Watching Matt’s Feet

Finding “honesty” is the key to listening to one’s body while running.

By on November 19, 2013 | 4 comments

I am watching Matt’s feet. I shouldn’t be, I’ve learned from many stubbed toes and hard falls that I should either focus further ahead or slow down and fall back a bit. But nope, I’m focused directly on Matt’s feet. His stride is nearly flawless, each foot striking the ground just slightly past mid-arch, not too heavily on the toes, his heel off the ground by a good quarter inch. On flat and soft trail he opens it up, each pad falling directly and firmly onto the dirt at right angles to his hips. He accelerates almost effortlessly. It’s really cool to watch–one foot patting past the other in rapid, now slower, short, and then longer strides. Running is such a beautiful thing. I love everything about it, I’m thinking, as the sun cuts through the trees and a breeze chills my boiling head. I’ve been at work all morning and this is just about as much freedom as anyone could handle.

It takes exactly one second for an ankle to turn and, while I don’t see it coming, I wince with sympathetic pain as Matt’s foot turns over from the outside in and we’re both stopped and swearing, sucking air in over our teeth. I’ve got my hand on his back, but I know that there is nothing I can do except agree as he talks his way through it. “So stupid,” he’s saying. “Ugh, I hate that.” And all I can do is say, “Yeah man, that’s terrible, you gotta’ watch out. Do you need some tape? Let’s just walk it off.”

Every runner worth their metal knows that ‘walk’ is not a four-letter word. Sometimes you just gotta’ do it: up steep hills, over unstable rock bridges, down really slippery embankments… and after you twist your ankle. So we walk, it’s a beautiful day out and even though I’m already pushing this from ‘long lunch’ to ‘late,’ what the hell? I’d much rather be here anyway.

As Matt shakes it out, curses it out, and rubs it out, I’m busy watching his feet again. A trail runner’s ankles are naturally tough, conditioned that way from multiple overturns, strengthened from use. After a couple of minutes, we’re off again–I knew it wouldn’t take long. I’ve come to admire Matt’s tenacity in the time we’ve run together, including a 28k jaunt through a snowstorm so wicked that every trail, street, and sidewalk we went down were utterly empty. The wind that day seemed to pick the world up and roll it over and every time I looked at Matt, he was smiling. I know I’m lucky–not everyone finds a hardcore homie as solid as that. His strides are shortened a bit now, his steps are tender, but I can see that that is all coming from his head. His calves are straight and the quiet brush of his soles across the ground are indication enough that he’s fine–indeed, if he weren’t fine then the footfalls would be heavier and his shoulder would erratically be leaning in and then away as his spine tried to figure out where the weight should be beared. Nah, he’s fine, and we’re off, back to a good pace in just a few minutes.

Track star and cardiologist Dr. George Sheehan was famous for telling us to “listen to the body;” the problem with that, and which trail running quickly cures, is that we’re generally not very good at even knowing how to do that much less actually going through with it. Listening to the body, I’ve come to believe, is a pretty complicated system of snaps and gear grinds, but ultimately very simple and a lot more natural than, say, sitting on the couch, watching TV for endless hours. To do it, you really only need one thing: honesty. Yup, it’s true. While the mind (what we think) is perfectly used to projecting worry onto an unknown future and forecasting insignificant heaps of doom for you to fear, or just outright lying in order to protect some whacked-out idea of our precious self, the body (how we are) only lives in the present and so working being beyond issues of control and manipulation, ego and narcissism, can’t ever lie. Your body has everyone’s best interests in mind–the only question is, are you listening?

It starts with breathing and the heart; in them we come back to thumping reality of running, our life force that we’re feeding by being outside, with the trees, and the rain, and the sun, and even the howling winds, bitter cold, and blasting snow. From there we can talk to the skeleton, it’s comfort in being erect and stable–an easy thing to correct if it’s feeling strained. Muscles, the screamers of the body, however, they like to complain. As trail and distance runners, though, we have learned, often the hard way, the importance of compassion–for others first and then ourselves, that it’s okay to hurt. That, as William James says, “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” Pushing through, let’s be clear, is not masochism. Quite the opposite, it is born from a great reverence for the human spirit to urge it beyond ‘normal’ confines of comfort. And really, we all know perfectly well that adventures decidedly do not happen in the confines of our ‘comfort zone.’ So, since ‘into the unknown’ is where we all must be going, at least we’re going together, and so compassion is a natural response to our fellow travelers.

We listen to the pains to ‘see’ what they are saying and then decide if action must be taken, or if continuing is the action to be taking. My friends and I run to get to that point where listening to the body becomes second nature. We go to the woods, as Henry Thoreau said, “to come back to our senses.” Once we have learned to hear the breath’s sharp intakes and to discern the difference between distress and effort, once we have come to know when a muscle is complaining or really hurt, then we can listen to the body/mind as it attempts to perfect form and technique. A person who listens to all the voices is, in the end, the fittest of all trail and long-distance runners. It is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, but that’s a lot more complex than we may have first thought.

At the car, Matt and I shake hands, “Thanks for the run, man:” it’s a nice bit of formality and brotherhood we unconsciously practice. “Speed day tomorrow,” he says. I tell him to take good care–rest, ice, compression, elevation, and all that good jazz. I’m thinking about hills and loose rocks, the perfect temperatures for sweating it out on another long and perhaps harder run myself. Later today, back at the office and answering emails, I’ll taste salt on my lips, adjust my legs and back to sit straighter, and smile when I see an online message from one of the runners that just says, “We don’t do this to be more fit, we do this to be better people.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you describe the last time you found that perfect interconnection between mind, body, and environment while running?
  • Have you ever transcended to a new-found ability beyond extreme fatigue as described in this essay? How painful was the passage through the fatigue and was it worth it when you got there?
Andrew Titus
Andrew Titus used to run far; however, like some ol' wise guy once said, "the job of the athlete is simple: to keep moving." So, that's what he does, whether in his hiking boots, on cross-country skis, or astride a bike. A writer, teacher, father, and husband, you are sure to see him cruising the forests of his St. John River Valley home in New Brunswick, Canada, still happy as can be–even without the running.