and leaving the gourmet cooking to someone more passionate about it. I do want to write, not just this blog, but literature as well, but by the end of the 2016 I couldn’t bring myself to sit and do it for five minutes because of that “pointless” feeling. But the pointless feeling disappears when the goal becomes to challenge myself. If I say the goal is to get published, and I’m not even sitting down to make an outline, then progress in that scenario would be to sit and write for a period of time daily. I don’t know if anyone can identify with this, but I now believe what I thought was apathy was actually fear, that since other things weren’t coming to me as easily as running was, I wasn’t supposed to be doing them. If I tried, and failed, then I’d really be in a lurch because that fear would be founded, I would be as one-dimensional as I previously believed.

 

Running had such a central position in my life, which did serve a purpose and still does. When everything else seemed to be going awry, if it was going anywhere, here was this one thing, that no matter how difficult or arduous, that always revealed a reason why I had picked up my feet in the first place. Nothing else made sense, but running gave me the opportunity to experience progress, even when it was just in circles around the track. So now the challenge to myself in 2017 is to keep that idea of progress in mind, to find new ways to add layers to my life, because the meaning I was looking for seems to be just to create a better version of myself.

Homerun

Hello! It’s been awhile since my last post, and some things in my life have changed…

About a month ago I moved back to my hometown of Houston, Texas. It was a decision spurred by economic and emotional reasons. The former was easy- it’s much cheaper to live here than Los Angeles (many places are). The second reason, well, it’s complicated. After graduating from USC, I stayed in LA for one primary reason- a relationship. After that relationship ended in divorce, I tried to make the city work for a number of years, not wanting to leave my friends and community there, not to mention the weather! In the end, I found myself becoming disenchanted with my life there despite the positive aspects. I arrived at the idea to move back to Houston after doing some soul-searching and considering a few options. Towards the end summer I visited Houston, nailed down a place to live there, and packed up my place in LA. For the first time in a really long time I felt very solid about a major life decision, so off I went and here I am.

 

There is a saying that goes something like “When the pain of staying the same becomes more than the pain of change, we change.” I’ve found this to be attributed to more than one author, so lets just leave it that I didn’t come up with it for now. I’ve slowly realized that the most uncomfortable part of change is that limbo of between the idea of change and change itself. Post-change has never been as bad as my idea of what might follow. One of my reasons to move was to have less of my means go to a high cost of living, so I could travel more without draining my bank account. I loved running around Scotland, but its not sustainable if I’m throwing money into an apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Even with many upsides to moving back to Houston, such as being close to lifelong friends and of course, family, in addition to the budgeting aspect, I still felt this hesitancy to move. Specifically, I felt like I was “giving up” on something, and in effect, wasting all the time I had spent in LA since separating from my ex-husband. A simplification of the idea that kept me from moving is “If I do leave, then I will have been a failure (at living in LA)”. The logic is a little maddening, now that I think about it- if it was possible my time in Southern California was wasted unless some unnamed and un-promised reward for it happened, why would I stay another minute? When I realized this, I had the energy to make haste and dive into the change before I could scarcely believe I was doing it.

 

The above has everything and nothing to do with running. As everything- I’ve realized that my passions for running and traveling are closely linked, when I go somewhere new, I look for how to make it runnable, and when my running gets stale, I run somewhere new. This can be on a large scale- such as my trip to Scotland, but it can also happen locally. For now I’ve just been excited to get to know running in Houston as it is now.

 

I spent my entire childhood in this city, so I learned to run here. I got into distance running towards the end of high school, before mapmyrun.com and the like existed. Using a Keymap (remember those?), ruler, and graph paper, I charted out routes in my neighborhood of various mileages and stuck them in order of distance them all on a poster board, hung in my room. Memorial, the suburban neighborhood where I grew up, was great for running. You could run for miles without having to deal with traffic lights, drivers were respectful of pedestrians, and the sidewalks were dependable. When I wasn’t training with my cross-country or track team, I also loved to drive to a nearby jogging trail, in Memorial Park, to do the three-mile gravel covered loop there. This was before I got into trail running, though I realize now that for the most part, our meets were actually trail runs. Of course, I think I didn’t associate running in the woods as “fun” back then because it happened mostly at meets, and in high school I did not associate maxing out physically as an enjoyable experience. Looking back, I do recall a time I found I liked trail running before arriving in Southern California- towards the end of our junior season our coach took the team to some local trails to do a moderate workout – the Ho Chi Minh trails (also in Memorial Park). They are some winding single track through the woods that were mostly used by bikers. I remember it being fun, and a new experience of being able to enjoy the surroundings instead of focusing on who was in front of and behind me.

