Shadow Lives

By Colleen Yorke
Navigational Art and Directions By Colleen Yorke, © 2020.

Enter any bookstore, and we find shelves laden with self-help books and guides for leading meaningful, happy lives. Row after row, experts claim to have found the key to bliss and fulfillment. Last week, the duo that calls themselves "Minimalists" pitched their lifestyle concept for "lasting happiness": By clearing the clutter from life’s path, Ryan and Joshua argue we can pursue purpose-driven lives. 

"What Minimalism is really all about is reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff – the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities – that don’t bring value to your life."

While their proposal is an intriguing one, I am not entirely convinced. Maybe I do only need "55 essential things", but reducing my living space to an empty room with white walls and no furniture for example, or discarding photographs because "they are not real memories" seems too simple a solution. A "filled" space and photographs capture the essence of a lived life. It is what remains, and it is what we share. "Real freedom", as Joshua puts it, that "comes from ridding ourselves from the past" to me seems like "just another word for nothing to lose". The past shaped who we are today. Stripping away and severing ties to the past in my opinion is similar to being a person without a shadow. And for some our shadow represents the true spirit of life. Writers such as Hemingway and painters such as Van Gogh in their lifelong struggle against emotional shocks, scars and darkness, created some of the most beautifully and powerfully told stories of our time. Even Disney's Peter Pan, the boy who never wanted to grow up, is not "a whole person" without his shadow. 

Colleen Yorke
Self-Portrait, 2018.
When I run, I am accompanied by my tall shadow on the ground mirroring my footsteps. Life is a balance between the ying and yang, the light and the dark. In coexistence they add value to the other. Priorities change. It is by "having something to lose" that we add purpose to our lives. It is our scars that set us apart from everyone else. And often ideas and relationships seem rather heavy to carry and perhaps even of no value at all.  Only later we find out how much we have grown and learned. Our baggage becomes a toolbox to "do better next time".

"It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl." — Stephen King

Stolen Minutes

To understand why we run, that is the hardest and easiest question. Running refines us. It allows us to refocus and reprioritize, leaving just enough room for what really counts. Life is a series of paradoxes. To find ourselves, we get lost. To gain, we lose. To know the light, we plunge into the dark. The meeting of two worlds. A double exposure. Oddly compliant and timorous. Our time does not run in a circle, it runs ahead in a straight line. We have times of connectedness and times of parallel lives. Sometimes a little escape offers the perspective we need to see.

This morning, I laced up my running shoes and went for an early pre-dawn run through Berlin. Enveloped by the silence of the night and the mist of a new day, I do my own little speed workout. Not a soul out, this time is mine, and mine alone, sixty stolen minutes in the dark. Chasing down Berlin’s rose line, the Straße des 17. Juli, past Brandenburger Tor and Charlottenburger Tor, my feet take me 12 miles down, from east Berlin to west Berlin at a new personal-record setting pace.
Brandenburger Tor. Berlin, Germany.

When was the last time we gave our all? When did we pull so hard for a dream that we got red-faced and our feet hurt from our simple and adamant refusal to let it slide? 

With so many time constraints, rules, limits and routines in the hectic pace of our lives, many of us need a another place where we can set our own pace, even if it just for six miles.

The Inner Gollum

We all have been there.  The day we stop running. 

How is this possible? We plan our days around our run, and it does not matter whether it is rainy, windy, torching hot or Sunday morning, we are going for a run. Our loved ones may roll their eyes, but they know we are better for it. We return, flushed and glowing. 

Not in a million years would I have thought that I would be fighting my inner Gollum on something so precious in my life . . . . but lately I find myself mentally going through argument after argument as to why I do not want to run. I am tired. I am exhausted. I am tired and exhausted of running. And I wonder why. I find myself struggling getting out of bed before dawn and lacing up my running shoes to meet the most miraculous sunrise. I love running. I have run over 1700 miles this year alone. What is happening? 

