The Benefits of Running With– and Living Like– an Empty Cup

You probably know the feeling. It’s race day and it’s hot. Not as hot as it could have been this late into the summer, but hot enough that you feel sticky and gross the second you step into the sunlight, and almost the entire length of the race is in wide-open sun.

You’re in the final few miles of your run, and you’re starting to fade, huffing and puffing and looking for relief. Luckily, there up ahead some hundred meters or so is the watering station.

You’re relieved. But just as you pick up the cup from that friendly race volunteer you realize why G-d invented the closed cap water bottle and the sippy cup. Sure you might manage to get a few drops down into your parched, gaping gullet, but most of it likely never touches your lips, deciding instead to do its own 100-meter sprint from cup to the area between your chin and chest.

You press on, you finish, but yea, you will always remember: it’s near impossible to run with  a full cup of water.

Likewise, it’s hard to learn anything when our minds are like a full cup: full of our own ideas will no space for anything else.

If the idea of living with an empty cup causes you to think “how very buddhist of you,” then you’re right. I first learned of this concept from the book Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo, which looks at guitar technique and style from the perspective of the Zen Buddhists.

Not only has this lesson been beneficial to me as a musician, but, as you might expect, it’s also been helpful when applied to other aspects of life, including how I’ve gone about keeping up my running regimen since last week’s race.

Last Sunday was the day of the 10K I’d been training for and conditions were as perfect as you would’ve hoped for on a midsummer’s day (much like the conditions mentioned in the opening scene of this post). My race time of 55:31 was something to be proud of too: easily 5 minutes faster than I’d expected myself to finish and almost 10 minutes faster than my previous training workouts in the days before. Great stuff all around.

But afterwards it occurred to me: what do I do next? Do I train for another 10K? Do I increase the mileage and go for 10 miles or even a half marathon? Do I just say job well done, content with how far I’ve come, and fade off into the sunset?

Being the goal-oriented, reach-for-the-stars-style, generally hard-working type of 20something young Turk that I am, I would have gladly done all but ride off into running retirement. I needed a new goal and a new plan of attack, and I needed one now!

Ultimately I decided to do something even more dramatic: I decided to take it slow and see where it goes. Instead of the usual search for a race, setting the goal, and rushing to meet the distance deadline, I opted to focus on how things were going now. Refreshing. And radical! But definitely worth it.

Instead of working towards the next mile marker reached or milestone race, I’m taking the time to strengthen and sharpen the mechanics of my routine and form. Really figure out why that hip is bothering me from mile 4 onward and how to relieve it. Train myself to tweak my stride just a bit to cut down on aches and improve energy efficiency.

In this way I’m being an empty cup. I’m allowing myself to learn, to try, and to grow free of preconceptions (and most time restraints). Surely at some point I’ll add to the distance covered or time elapsed when out on the trail, but for now I’m digging the zen of this decision. Focusing on the now instead of the destination. It’s been an especially centering sort of exercise for me, being one to whom “slow and steady” and “here and now” had never before been an easy idea to grasp.

Making small adjustments, gaining understanding, and keeping an open mind and an empty cup along the way.

And when there’s a water stop– I’ll be sure to keep it in a spill-proof container. Because that’s just common sense.

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