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Part of the Buffalo Bayou Hike & Bike Trail

When I started thinking about this entry, I wanted to write a comical diatribe at the various reasons Houston streets make a poor running environment. My new neighborhood in Houston is classifiably dangerous for street running, no doubt. I came within 4 feet of being hit by a car recently and it was neither an isolated or unavoidable encounter. Sidewalks are magic here- they just disappear into thin air! That being true, as I looked at my list of complaints I grew bored reading my own comments- it turns out at least in this case, whining is whining no matter how you dress it up. I deleted all of it. Instead, here’s the silver lining I had already arrived at- I’m going to get to know more of the natural, off the beaten path areas that I ignored when I was younger. I’m looking forward to searching out new trails in the Greater Houston area and just outside it. I bought a book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Houston, which is more than enough to work with. At a glance, the largest net elevation change I will be hovers around 300 feet, which is lovely. That’s what it took to reach the end of my street in Southern California. I love running trails when they’re flat- not because they’re less physically demanding, but because I often find they are in really enchanting environments, and usually a bit more winding. If there’s no view “at the top”, then it has got to be the whole way, it would seem! In any case, near or far, I’m going to get my running adventures underway again.

New Attitude

A few years ago, I thought my edge had all but disappeared when it came to running, but after some moderate successes in community races, I started dreaming of developing as a competitive runner. After high school, my running had been either for fun or fitness, but I became hooked on being fast again. I started trying to win, but would become agitated by being passed by faster runners- the nerve of them! The manner in which this perceived competition manifested with my running became toxic to my growth as an athlete. I’m genetically blessed with faster than average leg turnover, it’s as simple as that, but I introduced only as much work as I felt like each race.

I had a complete change of heart last year during the Rose Bowl Half Marathon in Pasadena, California. I knew the course well, but the first five miles were hell- I felt shaky and unsure. I was running within a group of five or so women, probably mid-pack for that race, and we all took turns in the lead. I became irritated that they weren’t “letting” me keep the lead, when it occurred to me that if I wanted to get ahead, I might have to push harder, not wait for them to falter.

That day, I decided to push my preconceived limits. I set a goal of 20 seconds per mile faster, and to hold that for at least one mile. Soon the awkward feeling I had in the first five miles dissipated and I was flying- I could hold the pace, and go even faster. I glided past each new person within sight, seeing them as goals, not obstacles. I finished the race 4th in my age group, and I had dropped my half marathon down past 1:50, which was 7 minutes faster than my previous best. My race had nothing to do with the other runners, and everything to do with false beliefs I held about my ability and grit.

Less than a mile from the finish at the 2015 Rose Bowl Half Marathon. Happy lady, running at ease.
Less than a mile from the finish at the 2015 Rose Bowl Half Marathon. Happy lady, running at ease.

For the past two years, I have had the opportunity to challenge myself against some strong women in races. I was honored when a young lady asked to take a picture with me at a mile race. She placed second and myself third, and I began to sense that team spirit that I had loved so much about my high school cross-country team. I feel that the women I run against are friends, not foes- especially the fast ones! They pull me and I push them.

I was floored when this young lady asked for a picture together after our neck and neck race.
I was floored when this young lady asked for a picture together after our neck and neck race.

I’m going to keep with the tribe now as best I can. I know sometimes I will try to run harder or faster and fail, but I’ll learn more about myself in the process. I recently went running with a two friends, and they kept a pace that was faster than I could do that day. Instead of being annoyed that they were going faster, I was excited to be running behind them, because their hard work pulled me to be better.

Finding a familiar face in the crowd at the Nike Women's 2014 Half Marathon.
Finding a familiar face in the crowd at the Nike Women’s 2014 Half Marathon starting line!