I’ve had a rough few months.
I lost my beloved dad in January, which left me grief-stricken. Running, my passion and head-clearing outlet, usually helps me deal with life’s stresses, but an Achilles’ injury sidelined me in December during my dad’s final decline. Then came a bout of flu in February, laying me up for a good 10 days. At that point, I pulled out of the Boston Marathon because I knew that attempting it would have been asking too much of my body.
All of which led me to the red rocks of Moab, Utah, at the end of March to attend Run Wild Retreat & Wellness, a four-day mindful running retreat involving workshops and a variety of guided runs. I needed to restore my equilibrium, and I hoped that by learning to approach my hobby of choice with more intent, I could accomplish that. I wanted to flip the switch from stressing over training missed to embracing the runs I made. I did all that and more in a beautiful, restorative setting.
Led by 42-year-old Elinor Fish of Carbondale, Colo., the event promised challenging, scenic trail running. More important, the retreats are designed to help busy women change their narrative. Rather than allowing running to become one more “to do” on already long lists, Fish aims to help women ensure the runs serve as self-care, as something to enhance a busy life rather than drain energy reserves already shrinking from so many demands. It sounded like just what my tired, burned-out self needed.
I was joined at the retreat by 13 other women from all walks of life. We each carried with us stories of lives in some way out of balance, seeking help to bring us back to center.
Fish, an accomplished runner, kicked things off by explaining that before we can run strong, uninjured and energized, we must establish a foundation of health. Using a pyramid to illustrate her point, she layered the elements of healthy running one on top of the other. At the bottom, supporting everything else, was rest.
We runners want to achieve our running goals but often ignore the fact that like everyone, we live in perpetual, stressful spin cycles. We’re after career goals, we care for our families and we want to be active and contributing members of our communities.
When we push ourselves in our running and don’t appreciate the other pressures in our lives, we can crash and burn: We sacrifice sleep to fit it all in. We miss an important work deadline. The end result may be that it all backfires and we can’t achieve our running goals or we end up injured and burned out. When running is an important part of your life and the stress reliever you need, your system of balance is broken and it’s time to fix it.
Fish’s solution is to set specific, mindful intentions with running.
“When people come on the retreat, they usually are unsure what their intention is with their running,” she explains. “They have goals, but their intention is less defined. During the retreat, they experience running as an adventurous, joyful exploration of a new place, a way to connect with friends, a way to connect their mind to body — and all those experiences help them remember why they fell in love with running to begin with.”
This awakening allows the women to then set an intention to live those values through running, Fish explains. “This helps them shift their attention from a future-focused goal or outcome to the experience of running, which studies show is a far more effective method for staying motivated to exercise.”
For example, a runner might arrive at the retreat with the goal of becoming a stronger, faster runner. She learns to value the way running makes her feel stronger and empowered to reach her goals. She sets an intent to feel the power she already possesses in her body and mind, allowing her to accomplish her goals.
Fish teaches from experience. After completing the punishing Leadville Trail 100 race in 2010, an ultramarathon in Colorado, she found herself in a state of chronic exhaustion. “I was working as a writer, raising a baby and putting in very long runs, often on little sleep,” she says. “When the race was over, I spent months trying to find my energy again.”
The experience served as an epiphany for Fish. “I knew that if I wanted to feel good and run healthy again, something had to change,” she says.
Her first approach was to follow the usual avenues for a fix: changes in nutrition, adding yoga and other forms of exercise, and the like. “I felt more overwhelmed,” she admits. “It all sounded like so much work. I realized that what I craved was stillness, to make everything slow down so I could catch my breath and finally relax.”
So Fish began delving into mindfulness-based stress reduction and fell in love with the science behind it. “Throughout all this, the parallels between mindful-based stress reduction and mindful running became obvious to me,” she says. “As I recovered and resumed running, I did so with the intent of running purely to enjoy how it made me feel and to be in nature. Running became a part of my healing.”
She developed her retreats — which she hosts in Switzerland, Iceland and Spain, in addition to Moab — to help women reach a healthier place with their running, too. “We already love to run,” she says, “but we all have obstacles to doing that consistently. I want to provide women with a set of tools to make that sustainable.”
Among the tools are techniques for improved posture and breathing, which help make running more efficient. We began each day practicing these methods in the cool, crisp desert mornings before heading out on the trails. We also used work sheets to set intentions for each run, such as savoring the calming effect of a run as a way to rejuvenate energy or recognizing our ability to accomplish a physical goal. We also took stock of our exertion levels after runs to see if they matched our stated intents. If a runner’s stated intent was to soak up the sights at an easy pace and yet she found herself breathing hard with effort, for instance, the exertion level probably didn’t support the plan. Fish recommended we continue this practice of matching intent to action in the coming months until we have managed to reshuffle our lives in a way that supports our running.
During one of our workshops, Fish touched on the fight-or-flight response, which serves a valuable purpose in our lives when activated in small doses. It can help drive us through an important project at work with a quick turnaround. It can help us run faster in a race.
In large doses, however, this physiological reaction is not our friend. “When you are in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, you are never getting a break from the stress, and this is harmful to your body,” Fish explains.
This was my epiphany moment. When I combined all the negative events of the past few months with a career in overdrive, it’s no wonder that something had to give. Of late, that something had been running. Injury and low energy — signs of stress — led to poor training.
When running, I’ve felt sluggish, tired and frustrated, often beating myself up for not being able to sustain my normal mileage and paces. I can’t even entertain racing because I’m too far away from race-ready shape. I now can see that I need to dial back somewhere else if I am to find my happy place with running again.
Patricia O’Connell, a 58-year-old psychologist from Atlanta, came to the retreat for reasons different from mine. Until last year, she had been on a decades-long break from running. She also experienced the trauma of a daughter’s leukemia diagnosis. She came to the retreat hoping to improve her confidence level by challenging herself physically. This would help motivate her to run more regularly, which she believes is key to her overall health and happiness.
“Sharing these challenging and beautiful runs with a group of women was empowering,” she says. “I came away exhilarated and ready to make it a routine part of my life back home.”
The runs were indeed challenging, sometimes along precarious drop-offs and often involving thousands of feet of elevation change. Fish says this is by design. “It gives women a different perspective on what they can achieve,” she says. “They leave inspired to set bigger goals.”
Having finished the retreat, O’Connell and I agree that the most difficult part is perhaps still ahead: applying the lessons learned to make mindful running the norm. “You will stumble as you go forward,” Fish says, “and that’s okay. The important thing is that you continue to set intentions until it becomes a practice you can uphold.”
I’m happy to say that running and I are in a better place now, a function of reshuffling my load. I’ve dialed back on some of my extraneous commitments, made sleep a bigger priority and accepted my current state of fitness rather than fighting it. And every time I slip on my running shoes, I set the intention of running with gratitude and joy.