On Tuesdays I have to run “fast”, which means 200M “sprints” (all the quotation marks) on the gravel mountain road near my house. This is not a well-maintained road by any means and there are potholes and large rocks, sandy spots with no gravel, and overgrown blackberry branches reaching out at face level. I have to simultaneously try to run relaxed but fast but not twist an ankle or get clothes-lined by thorns of death. And breathe…I must remember to breathe…in deeply…out evenly.
I run 8 repeats of this 200 of the flattest meters of the road I can find after I’ve climbed the first mile in my warm-up. I could run on the track down at the school or even on the straight stretch of pavement in front of my house, but It’s worth it to me to run up here, where no one will see me and where my dog can be free. I sprint, then walk for 2 minutes, then sprint, keeping my ankles connected and avoiding serious injury.
All the while I’m trying to breathe.
I’ve chosen to listen to Emily Freeman’s soothing voice during the workout that needs metal music more than any other workout ever. Her podcast The Next Right Thing comes out with a new episode on Tuesdays and her voice is butter, not metal. You could meditate to Emily’s voice. You could work in the garden, fold the laundry, go for a walk, sail the ocean. I choose her for the background of my sprints and she starts out by reminding me she’s creating a place for our souls to breathe—her tagline for all she writes and podcasts.
As soon as my mind is occupied with what she’s saying, my auto-pilot takes over. My feet choose the places to step, my lungs do their work, and I run hard until the app signals to stop.
Sometimes at night I find myself in that waiting room between sleeping and waking—the place where I’m telling myself my own absurd thoughts to convince my waking brain that I am actually asleep, because who thinks the crazy things I’m thinking when they’re awake? I suddenly realize I’m not breathing. The inhale is automatic and huge, as if my brain missed its queue and was disconnected from my body for a moment. I breathe in and exhale purposely a few times, assuring myself things are still working. And now I am surely not asleep.
There are other times I lie in bed and count. I place my thumb on my wrist and count heartbeats because I can tell by the flutter in my chest that some are not coming, not keeping time, not sustaining the rhythm. I know what is happening, but for some reason I still need to acknowledge the blank space in my pulse alongside the somersault of my heart. I try to breathe normally, but the more I think about breathing and heartbeats, the harder this is. Every breath becomes deeper-than-necessary and the heartbeats pound in my ears and nothing comes naturally when it's forced.
All of a sudden, living takes so much coordination. So much planning. So much thinking.
In childbirth I retreated inside, too deep, too far away. I nearly passed out because I wasn’t breathing. They coach you about these things but it never made sense to me before labor—of course I’ll breathe; of course I will. The lack of oxygen pricked my limbs with numbness, almost-but-not-quite like the euphoria of a long run—the pain, the tingling, the feeling you might die. I didn’t die, but I learned by experience what I could’t grasp before hand: you really do have to be purposeful about breathing through the pain. You have to focus on it.
Somehow there is a balance to be had between thinking too hard and not thinking enough. We don’t control how many breaths we get but we do control our breathing. We don’t make the heart beats but we can count them.
With living we remember that Time is fixed, constant, unmanageable. No matter how much we focus on it and attempt to stretch it, we can manage and manipulate only ourselves, as we live within the bounds of time. Focusing on beats and ticks, hours as they pass and days as they peel away, we can hold our breath and become numb to living.
We need a slow and steady soundtrack, a voice like butter, to remind us to breathe, to rest, to live.
I have dreams where I’m running but I can’t run, all limbs going their own way and heavy weights on my legs. When I wake, my body remembers: one foot, then the next, sustained breathing, pump the arms. I become thankful for all the fits and starts of my breathing, beating, running-self, reminded that what is out of my control is fully within God’s.