At a run­ning re­treat in the desert, find­ing new ways to de­com­press

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Amanda Loudin

MOAB, UTAH» I’d had a rough few months.

I lost my beloved dad in Jan­uary, which left me grief­stricken. 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 self­care, 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 ex-

plain­ing 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, 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 rac­eready 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.

The events in the Run Wild re­treats en­cour­age women to en­gage in mind­ful run­ning and are de­signed to help busy women change their nar­ra­tive.

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