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Posts Tagged ‘exercise’

We had 13 (!) inches of snow here in Boston last Thursday, and I left the house exactly twice: once to shovel out my own front steps and walk, and once to shovel a friend’s front steps (I’m checking their mail and feeding their fish while they’re away). It was blowing and swirling – decidedly not a day for running. But since the storm passed, I’ve been loving the season’s first taste of winter running.

I became a runner right around this time three years ago, when it got too cold to walk for long on my beloved river trail. I’ve slowly been learning about, and buying, the right gear: fleece-lined running tights, a few warm headbands, snow spikes for when the trails are really dicey. Sometimes I have to talk myself into bundling up and heading out into the cold. But often, once I’m out there, I’m surprised again by how much I love it.

Running in the cold is an invigorating challenge: I have to keep moving to keep my body warm, and the resulting heat and motion feels satisfying. The road feels different under my feet when I’m dealing with snow and ice, though I love how the snow spikes take away some of my worries about slipping on ice or slush. I love the pure, sharp contrast of white and blue and green, and the cold air in my nose and lungs. And these days, I’m listening to Christmas music while I run (or dash?) through the snow.

There will be plenty of gray days this winter, and we’re expecting rain later this week. But for now, I’m grateful for these crisp, clear, snowy winter days, and the chance to get out and run.

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I’ve written before about how yoga has been getting me through the pandemic: lots of classes over Zoom this spring, then in the park this summer. Those outdoor classes were one of the true gifts of this strange time: setting up our mats in the lush grass, tree branches waving gently overhead, the sounds of birthday parties and children playing and a YMCA cardio class drifting over. We had occasional invasions from the local geese, but otherwise, it was just about perfect.

Lately, we’ve been back in the studio on a very limited basis, and I have loved showing up on Sunday and Wednesday nights with two or three others, to practice with Taylor and Carla, my favorite instructors. They are both warm and kind and understanding about how hard everything feels right now. They even put up twinkle lights and a couple of wee Christmas trees recently, and going there has felt quasi-normal, which is a serious gift right now.

Today, Boston is rolling back to an earlier phase of reopening for a few weeks, so we’re back to Zoom (fitness centers are closed) until January, at least. I am super sad about it: sometimes those few moments of chat in the studio are my only in-person conversations of the day. And while we don’t talk during class, it’s nourishing to be with other people, especially since I spend so much time alone right now.

I keep reminding myself that yoga will be there: that I can pull out my mat and practice at home; that (hopefully) my little studio will survive, and we will gather again on our mats, when we can. Until then, I’ll be tuning into class on Zoom, because I want to support a beloved small business, and I believe yoga is better when we do it together.

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When I started running, as previously mentioned, I didn’t tell anyone about it for a little while. This was mostly because I wasn’t sure it would stick. But even after I’d become a dedicated runner, I didn’t write about it here on the blog, or even talk to friends about it, much. Running felt, in those early days, both precious and precarious: something new and tentative that was all mine.

Fast forward three years and here I am spending a whole month writing about running (and if you’ve stuck with me this long, thank you). I post photos from my runs on Instagram all the time (though that is also because I’m a flower fiend and a fall-leaf fanatic). But even while I share bits of my running with the world, I mostly run alone.

I could run with other folks if I wanted to: there’s a run club or two in my neighborhood, and I can see the appeal of running in community. I do enjoy the occasional buddy run with a friend or 5K with a crowd, and my guy and I have put in a few miles together. But mostly, running is a solitary pursuit for me. I like being alone with my thoughts, my music, the wind on my face and whatever pace I feel like setting that day.

Since my divorce and the pandemic, I’ve spent more time alone than I previously ever had, and sometimes it gets to me. Sometimes solitude and loneliness blur together until I can’t tell one from the other. Some days I find myself desperate for real, in-person connection. (Thank goodness for park yoga and walks with girlfriends and, most especially, time with my guy.)

Even with an abundance of solitude, though, I still like running alone. There’s something soul-nourishing about setting out for a few solo miles, where I’m out in the world but I belong only to myself. Running has become a form of meditation and self-care in addition to exercise. And mostly, it’s something I relish doing by myself, for myself.

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“Are you a morning runner?” a friend asked recently, on a rambling (masked) walk along the Esplanade. She’s the second or third person to ask me that in recent months, since the pandemic has shifted all our rhythms so drastically. I thought about it for a second. “I guess I am now.”

When I started running, I started doing it at night – after work and the long commute home, I’d grab a snack and pull on my running gear. I loved rambling alone down the Neponset river trail, even as the evenings grew longer and darker. I bought a running light at Target, and though it made me nervous sometimes, I kept running mostly in the evening for nearly a year. (I do love a morning/noontime run on the weekends, when I don’t have to squeeze it in before work.)

Two summers ago, I was between jobs for a couple of months and did a lot of morning running. When I started working at Berklee, I switched back to evening and sometimes lunchtime running – mostly because I am not motivated to get up early enough to run, shower and then commute to work before 9 a.m. But the pandemic has shifted that rhythm, along with so many others, and these days, I get up and run (after breakfast and tea) almost every morning.