Ever since I started working as corporate lawyer, my private life suffered some set-backs and adjustments had to be made. Time for anything is rare. And making time even more so.  I start my day before sunrise and slide my life into time slots, which are organized around projects, calls and meetings. My weekends are long gone, and going out in the evening means staying up past midnight to catch up on the daily news. My attitude the next morning is proudly sponsored by my alarm clock. I am sleepy. It is dark outside. I am sleepy. I do not want to run today. Fine. I am going for a run. It is dark outside. And lately I am running into more wildlife than people. 
Running the same route every morning, alone and in darkness, can affect our running.  Especially when we are used to running diverse routes, and we run mainly to be with runners. Maybe we ran ten miles or more, and now we find we only have time for five.  Restrictions in time, in distance and in scenery can be drudgery. I need to make changes, or I am afraid my inner Gollum will take over.  I am hoping some of you can pass along some tips. 

Remind me again why I love running.

Pacing Time

colorado bridge
Running in the rain. © Colleen Yorke. 2020.

We measure the passing of time by annual changes in seasons or birthdays of our children. And unless we are philosophers, scientists or poets, we may find that time - something that is so apparent to us and so pertinent to our every experience in life - is difficult to explain. In a way time exists only in our minds, even though its effects are perceived throughout the universe. 
So, if time flows, and there is no one there to experience it, is there still time? Yes, of course. There is still time. But it is all relative. Einstein explained this effect in his theory of relativity –  the faster an object moves, the slower time runs, until at the speed of light, time comes to a stop.  

On Monday, May 9, planet Mercury appears to cross the disk of the sun in the course of seven and a half hours — an event known as a transit — which happens only about 13 times per century. Some us certainly will be watching.  Others will be too busy to notice.

In the running world, time means something else.  Whether we like it or not, we are acutely aware of our pace ("our time") and we proudly post when we "PR".  I run with a phone, and track my sole prints through Los Angeles' neighborhoods and coast trails.  The phone serves as the gatekeeper of time, as an eye, and window to the world.  On longer runs, the phone often dies, and the data is not always recoverable.  For this reason, many of us have switched to wrist watches. The special gadgets track and pace us through the miles – all of them –  and safely upload the run to be shared when we am done. We may still be seen running with phones but we are listening to music now.   

A Runner's Heart

All rights reserved. 2020.
Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, was a leading front runner of the 1970s running movement. Wholehearted convicted in the benefits of physical fitness, he set out to be a running example for others.  On July 20, 1984, at the age of 52, he suffered a fatal heart attack. As shocking as it is, his death is not unique.  It is widely known that habitual runners have a much lower risk of suffering heart attack during a run than someone who exercises sporadically.  However, high endurance runners who load on miles for years and then suddenly stop running are in high risk of experiencing cardiac irregularities, in some cases fatal.  Stories recur in the news about athletes who die suddenly while exercising.   

A healthy heart contracts in regular intervals, the heart muscles circulate fresh blood, one heart beat at a time.  Running stresses the heart's efforts: Impulses shoot through the heart with greater frequency, and increase the rate of the heart’s contraction.  An increased volume of blood is pumped with each beat of the heart. The flow of blood through the coronary arteries increases to feed the demands of the straining heart muscle. To handle the overflow, the cardiac muscles grow and expand the heart.   As a result, endurance runners have a larger heart and a low resting pulse.  Compared to a normal person who has a resting pulse rate of 70 beats per minute, my heart only beats 50-55 times per minute.  Enlarged hearts need more oxygen and a higher blood flow, and runners are advised to maintain a regular exercise routine to avoid risks of heart attack.  

