Month three of my marathon training plan has shown me how each run reveals a different life lesson.
No two runs have been alike. Running can be intimidating, energizing, exasperating, stress-relieving, catalyzing, daunting, buoyed by adventure, filled with inspiration, shaped by running partners, darkened by fear, nourished by epic views, eased by humor, and deepened by distance. My most memorable run this month was when I stepped in a pile of dog shit, which led to a discovery that forever changed the way I view what happens out on the trail.
I kicked off my flip flops and started a jumping series to warm-up. Shedding my shoes was the beginning of leaving my inhibitions behind. The maple trees flamed with reds and oranges under the cobalt sky. It was one of those fall days when the world is in Technicolor, all the brighter because winter lurked a few months away. With each step the cool blades of grass kissed my feet. The sun beat down on my shoulders. My ponytail bounced as I skipped and weaved my feet in and out, a move dubbed the “grapevine,” up and down the stretch of grass in my local park.
Running barefoot felt so exposing at first, getting rid of the barrier between my feet and germs. I thought about the bacteria that might seep into a cut or crack, bacteria that could cause athlete’s foot or plantar warts. I worried that running barefoot might hurt my joints or skin. But when I unlaced my shoes, my feet fell free and light. Barefoot running was like a time machine, transporting me back to my carefree childhood when my brothers and I played barefoot well after twilight with our gang of neighborhood kids. From then on I was hooked – running barefoot became one of my weekly runs. I liked the free-spirted feeling taking off my shoes and felt the easy joy I’d felt playing tag when I was a child.
The park was full that day, everyone soaking up the warmth of the sun, gazing at the leaves changing colors. The looked at me as they walked or rode past, returning my smile. Happiness was airborne, wafting in the air like the golden leaves. I skipped higher and higher, feeling like I was on the verge of taking flight. My foot landed in a soft, warmness that oozed between my toes. I paused, enjoying the tingling mud engulf my toes before I realized that I’d just stepped in a pile of dog shit.
“Shit!” It was the first word that popped into my mouth.
I scuttled down to the river, half hopping so that the poop didn’t spread around my foot anymore. Could I get something from stepping in dog poop? Isn’t that how hookworm is spread?
I stepped into the muddy river bank and wiped my foot around in the mud, my improvised effort to clean my foot. Both my feet and legs covered with mud, I climbed out of the river bank. I wanted to clean off my feet and put on running shoes to protect my feet from another poop-encounter.
But I’d left them at home. My mud-streaked legs muddled through the rest of the run, my foot placement more cautious, my steps more measured. I blamed the dog owner for not picking up after his pet. I blamed myself for not wearing shoes. I thought about how disgusting it was to have stepped in a pile of dog crap. The run felt less fun, the fall colors appeared duller. I found myself thinking what a shame to ruin such a perfect run by stepping in poop.
As soon as I said it, I realized that shit could only ruin my run if I let it, that I held the power to define that moment. It could be funny. I could tell it as a cautionary tale. Or perhaps I could even relish the warm, softness I’d experienced for that split second.
The stepping-in-shit story is mine to tell, I get to pick the verbs and decide which sentences lead. I learned an important life lesson about the power of my own mind to shape an experience by the way I chose to tell it, owning what happens to me and make it beautifully my own. That day I learned the power my words have, how they shape the way I perceive the world.
Now whenever I run, I embrace the difficult and interesting moments, because they make for the most engaging stories. Shit happens, and when it happens to me I’m doing my best to remember the warm, softness of it instead of the stench. We get to decide whether to see the difficulty or celebrate the triumph moments; we chose whether we will be sullied by fear or to be bolstered by possibility.
It seems like a no-brainer to me – I’m choosing to celebrate the possibility!