There’s a lot to love about both kinds of running: for me, getting out there to move early in the day can be very satisfying, physically and mentally. I love watching the neighborhood wake up (if I’m out early enough) and the morning light on the water. But I also love a good evening run: it can shake out the cobwebs from a long day at the computer, and the sunsets over the river or the harbor can be truly spectacular.

For now, it seems, the time of day I run depends on the rhythm of my life at any given moment. Which is fitting, given that I want running to be a durable and flexible part of my life. It has to fit, and I’m willing to do what I need to do to make it fit into my days. It’s adaptable when I need it to be, but also sturdy – whether it’s happening morning, noon or night.

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It’s no secret that I am a creature of habit and stability: I drink the same tea (usually from the same mug) nearly every morning, write in my journal almost every day, buy myself flowers (at least) once a week and run the same basic route throughout Eastie nearly every day. But I read somewhere that humans need a combination of stability and novelty, and that’s also true for my running route. Sometimes, changing up the loop a bit can be just the refresh my brain needs.

When I lived in Dorchester and ran on the Neponset, this looked like circling through the hills of Pope John Paul II Park, or going out as far as I dared to the point with the wooden pier flanked by beach roses and a forsythia bush that turned shocking yellow in the spring. Once in a while, I’d turn around and run the other way, through the woods toward Milton, but not very often: I loved my water-and-sky views too much.

Here in Eastie, the beginning of my run is always the same: out the door and down the hill, down the harborwalk to the point and back. But once I finish that loop, I have choices.

I can run the length of Maverick Street and take the back entrance to the greenway. Once there, I can loop around the stadium – or go through the playground framed by locust trees (currently a gorgeous golden yellow). Once I rejoin the greenway, I can run straight down it toward home, or if I want a little extra distance, I can go the other way, up toward the YMCA, the playground and the branch library. (The maple trees along that stretch are a glorious red right now.) If I’m just not feeling it, or the skies have opened up, I can turn back through the shipyard after running the harborwalk, and head home early.

The ending is usually the same, too: either past Piers Park or through it, and then home. I love passing the same landmarks on my route: the community gardens, the houses with mums currently decking their front porches, the public art, the patches of asters (in the fall) or daffodils (in the spring). I love paying attention to the small changes through the seasons, and making small changes, as needed, to my route to stretch myself or just wake my brain up.

This is one reason I hate running on a treadmill: it’s endlessly the same. Running outside, even if it’s the exact same loop, always offers new details to see, and the light changes subtly every single day. But there’s also more room for variation in this “regular” route than I sometimes remember. Turning just one different corner can make such a difference to the morning, and it’s a good reminder: sometimes a little novelty is just the thing.

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As I’ve grown to love running, and explored various running routes around the Boston area, I’ve been doing a similar thing with cycling.

I used to love riding bikes in my neighborhood as a child, and I spent hours on my jade-green bike as a grad student in Oxford. But I’d lived in Boston for eight years before I got up the gumption to try riding the city streets on a bike. The traffic terrified me, and I didn’t have a bike of my own.

My guy (though we were just friends then) convinced me to try out Bluebikes, Boston’s bike-share program, two years ago after I’d started a new job at Berklee. My first dozen or more rides followed the same route between Berklee and Harvard Square – much more pleasant than the 1 bus, except in driving rain. As I got stronger and more confident, I began trying new things occasionally: turning down a side street to see where it would go, trying out part of my commute on a bike, riding around Eastie when I moved here. I began paying more attention to bike lanes and traffic signals, and I’m still trying to make my peace with the hills in certain parts of Boston. This summer, I inherited a bright pink single-speed from a friend, and I’ve participated in several protest rides, plus a number of long rides with my guy (who is a cycling instructor, advocate and general bike fanatic).

As with yoga, I didn’t really think of cycling as having any connection to running. But they inform one another, sometimes in surprising ways. I’ve gained confidence on a bike in a similar way to the confidence I’ve gained with running: in this case, the muscle memory was there, but it needed to be revived. I keep learning that I can go farther, pedal stronger and even ride faster than I think I can. Sometimes I need a rest day after a seriously long ride. And in both cases, the main motivation is the sheer joy of moving through the world in this particular way.

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As I’ve said many times this month, I started running with low expectations, and even a bit of trepidation. I knew a lot of people who got a kick out of running, and I was no stranger to the joys of a long walk or a sweaty, satisfying yoga class. But I knew that if running proved downright painful or unpleasant, I was unlikely to stick with it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel.

I recently reread Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One, and one of the characters, 17-year-old Willow, is a runner. She notes, near the beginning of the book, that “when I run, my body stops being a grouping of parts and becomes a single thing. A fluidity. A living, breathing verb.”

I don’t always feel like that when I run: sometimes it’s a slog, heavy sneakers pounding on pavement. Sometimes it gets a bit monotonous. But at its best, running feels the way Willow describes it: “For me, being good was not the point. The point was cutting through the air, using the air, the way I used the ground. Who cared about good when there was joy like that?”

