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The value of being present - in running and life

Editor’s Note: Dave McNeill is a two-time Olympian (London 2012, Rio 2016) and professional runner for the Melbourne Track Club. He’s also a physiotherapist, and a running coach at Run Strong Online Coaching. Enjoy Dave’s first (but not last) article for TEMPO.

If you’re here reading this, chances are you run. Once a week, 10 times a week, 5km, 40km, 3:00/km or 6:30/km. The numbers are just details. Sometimes, we’ll do it alone, sometimes with company or in a group, sometimes with the headphones in. But always one foot in front of the other, always with a steady flow of air in and out, always with a rhythm.

Rhythm...we’ll come back to that.

Chances are running has been an antidote to your ailments at one time or another. A chance to feel connected, particularly in the age of isolation and feeling lonely (how good was exercising in groups of two during lockdown!). A stress reliever from the shitstorm that can sometimes be life. A time of mental clarity where you do your best thinking or problem solving. A means to an end – perhaps better physical and/or mental health.

Running fills many roles, at many different times.

I think the reason for that is that running requires us to be present. The rhythm of it all lends itself to being present…one foot in front of the other, always with a steady flow of air in and out. Being in the zone, locking-in…call it what you want. Running has the capacity to do that.

And it’s when we’re present that the most amazing things tend to happen.

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Being present. Bit of a buzz word used by the millennials, I know. But I’m sure we’ve all been present somewhere before, and I almost certainly guarantee that when you were, something good happened. You might have made someone feel important – the centre of your attention. You may have experienced perfect mental clarity, and solved all the problems of the world.

Being present is being mentally attuned to the here-and-now – a task, a person, a place, a feeling, a sensation. The intensity and magic of our experiences are heightened when we’re present, and running tends to afford us that opportunity.

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Remember that I said we would get back to rhythm?

The rhythm that running brings can provide the almost perfect frequency to bring our attention to just one thing - to be present. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been stuck on runs where some part of life causing me debilitating anxiety has its volume turned up, and it’s all I’ll think about. That’s the cruel backside of being present – that sometimes, we are present in places that don’t serve us too well. Being present therefore requires us to make a choice, to be present in the darkness or in the light. The rhythm of running usually makes that choice easier (thank you endorphins).

I’ve been fortunate to straddle two running worlds: the one that nurtures my mental and spiritual well-being through a connection to nature, and the competitive one. Both have required me to be present in different ways. But maybe...just maybe, in not entirely different ways.

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"Being present therefore requires us to make a choice, to be present in the darkness or in the light. The rhythm of running usually makes that choice easier."

Dave McNeill

You see, you might assume that as a competitive runner, being present is all about mastering our craft...visualizing race goals, dialing into the pace, galvanizing our mental strength. But there are too many kilometers in a professional runner’s week to devote entirely to that, and just like you, whoever you are, we use the run to tune in with our friends, to reflect on a work decision or conversation that needs to be had, or simply enjoy the purely visceral experience of moving and breathing. We are all runners.

The choice I often make is to be present with nature. Nothing brings me greater joy than running through the Dandenongs, running along the single tracks of the Otways or Yarra Bend Park, or along the Warburton trail, and engaging in the magic of nature. Knowing the oxygen fuelling my rhythm is coming from the trees I look up at and marvel at...beautiful and life giving! This is what I call my spiritual experience. This is awe. It’s why I’m a devout attendant of the church of the Sunday Long Run.

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When I race, being present requires two seemingly polar-opposite energies: to simultaneously let go, but also be uncompromisingly determined. It is not enough to be just one or the other, as I have often found during a lifetime racing.

Letting go is accepting that sometimes, shit just doesn’t go your way. Its acknowledging that you’re not alone and you sure as shit didn’t get to that start line by yourself. It’s acknowledging that you’ll still have in your life what you had in it before the race, and using those good vibes, those happy thoughts, that gratitude for the people who helped you get there, to fuel the effort and believe in yourself.

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Being uncompromisingly determined is dialling into your reason for being there; your goals, what you’ve put on the line to be there, and holding onto that so damn tightly, that no pain can sway you from the pace you’ve committed to. It’s a dance. But when racing, you can’t have one without the other. The dance is the epitome of being present under circumstances that will try their darndest to distract us.

The sting, the lactic, the burning lungs, the cry to slow down. That’s the darkness, the distraction. Being present can bring us into the light. Running can provide the right rhythm to be present. And I’m so damn thankful for that.

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