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An ode to falling over: on being a beginner (again).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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Seven years ago I came first equal in a 10km road race. I was 33 years old, and it was the first race I’d ever won in my life. The closest I’d come to winning before then was second place in the school cross-country run when I was 15 years old.

The journey to that victorious 10km race had taken three years. I took up running seriously as an adult at the age of 30, as part of an overall lifestyle change after coming home from the Gaza Strip. I’d given up smoking, joined the gym and started running all at once. My theory was that the running and gym workouts would multiply the health benefits of quitting smoking, and I’d soon feel so good that I wouldn’t even be tempted to smoke.

It worked. Almost too well. I took all the nervous energy, anxiety and desire to be ‘good’ that I’d been puffing away during my cigarette breaks and threw it (and myself) into running. And as with pretty much every new thing I try, I decided I needed to master running.

Not content to remain among the ranks of people I saw jogging slowly around the Wellington waterfront, I found a running coach, a training plan and a running buddy and slowly began improving my fitness, technique and speed as a runner. Three years later, I crossed the finish line of a local 10km fun run in first place.

Three months after that race, I moved to Afghanistan, and since we weren’t even allowed to walk outside most of the time, that was the end of my running for a few years. I tried running on treadmills in dark basement bunkers. I tried running dozens of laps of our walled compound. I even tried skipping in my room when we were under lock-down, but nothing was quite the same as being able to head out my front door for a run in the fresh air. By the time I got back to New Zealand from Afghanistan, I had:

  1. learned that what I loved most about running was being in the outdoors; and
  2. lost my running fitness.

Over the past five years I’ve flirted with getting back into running. For the first three years I was plagued by a series of injuries. Then I discovered ‘barefoot running’ and the injuries miraculously disappeared (more on that some other time). But still I struggled to enjoy plodding along slowly for 5km when my body remembered what it felt like to be fast and strong over longer distances.

Put simply, I was struggling with the feeling of being a beginner again and I was resisting one of the core teachings of my own 30 Days of Yoga course which is:

‘Meet yourself where you are. With kindness. Start from there.’

I don’t think I’m alone in prefering the feeling of competence over incompetence. Confidence and mastery are much more comfortable than uncertainty and vulnerability. And that’s what being a beginner comes down to, in so many ways – vulnerability.

These days, when I head out for a run I often don’t know if I can complete it. I’m running right at the edge of my current fitness and there is always the chance I’ll have to stop, to walk the rest of the way home. There is also the very real possibility that I’ll quite literally fall over.┬áIn the past two months I’ve stumbled and fallen three times while running. That’s what happens when you test your limits. You end up on your hands and knees on the footpath (and once, rather frighteningly, on the road) feeling equal parts embarrassed and shocked.

You end up feeling, at best, vulnerable and, at worst, ashamed.

Like most people, I want to do well at whatever I try. I prefer success to failure. So the temptation is to choose a path that I know I can manage. To pick the hill I’m confident I can climb. To write the book that doesn’t scare me.

But I also know the best experiences in life lie just on the other side of what I know for certain. My greatest sense of achievement – and the sweetest reward – comes when I’ve asked myself to try do more than I knew I could. Whether that takes the form of writing with more courage than I thought possible, or running further than I ever have before (or for many years).

So I’m learning to embrace the feeling of being a beginner again: the uncertain territory of ‘can I pull this off?’ and the wobbly moments when it turns out I can’t, not yet anyway.

Above all else, I’m practicing what I preach by meeting myself – and my body – exactly where I am, with kindness. To my delight, I’m discovering the truth in my own teachings: when I embrace my reality and start from where I am, there is joy to be found in even the wobbliest of my steps.

So my question for you is:

What difference would it make if you could meet yourself where you actually are today?

Even better, what difference would it make if you could meet yourself with the same kindness you would show to me, if you were to come across me struggling back up the hill to my house, bloody-kneed, after a run that took a little bit more out of me than I expected?

What difference would it make if you could imagine yourself as a child learning to ride a bike – ready to give up because she thinks she’s supposed to already be as good at it as the bigger kids. If you could gently remind yourself that everyone falls off their bike when they are learning, and that the bravest of us continue to fall off our bikes for the rest of our lives, whenever we push ourselves a little bit further than we ever have before.

My wish for us all is this:

May you let yourself fall off whatever bike you’ve been struggling to ride, and may you kiss your own grazed knee better.

Because it’s only when we are willing to take that kind of risk, and to care for ourselves when we fall, that we’ll all be able to venture into the brave new lands where the solutions to our planet’s (and our own) biggest challenges lie.

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