Running is sometimes meditation, sometimes a much-needed dose of solitude, sometimes a way to work off anxiety or tiredness or a plain old case of the blues. But often, it is that kind of joy: the physical pleasure of my body moving in concert with the air and the ground, the music pumping in my earbuds, lungs and legs and heart working together. It’s not always a conscious kind of magic, but it is always a kind of miracle. And that joy is one of the main reasons I keep heading back out there again and again.

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I know running is good for me physically in a lot of ways: our bodies were made to move, and sweating may help clear toxins out of our systems (as well as improving circulation). I’ve enjoyed building up my endurance and strength by running, too. But I’ve wondered for years about that elusive “runner’s high,” or the feel-good rush from endorphins released by exercise. When I started running, I wondered if I’d ever feel it – though that wasn’t why I kept heading back out to the trail.

Like a lot of things about running, the endorphins don’t usually arrive with high drama: I don’t round the final bend or crest one last hill and get a sudden rush of joy or euphoria. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly tough run, I arrive back home being simply grateful I’ve made it. But I do often feel better than I did when I set out. I feel accomplished, and (usually) satisfied with my efforts. These days, it’s an excellent way to start the day, and when I was mostly running after work, it was a gratifying way to cap off the workday. And – lest we all forget – let Elle Woods remind us that endorphins may help prevent murder. (“Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!”)

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I’ve been a runner for about three years now. But I was a yogi long before I was a runner. And these days, the two disciplines inform and bolster each other.

I discovered yoga back in Abilene, when a friend told me about some classes downtown at the Center for Contemporary Art. I showed up on a weeknight with my green Target yoga mat, unsure about where to put my feet or how to breathe or really, all of it. But I fell in love with wise, kind-eyed, practical McKay and her classes, and when I moved to Boston, one of the first things I did was find Healing Tree, the local studio. I took classes there for nearly nine years, until I moved to Eastie (and The Point, my current neighborhood studio) last summer.

When I started running in 2017, I kept on doing yoga: one or two vinyasa flow classes a week, the way I’d always done. I love yoga for the strength and flexibility it’s helped me hone, and the way a good class can clear my head, make me feel calmer, more settled, more at home in my body. Although running is a very different workout, I love it for many of the same reasons. So it makes sense that at least for me, they complement one another.

In normal, non-pandemic times, I go running most nights after work and squeeze in a yoga class once or twice a week. Since mid-March, I’ve been running (almost) every morning and going to yoga (in the park, when possible) once or twice a week, either at lunchtime or early evening.

Both disciplines help me pay attention to my body, help me grow stronger and more flexible, more attuned to my bones and muscles and how they interact with my mind. When I’m running, I pay more attention to my hips and shoulders because of yoga, and I’m sure the deep breathing practice doesn’t hurt, either. And my warrior poses and balance poses – tree, eagle, dancer – are stronger because I’m a runner. Both disciplines, too, remind me of the joy of effort and rest: working up a sweat and then a lovely cool-down walk when running, a series of challenging poses and then a peaceful savasana in a yoga class.

I didn’t really think about whether my running would affect my yoga, or vice versa, when I became a runner. But they balance one another quite well, and I’m glad for that. (Bonus: I can wear the same gear to do both, and – at least for now – practice both of them outside.)

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Katie trail blue gray water

When I started running, I may have had (as previously stated) some insecurities about it. I didn’t want to fail at this. I wasn’t even sure how long it would last. What if it proved painful or depressing or just not fun? What if I injured myself right away, effectively ending my running career before it began? What if I told people I’d started running, only to fade out like the autumn daylight over the treetops on the trail?

So I didn’t tell anyone, at least not for a few weeks.

I’m not even sure I mentioned anything to my husband after those first few sweaty evening runs on the trail. He knew I was out there walking, of course, but I didn’t want to jinx this new thing I was trying: me with my old sneakers and baggy t-shirts and the ancient sports bra I’d dug up from somewhere. I didn’t look like a runner. I certainly didn’t know if I felt like one. And I felt, too, that this new attempt was just for me: I needed a chance to see if it would work, without anyone else’s gaze, without perceived or actual judgment. For that first month or so, especially, I didn’t say a word to anyone.

heart sneakers trail

It felt freeing, to be out there on the trail, moving my body in a way that still felt foreign, pumping music through my headphones and trying to figure out how long I could jog before stopping for breath. I quickly learned that running lets you see the world at a different rhythm than walking (although then, as now, I will always slow down to snap photos of flowers or vivid leaves or a particularly breathtaking sky).

When I did start telling people I was running, I slid it in sideways: a casual mention at boot camp, a post on Instagram that emphasized the sunset instead of the reason I was out there seeing it. My previous perception of a runner – strong, dedicated, serious – and my perception of myself (at least, in regard to exercise) didn’t quite match up. But to my own surprise, I found both joy and satisfaction on the trail. (I still do.)

These days, I’m much more vocal about my enjoyment of running: I’ve done a few races, and my Instagram feed is at least half running photos (harbor views, leaves, flowers, skies, sneakers, repeat). It’s not my secret any more, though it definitely still belongs to me. But I am glad I gave myself a chance to try it without anyone knowing, for a while. It helped me move toward embracing running as a new and vital part of my life.

More #run31 photos and stories to come.

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