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From the Running Diary–20 miles North into a Winter of Euphoric Oblivion


In the long run:
Thoughts and reflections from longer runs

Date: 12/8/2008 1:13 PM
Type: Long
Course: Tow Path: North
Distance: 20 miles
Duration: 2:56:00
Pace: 8:48 / mile
Shoe: Saucony Unknown
Weight: 109 lb
Misc: Quality: 10/10, Effort: 8/10
Weather: 26° F, Overcast
Notes: Wow! What a run! I went slow, and stayed warm as there was no wind–and there was sun at first.

But it was only 26, and there was ice on all of the puddles, the cliffs, and the edge of the river. I was in a weird love state where everything was dreamy and ethereal. As I ran I appreciated the ephemeral beauty of existence–that all that is and all that is passing away is part of eternity. It was so beautiful.
I remembered again why I run.
Statistics: Calories: 1649
VO2 Max: 39.3

Memories of this run are strangely vivid despite all of the time that has passed– like a dream from the night before that descends again in mid-afternoon, perplexingly elusive all morning, evading every last attempt to recapture even the faintest feeling or scene of it, and then suddenly there it is again–so tangible you can smell its colour.

The ground was so hard, I could feel my spine compress with each step. It was also treacherously icy in some places, so I had to carefully mind those steps.

One by one the miles return now, each with their own flavor: the glowing ice flows from the rocks at mile 3, the smell of the winter air sharp with woodsmoke around mile 12, the daydreaming of warm goats milk with rum and honey at about mile 15 or 16, but whether or not I enjoyed that afterward escapes me.  I kept thinking of what I would write when I returned–little tidbits that would best capture my state of mind to share with others–but it seems I did not write much when I returned after all. I don’t recall why.

But I remember well that sense of oneness, that now familiar opening up to all of existence, as if at some point the boundaries of where the “I” ends and where the “All else” begins–dissolved completely. And it came on suddenly, its onset as abrupt as stepping cleanly and squarely off a cliff into the thin winter air, only to discover you have the gift of flight.

It brings to mind now an image once conjured in my high school physics class of where at the speed of light, mass becomes infinite. It is one of the most beautiful things I feel I have ever had the pleasure to imagine. Passionately intense if but brief, I could have devoted the lifetime that followed to trying to recapture it as art. Maybe this is yet to be.

More than this,  in my running delirium, it was as if time itself had stopped and when glancing at my watch, I noticed my conception of its passage had indeed been grossly affected. The seconds lasted a blissful eternity; more like there was no time, no line between the dead and the living. There was a thickness to space and a hum to it all–that beautiful drone of existence. The air seemed as solid as the trees and as me. And I floated along the ground as a ghost–an invisible chord from my solar plexus pulling me along to some unseen point on the horizon.

I have experienced these temporal “strangeties”  in varying levels of intensity many times since then on a long run, and have written a little about it, but this time may well have been the very first, it left such an impression.  So memorable–the smells, the thoughts, the daydreams–quite close, and yet I cannot recall at all what happened just before the run, nor after, nor the day before. However, the day after, I recall mentioning to a colleague that I had run 20 miles.  It was not meant as a boast.  I am not sure how it sounded, but there seemed to be a look of recognition. It was matter-of-fact;  part of a conversation on running, and I remember now how earnestly I had wanted to express that feeling I had had; to share that brilliant, euphoric oneness with another soul.  But no words came; at least none that made sense.

A runner’s high is an intensely profound experience; as any long-distance runner will concede.  Neurologically, I would love to know exactly what is happening and why. Certainly the anterior cingulate cortex must be engaged by this activity.

It appears this may be at least partially correct. A Google search yielded this bit of research:

Cerebral Cortex Advance Access originally published online on February 21, 2008 (will post this, permission pending, but in a nutshell, the findings suggest long-distance running has “…region-specific effects in frontolimbic brain areas that are involved in the processing of affective states and mood.)

I have read that engaging the anterior cingulate gyrus of the brain regularly (ie. through meditation) can help regulate emotions characteristic of the limbic system such as anger and fear,  preventing override of the frontal cortex, and thus, helping one maintain a sense of calm and the ability for critical thought during stressful situations.

I hope these long distance runs have this value beyond euphoria.

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