This post originally appeared on Fit Approach on November 6, 2015.
Wind whistling against the leaves, birds chirping high in the trees, sneakers hitting the pavement with every step I take. These are the sounds I hear as I run along in the morning. In spring and early summer, there was more buzzing from the bees. Now that it’s autumn, the falling leaves dominate nature’s symphony, punctuated occasionally by the loud crack of an acorn hitting the ground.
This wasn’t my soundtrack when I first started running. Back in the spring of my first year of law school, I downloaded the Couch to 5K app and set off, headphones in, several days a week until I was able to run three miles without stopping. That by itself was a major accomplishment. I grew up dancing ballet, but never believing I could make it more than a mile without huffing and puffing. In fact, I got my ballet teacher to write me a note to get me out of running the mile in gym class because it was bad for dancers! When I finally could run, I assumed I needed some noise to propel me – just as the score makes the ballet, the songs I played would determine the course of my run.
I was able to run further and further, always pounding to the beat of whatever song popped up on my iPod. After I finished the Couch to 5K program I was glad to be able to leave my phone behind and feel free, but I was consistently tethered to the much lighter and yet still dominating old iPod shuffle I’ve had for years. There were a few times when I left my apartment without it, and managed to make it four or five miles, pleasantly surprised at the sounds emanating throughout Central Park when I did. But never for a longer run, and certainly not for a race – I thought I couldn’t do it without my music.
That changed this summer. I was studying for the bar exam at my parents’ house, in the Connecticut town where I grew up. There were no city noises to block out, just an occasional car (which it was better to hear, safety-wise!) And I was forced to listen to bar exam review lectures for several hours each day. Running has always been my time in the morning to mentally refresh before tackling the day ahead, and I used to do that to music. But knowing I had to listen to someone else’s voice after the run was over, the last thing I needed was more noise from the time I woke up. Instead, I left the tunes at home, and began to run completely free, reveling in the silence.
Of course, I realized along the way that I wasn’t in silence. The sound of silence is absent in nature no matter the season. As long as there’s life out there, there are sounds to be heard, as long as you take the time to listen closely. Sometimes I’d make a game of matching my steps to the chirping of a bird, or whatever else nature provided. But mostly, I’d just listen, and I began to run to my own beat. A beat no one else set the tone for. However I felt like running that morning, I’d run.
Maybe this isn’t the best plan when you’re training intensely, but for me it was the best thing I could have done. Running with only nature and my own thoughts to distract me meant that I would either use a run as thinking time, or as true mind-clearing time, both of which are necessary and which we often sacrifice to the daily hustle and bustle of life. I went on 6, 7, 8, even 9 mile runs without anything else, and never felt happier than when I was out there.
A few weeks ago, I toed the starting line of my fifth half marathon – and my first without musical accompaniment. It was in my hometown on a Sunday morning, and the small field of roughly 400 runners represented the only people who would be out on the streets. Everywhere I looked, I saw other runners with armbands and belts to hold their phones, so they could blast music along the entire route. As for me? I reveled as I ran the empty streets, hearing just my footsteps and those of the few runners in front of and behind me, and the birds chirping in the bright blue sky. I took in the fall foliage, the changing leaves that people make special trips to New England to see. And as I ran, I smiled.
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