If we think about it, it makes sense. A vigorous running lifestyle places high demand and stress on our heart muscles, they become bigger and stronger, taking up more room, and consequently our body builds larger heart chambers.  These now require a higher amount of oxygen, which is transported to our heart via blood flow.  Suddenly we switch to a sedentary lifestyle.  Less movement requires less blood circulation, the heart muscles become rigid and less elastic, the heart chambers starved of oxygen and important nutrients.  Fatal arrhythmia (medical parlance for heart attack) according to studies involving more than thousand subjects is more likely to follow activities such as sex, snow shoveling, or some return to exercise after a long period of inactivity.  The sudden rush of blood flow can be compared to a breaking dam, too much volume reaches the heart muscle which in turn contracts more rapidly, in a weak attempt to control a high pressure sudden flow of blood coming in.  
Studies agree that consistency and maintaining physical fitness is more important than intensity:  “The life-long runner, with a heart conditioned by decades of regular training, has the best protection from cardiovascular disease. The transient runner, roused from a sedentary lifestyle with the aim of running a marathon, may accomplish an admirable athletic goal and may enjoy substantial health benefits, but does not achieve the same degree of protection from cardiovascular disease as the dedicated runner.”               
Benjamin Ebert, M.D., Ph.D., physician.
*Some personal risk factors as family history and age cannot be changed.  In the case of Jim Fixx, early medical interventions could have dramatically decreased his risk of a heart attack. He had undiagnosed cardiovascular disease. His father died at a young age from a heart attack.

Running the LA Marathon

LA Marathon
Happy to shower, eat, sleep and celebrate.
Last year, on the eve of  February 11, 2014 to be exact, I was sure I would never be able to run a marathon again.  What was supposed to have been a fun 5K training run, organized and sponsored by Big5 and the LA Marathon, turned out to be sheer pain by Mile 2.  As it turned out, I had build up an inflamed hamstring, and ignored the odd tug in my left leg, until on the streets of Pasadena, a fiber muscle tore.  I could not run the LA Marathon that year and spent the next ten weeks in recovery.  

LA Marathon 2016
Los Angeles Marathon 2016.
Slowly, over the next months I started running again, but I was mentally prepared to accept that a long(er) run would be out of the question.  Over the summer, I ventured out onto the trails, soaking in the dark woods, working through things at my own pace.  Surprised, I discovered that my body was picking up the load – gradually, I was raising the mileage.  I started training.  With a full schedule at Pepperdine School of Law and a law clerkship certainly not an easy task.  I got up at 3:30 am – to get my miles in - and often put in 18-20 hour-days.  I am not going to lie. I found myself being physically and mentally drained at times.  Certainly not a good outset to run a full marathonThe real test though was the 22.5 mile run – the "trial run."  Again, I braced myself to face and accept the impossibility of running another marathon.  But at the end of that day, I was still standing, and aside from some soreness, without pain.

Running 26.2 miles to get the medal from friends
Yesterday I proudly finished running the Los Angeles Marathon.  I did not run for time – and mentally I set my finish line to Mile 22, where I knew friends would be waiting.  I took the time to thank volunteers, fire fighters, police officers and medical staff along the way, and posed for cameras. I did not meet my wall, but I did have a moment or two where the race felt "long" - at Mile 12 and at Mile 25.  Around Mile 15-16 I ran into a friend, a student runner from SRLA, who bravely struggled through probably one of his worst races in his life due to food poisoning and heat fatigue.  We ran the race together for several miles, and he paced a slow but steady finish.  When I crossed the finish line - PRing one minute faster than my last marathon at 4:04, I was blessed to receive the medal from a friend, Claudia, who I met when we worked the finish line last year.  It was a good race, and dare I to say that I will be back next year?

The Grit of Running

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." - Henry David Thoreau

Running long distance requires heart, passion and sheer discipline.  Like everything else in life, in order to cross daunting seemingly far away finish lines, every endurance runner practices again and again. We experience disappointments, fatigue, exhaustion, pain, but every day we go out there again to try again. Training for a marathon can take up to six months, and often we do not see results of our efforts until very close to the race.  Like everything else in life, we have to work hard, train harder and work through failures, but in the end we discover that we are better for it.  Too much in life is built on illusion.  We do not always get our dreams, and life is too short to discover all the things we want to be. 

Running is real. There is really not much use to color ourselves in pretense, to market ourselves as something we are not.  Either we make honest assessments of our capabilities, or we have to learn honesty in a painfully hard way.  Through trial and error, we discover who we are and what our bodies are made of. We test our limits and stretch our comfort zones.  

Like everything else in life, crossing finish lines and entering new start lines requires heart, passion, discipline.