I am in a different mood today. So I am going to write about running. But first, let me say that this post is not about grandiose achievements. It is about little steps. I have been running for months now. Although I cannot yet call myself a serious runner, I have learnt a thing or two about my body and mind since I took up running on a more regular basis. I am in Berlin. As I write, it is as cold as February can be. Despite the fact that there has been some talk about how this is one of the mildest winters ever, the temperature is at a range of minus two to one degree. In the week I arrived from Lagos – that was some two weeks ago – the temperature went up as high as 11 degrees. I thought then it was too cold to run. This week, I have been terrified by the thought running. This cold messes with my head big time. But yesterday, I summoned the courage and went out there – the airstrip of the now abandoned Berlin-Tempelhof airport. I was only able to get in some 8k with difficulties. It felt good. I felt encouraged to do more. So in the euphoria of it all, I pledged to do another run today.
I was on the verge of giving up on the idea when, after a brief nap, I felt instead like giving this a go. My mind had already preempted all the torture of the cold, and my body felt heavy and grumpy. But often these days, my will has a way of asserting its power over everything it encounters, including my mind and my body. So off I went. I began slowly, still doubting, still weighing, still thinking that this was a bad idea. My Bluetooth earphones were connected to my digital watch. I use the app Strava to measure distance and average pace. I started off well, my pace was averaging at 4.30m/km. Today, I ran in the evening, just after they had closed the gates of the abandoned airport. Thus I had to run on the streets – circularly from Südstern to Hermanplatz and back. This brought the added advantage of not contending with the wind: the buildings, people, cars, etc. serve as effective windbreakers. Before I began the run, I told myself not to be hard on myself. “You are not a cold-weather kind of guy. A 5k run will do”. But before I knew it, I was on a roll. I’ve smashed through 5k and heading for my 6th kilometre. The rest, as they say, is history. A history that led to me finishing at a distance of 10.6km and a pace of 4.50m/km – my fastest 10k plus run ever!
How did this happen? How did I go from quivering from the thought of a one-degree-celsius weather to finishing a run at my fastest pace ever? The quick and immediate answer is that I don’t know. In hindsight, however, I can think of many factors that, instead of impeding me, intersected in my favour. Let’s begin with my body. I think that my body is beginning to be good at something. Over time, it has steadily adjusted – almost without me being aware – to the exertion of running. I run more effortlessly. In other words, it is important that I do not continue to undermine and mistrust my body. I must remind myself that my body has become a strong ally, rather than a liability (yes, the more I age, the more I feel it is only a matter of time before my body betrays me). Secondly, my run today was strategic. I was determined to run strong. First thing was to stabilise my breathing. Don’t fight your breathing. Let it come and go. As with anything in life, there is a rhythm. Find the rhythm – which for me, is not so much about balance or order as it is about harmony. The aim here is in no way to set up a dichotomy between balance and harmony. As a matter of fact, often times they are reducible to each other. The point of emphasis is most likely the route they take in being a derivative of each other: harmony eventually leads to balance – a healthy balance so to speak. But I would think that balance, though could also lead to harmony, has a greater tendency to deviate and translate to order. Order as in the ordering of things into categories, labels, classes, genders, colours, races…
Let’s get back to running.
My workout playlist. It is eclectic. The music range from contemporary Nigerian and Ghanaian beats (the one people now prefer to call Afrobeats – a story for another day) to a bit of hip-hop, soca, reggae, dancehall, pop, and soft-rock. They are the fuel that keeps me going. I remember how many times Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” got me flying as I synchronised my pace to the constant “thump, thump, thump” that make up the bars of its beats. Or how I would dance and fling my hands to GospelOnDeBeatz’s “Sauce” featuring Tekno & Patoranking, or sing along to “Don’t Wanna Know” by Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar, cruising through “Love$ick” by Mura Masa, or timing my pace to Taurus Reiley’s “Gimme Likkle One Drop”. These are just a few selections. My playlist is of songs I like. Songs that I listen to when I feel alive. You could say they have the effect of lifting my spirit (not in the “hashtag-deep” sense – just kicking me into a jolly state).
There was also my running gears. I went out of my way to invest (and when I say invest, I mean spending some amount of money I would only consider spending for gears if running was a profession) in some Nike dry-fit gears that retain heat and reduce perspiration to the minimum. Underneath my tights, I wore shin sleeves (to reduce the likelihood of shin splints). Over my tights, I wore running shots. At the upper end of my body, underneath my main dry-fit winter vest, I had on a Nike-pro body warmer. I also had gloves on, and finally, a really good Nike Zoom Fly running shoes. Last time I was in Lagos, I had run with this setup in 29°C. Running with these winter setup in the sun is like photographing with a 37-megapixel camera for photos you will only post on Instagram. You will clog your hard drives with unnecessary pixels; processing the photographs will be gruellingly time-consuming and yet no one will ever feel or appreciate the effort with regards to the quality of camera used. Running with these high-quality, expensive wears in 1°C cold is the best investment ever. I am able to run without too much padding. They are flimsy in weight, but very powerful heat retainers. Although I could feel the cold numbing my face, every other part of my body felt relatively warm and comfortable.
Now, those were some of the practical conditions that helped a great deal. But it goes a little bit further. Running for me is a metaphor for anything in life which has to do with exerting one’s self through one’s will (so it is perfectly ok if you do not like running. Your thing could be mountain climbing, hiking or yoga. It’s all good). I have learnt that sometimes, consistency is more important than short spurts of efficiency. It is consistency that will carry you through the bad times and bad weathers, and there will be many of those. This consistency, for me, is not necessarily being consistent at running. It is more about the consistency of will. At times, even your mind will team up with your body to conspire against you. It is your will – which is also the language, and by that, the expression of your spirit – that will hold sway and lead the way. I have also learnt to make a difference between fighting and exerting oneself: with consistent, steady application of one’s will, progress will be made. I think of the expression “be like water” – a cliche, one might think. But I think of this in relation to Fela Kuti’s version: “water no get enemy” (water has no enemy). Be like water to your body and mind. Find the rhythm you will find the harmony in a world constantly looking to put you and everything in an ordered box. Find the rhythm, find the harmony, and maybe, you will escape the ordering.
Finally, and perhaps the most important: be in the process. It is usually a journey of self-unpacking filled with life’s lessons transmitted through myriad layers of metaphors. Anyone who brags about Process was never in it to begin with. Enjoy its humbling experience and let the outcome do the bragging.
Cover image: ©Emeka Okereke. Berlin, 2017.