I run through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. In winter, I get out there mostly on the weekends — it’s too cold in the mornings before work, and too dark after work. During the spring and summer, there are no excuses — warm weather and lots of sunlight. I get out there seven days a week.
It’s for the exercise, of course, to keep the high blood pressure at bay and my midriff unnoticeable while wearing certain types of clothes. But it’s mainly about clearing headspace. I run for the sweat, to set the goal, the sense of accomplishment, to chase the setting sun, to get out of my own head, for the clarity that comes from exhaustion, to finish.
During good runs, I can disconnect from my to-do list, set aside all the little pieces that make up the still undetermined stretch from point A to the finish point, dampen the worry quotient about questionable assumptions or stressful unknowns, and instead, simply take a comfortable full view picture of the project at hand — why I am doing it, what it means, why it is meaningful, what it all adds up to. I can see more completely what the project actually is — the layers below the surface — and that in turn, helps me manage all the other logistical elements when I finally get back to the table and buckle down to the work at hand.
There is, however, a specific place of dread along my run-route in the park. It is a winding uphill road, about a quarter-mile long. It’s location is about 3.5 miles into my usual 5 mile run. It can take away all of the above mentioned clarity, and instead, fill my head up with negativity and a sense of defeat.
1) Yes, the hill can be avoided.
2) I do not like to avoid it, because that makes the dreaded place even more dreadful.
It can seem like hours to get up to the top of the hill, even though it only takes about four minutes. It’s hard on the knees, and makes my legs feel as heavy as cement and as sturdy as mush. There are aches in the lower back, and my lungs feel constricted and depleted, as if they are rebelling, trying to force me to keel over and lay on the ground until I catch my breath. And then there’s the really hard part — processing all those negative thoughts from the voice in my head that tends to get louder at times like this: that I am feeling tired, that I just want to slow down, to cut around and take the flatter path, that I feel so heavy and strained, that it’s too cold out, or too hot out, or how empty my stomach is, that my stomach is too full and I want to puke, that I could just stop and walk, that I could turn around and go back the other way, that I am never going to get there, that the hill will never end, that I will not reach the top. That I don’t even want to get to the top. That I don’t care.
1) Anger. Just shut the fuck up and take the fucking hill and fuck it all.
2) Document the specific dreaded place.
(They are not mutually exclusive solutions.)
The history of my Specific Dreaded Place: Four years ago, I saw a posting about the Brooklyn Half-Marathon. It was a two weeks away. Despite not having run in years, I decided to sign up. I did several practice runs of about five miles each. I figured I’d just take the half-marathon slow, and that if I needed to go slow or walk part of the race, that that would be fine. I just wanted to finish.
The problem was, I hate to go slow, and even though there were times that I wanted to start walking, I just couldn’t pull myself out of the stream of runners. I was too embarrassed to do it. A cloak of humiliation seemed ready to swoop down on me every time I felt myself easing up and moving to the side to start walking.
And then came the hill. I just couldn’t believe how heavy I felt, how much pain was welling up with every flex of every tiny muscle it took to bring one leg in front of the other. I was moving in slow motion. I wanted to cry. If I had stopped, I probably would have completely broken down. I was really feeling sorry for myself. I thought the hill would never end.
1) One guy, pulled off to the side while gripping the back of his leg. I remember thinking that he was just faking the injury so he would not have to keep running, that he just didn’t want to look like he was just quitting.
2) A woman was yelling at herself, with quick, deep, loud breaths between each shout: “Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.”
For several months after the race, I avoided the hill. Just thinking about it could make me nauseous. Eventually, the idea that the dreaded place was carrying such weight made me revisit it. There was dread upon dread. I began to take the hill again, and now there is just dread.
Simply put, it’s an excellent way to blow off steam AND stay in shape.
An understanding of the dreaded place. Instead of avoiding a place, you dig into it. By turning it into a project, you take ownership of the dreaded place. The more you know about it and how you perceive it, the less dreadful it becomes. Or rather, your understanding of the dreaded place helps you factor in other elements that can help you manage the dread. After all, running up a hill is always going to be dreadful. But how I take the hill, what I think about as I’m doing it, knowing how I feel when I’m at the top, all of these thoughts and feelings can help pin down and allow me to better process the simple dread of running up a long, windy hill on a bitter chilled winter day.
This article originally appeared on Glowlab.com in Jan. 2006.