Running From Bears and Life’s Other Pleasantries

Big bear

“The only time I would even contemplate running is if a bear were chasing me,” I emphatically told my date. He had just asked me if I liked to run. No, I did not like to run, I assured him. I have never in my life liked to run. I like to rollerblade. I like to dance. I like to ski. Running was an unpleasant experience into which I was forced in middle school gym class and hated every minute of it. Among my classmates, I was always the slowest runner and I always got a painful cramp in my side. The mere thought of running made me irritable even as an adult.

“Why would anyone want to run?” I had said many times in my life. “Runners always look like they are in pain when I walk by them in the park. I don’t get it.”

Thirty years later, I began dating a runner. He was excited about running. I mean, he actually smiled and became animated when he told me about his running adventures. He told me about running on trails. He told me about running in parks and on the beach. He told me how he ran in a mud race and showed me a picture of himself smiling, covered in mud from head to toe, at the finish of the race. Then, he invited me to run with him.

In four decades of my life, not a single person has ever been able to convince me to go running just for fun. And then, I met Albie. For some reason, Albie made running sound enjoyable. And, I really liked him, so I figured, what the heck?

When we first started running together, it was difficult for me to run much more than a few tenths of a mile without stopping. It was also the middle of summer in Atlanta and every time we went outside to run it was 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. I didn’t have the right clothes. I quickly became sweaty and winded. It was against my better judgment to let this guy I really liked see me all sweaty and without makeup three mornings a week. But, I did it anyway.

Much to my surprise, I began to actually enjoy running. It became somewhat of a personal goal – to overcome my distaste for the sport; to replace my objectionable middle school memories of running with more positive ones, perhaps. Albie and I continued dating and I continued running. Each time I ran with him, I went a little farther, not because I believed I could, but because he believed I could.

“I’ve got to stop,” I’d gasp, my face red, sweat dripping into my eyes.

“See if you can make it to that tree up there,” he would encourage me. “Focus on your breathing.” That tree, or mile marker, or parking lot usually wasn’t too far away, so I would try to make it. Then, when we got to the designated spot, Albie would encourage me again.

“I bet you can make it to that next mile marker,” he would tell me, smiling. “You can always go further than you think! Just tell yourself you can make it. You’ll be surprised at how far you can go.”

Each time, I would go a bit farther than I believed I could run, until one day I ran 2.2 miles without stopping. My pace was just slightly faster than a turtle stuck in peanut butter, but I did it, nonetheless. I was so excited, I jumped up and down, I hugged Albie, and then I immediately called my friend Katrina, an accomplished runner who could never convince me to run with her, even though she asked repeatedly.

“Katrina!” I said excitedly, “I just ran 2.2 miles without stopping!”

“That’s awesome!” Katrina told me. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Guess how I did it?” I asked. “Albie kept telling me I could go farther and then toward the end, when it was really hard, I just kept thinking I had to make it all the way so I could call you and tell you that I did it! You and Albie inspired me to keep going!”

Ultimately, our schedules became busier, the holidays rolled around and winter hit Atlanta with two major snowstorms (see Snowmageddon 2014). Instead of running several times a week we resorted to sporadic runs at parks or around the neighborhood. A couple times, when Albie asked me to run with him, I opted to walk my dog instead.

Then one day in February, I woke up to sunshine and the promise of spring-like temperatures and I felt motivated to run. In eight months since I started, I had never actually been running all by myself. It was never actually my idea, but always something I agreed to do, and was happy I did, when Albie suggested it. I always felt better physically and mentally after we ran, so why didn’t I do it more often?

This cool February morning, I got out of bed and put on running clothes. I took my daughter to school and drove straight to the park. I ran 1.2 miles, stopping only once to tie my shoe. It seemed as if my pace was even quicker than it had been in the past, until another runner blew by me on a downhill stretch of trail in the woods. I kept going anyway, believing I was running faster than I ever had before.

It was all over too quickly it seemed, as I slowed to a walk nearing my starting point. So, I began my second lap around the trail, staying on the inner loop this time for a shorter distance. When I got to the end of the trail for the second time, I started to get tired, but instead of stopping, I heard Albie’s voice in my head telling me I could make it to the parking lot. I continued up the small hill until I was back at my car, probably another half mile.

