What I Think About When I Think About Nothing

When I first started running, I listened to music, podcasts, whatever. It was hard for me to run a mile without stopping or walking. I needed something to distract me from the pain, the labored breathing, and the embarrassment of being a fat person running. The music was a way to wall off the world while also not having to deal with the thoughts in my head. I could be in a limbo that was not of the world and not of my own psyche. It was an oblivion that I’ve dangerously flirted with for the bulk of my days. 

It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.
It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.

As I gained confidence and fitness, I came to feel more comfortable being out there in the world. I got more comfortable with my own thoughts. I learned to process them. I learned to leave them on the trail. I’d run by them like landmarks that represented some lost time and place; a history with which I no longer needed to wrestle. Catharsis then came in the form of the rhythm of my feet and my breathing. Those sounds beat out a pattern that made sense of my petites folies.

So, now I run with no headphones and since I almost always run alone, I have moments where my mind feels completely blank. Every so often, I song lyric or phrase gets stuck in there and becomes a mantra. One of these recurring mantras is “relentless forward progress” which I picked up from Bryon Powell’s book of the same name.

Today, I had two wonderful mantras chasing me around Pandapas Pond for 20 miles. Since this was going to be my longest run ever and I’ve been way behind on my training, I decided to alternate running a mile and then walking a mile. In my head, this became “run to the odds, walk to the evens” meaning I ran the first, third, fifth, etc. mile and walked the even numbered miles. 

The second mantra was the title of the song “A Man is a Pent-up Thing” by my second favorite band of all-time, Five Eight. The song itself is genius because it never resolves. There’s no crescendo and it’s simply minute after minute of tension with the chorus reminding us that “a man is a pent-up thing.” Today, that line repeated in my head and it felt like this energy and drive to be better was waiting to explode out of me. The pain and fatigue gets turned into the fuel to keep turning the legs over. Keep the feet flapping down the street. Release that pent-up power and do something with it.

If you could be in my head while I’m running, you’d likely think I was boring because there’s only ever four or five thoughts cycling through it. But then, that’s part of why I do it. I’m running to find that place of crystalline thought that allows my subconscious to process all the nonsense it builds up over time. There’s lots of research about how music increases your athletic performance but that pales in importance to what I discover about myself when I let my brain stew a bit.

I know everyone does their own thing out on a run, but try running without music for a week or two and see what you discover about how your head works.

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Author: Alex Ezell

A web developer who has also been a literature teacher and wanna-be art historian.

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