Robert Augustus Masters

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Running Your Heart Out

  • July 19, 2015
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Running your heart out. I remember as a boy hearing this expression, applied to thoroughbred racehorses and humans alike. I interpreted it as extreme effort in the noblest sense possible, something truly heroic.


A tattered black-and-white photo of the first sub four-minute mile comes into focus, Roger Bannister’s pained face at the finish line, the agony and at least something akin to ecstasy, nothing held in reserve, the image branded into my boyhood mind, my skinny little body flushed with the potential of similar breakthrough.


Yesterday I saw a world-record set in the women’s 1500 meters, a magnificently fluid run by Denzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia. Her remarkable achievement appeared almost effortless, with no Bannisterian strain, but I knew what she had given, the edge she’d navigated, remembering my all-out efforts in track and distance running as a teenager and young man.


Back then, running hadn’t taken hold culturally, hadn’t yet found a place in the popular imagination. I trained hard on lazy country roads, looked upon as someone out of place, an oddball in shorts and funny-looking shoes; I didn’t see anyone else running on those roads. I had no coach, no guide, no one to hold the stopwatch and fine-tune my stride.


But I continued devoting myself to my running, no matter how much I hated the pain and the limitations of my body. My imaginary audience was mute, the athletic hero I yearned to be akin to the lone gunslinger I marveled at as a little boy, impaled on potential, dreamy stopwatches recording times that shook my imaginary audience so much that it morphed into the father I had never had, proud of his son.


Did I run my heart out? No. My heart was not there to be run out, chained in shame-saturated chambers. The racehorses sprinted their half dozen furlongs, their jockeys colorful humps, whips rising and falling, the dirt flying, while I watched raptly, my legs packed with hard-leaning run, ribbons of glory tacked up behind my forehead.


I ran my last race when I was 51. My body said no loudly, as it had many times before, and I finally listened. Nowadays I don’t run, but hike, spend time on our elliptical trainer, do yoga and Feldenkrais and weights, and don’t push. My knees have my ear. In fact, my whole body does.


And I still run my heart out, softly, in my work, again and again finding myself at psychospiritual edges that demand, invite, call forth the best in me, in conditions that are not recorded, not seen by anyone who is not in the room at the time.


I’ve less strength and stamina now, but more capacity to make room for the edge, more ease in showing up for the standout moments, letting racing shift into gracing, with no audience other than the breath of the unimaginably Real.