The day before I went running all by myself for the very first time in my life, Albie sent me a text that resonated with my psyche. It said, “It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you’re not.” Dennis Waitley, author of several inspirational books including, The Psychology of Winning, said that.

I am a writer, a mother, a daughter and a friend. I have been a dancer, a skier, a teacher, a waitress and a flutist. By my own admission and belief, I have never been a runner. I clearly set my own limitations.

When I finished my first solo run, I told Albie all about it. “I just ran 1.2 miles,” I said. “Then I walked a little and ran another half mile! I kept hearing your voice in my head telling me I could make it further, and I did.”

It feels official now. Not just because I did it alone, but because I told myself something new; something I had never told myself until that day: I am a runner.

Learning to be Happier: Lessons from Friedrich

“You can’t really be happy for other people if you’re not happy with yourself.”

Undoubtedly, you have heard this expression before. If you find yourself unable to celebrate the accomplishments of those around you, here are some simple tips that I learned from my dog, Friedrich, for turning my gloom into glee.

1. Trot around the yard barking (or in our case, shouting) just because you can. When I let Friedrich outside, he usually just sits on the deck and watches the birds and squirrels go about their business. But, occasionally, after he has been sitting there awhile, he gets up, for no apparent reason, runs down the deck steps and trots around the yard giving a cheerful bark or two. This inevitably makes him wag his tail, and unbeknownst to him (or maybe not) brings joy to anyone who happens to be observing this act of “I am happily running around the yard simply because I can.” When was the last time you ran around the yard just for fun?

IMG_18422. Never eat alone. Friedrich’s dish is perpetually full, but he almost never eats from it unless somebody is in the kitchen with him. Clearly, he has learned that dining with others is half the fun of enjoying a meal. It’s no fun to eat by yourself, no matter how good the food is.

Eating is a social activity, and therefore, eating too many meals alone can contribute to your overall misery. Find someone with whom to dine, at least one meal every day. (Friedrich’s favorite dining partner is my father. Whenever he shows up at my house, Fred sees it as his cue to head to the kitchen and dig in.)

3. If you have an itch, scratch it (or find someone to scratch it for you). Sometimes, while lounging around the house, Friedrich gets an itch on his head or his back. He grumbles and snorts a bit, and then finds a way to scratch that itch. Often, he charges the leather couch like it is the cause of his discomfort, but ultimately, rubbing his head along the side of the couch seems to do the trick. If you have an itch that is causing you discomfort, and therefore making you act grouchy toward others, find a way to scratch it and move on with your day.

4. Sit politely near someone who might share a treat with you. Friedrich is a smart dog. Early on, he learned that if he sits quietly next to someone who is eating, with his gaze fixed intently on that person as she enjoys her cheese or piece of chicken, perhaps that person will share a bite with him.

This technique almost always works on me. “Look at how sweet you are being, not begging at the table!” I tell him. He blinks his big, brown eyes at me, and next thing ya know, he is enjoying his own piece of cheese. If you are grumpy because your friends and family aren’t sharing with you, maybe you’re being too pushy. Try Fred’s relaxed approach next time and see what happens.

IMG_35855. Take a nap in the middle of the floor. Sometimes life gets overwhelming. It’s OK to take a break every now and then. Fred likes to find a comfortable spot on the floor, in spite of the three beds he has in three different rooms in the house. Sometimes the middle of the floor is the best place to daydream. Don’t forget to rise slowly, stretching and yawning loudly, when it’s time to wake up.

It’s no fun to be unhappy all the time. And, like I said, it’s nearly impossible to be happy for your friends and family when they are in a good mood and you’re not. Remember, change takes place slowly, so you have to start somewhere. If trotting around the yard shouting, “I’m happy to be alive!” helps bring a smile to your face (and your neighbor’s) why wouldn’t you do it? Not long after you try something new, it becomes a habit and before you even realize it, you are the one spreading happiness to those around you. This is a proven, fail-proof method of changing your attitude. It works for Friedrich every time.