Unplugging While Plugging Away

december 2:
getting “unplugged”
Unplug for an hour, a half day, or a whole day. Choose a time that feels a little uncomfortable. How did you feel? What did you do? Reflect on your experience. How much did you unplug this year? How does this experience make you feel about unplugging in the coming year?

I distinctly remember the first time I went for a run with a musical soundtrack. I was in middle school and fully obsessed with music at this point, waking up to it, sleeping to it, driving my sisters nuts with my eccentric tastes, etc., so taking some for a run only seemed logical. I already knew I could run well, but wondered if music might make me run faster. I grabbed my cassette walkman, plopped some over the head earphones on – the now vintage kind with the terrible foam speaker covers -, wrapped the cord repeatedly around the player and went running down the street as the faux tribal pounding of Therapy? started blasting into my ears.

And it was awesome. I was plugged in.

I ran to the music, responding to the buildups, driven faster and faster with the tempos and onward by the anger. I was so hooked. The adrenaline the music already gave me on its own was now placed in a context, enabling me to run further and faster with the excitement.

I continued using music on my runs, lamenting the rules that disallowed music players during races. I always wondered how much faster I could have run in a race if I was allowed to bring my trusty walkman along. In hindsight, I understand why that might be a bad idea.

Fast forward to 2007 when I started running again. After a couple preliminary training runs and increased mileage I started dreading longer and longer runs, no matter how necessary, in the fear of collapsing from boredom. So I reverted to a modern day version of that middle school kid going out with his walkman. I grabbed a portable CD player, threw some headphones over my head – hilariously the same kind as I had in middle school -, pressed play on my Verse CD and started blasting down the road, increasing running tempo with musical tempo and laying into it on breakdowns. It was again, awesome.

After some time though, the sweat-soaked headphones bouncing around my ears,  the dying batteries, the awkward grasp on the cd player, started to wear on me. I went out for a seven mile run, a precursor to a longer run later in the week, and finished wondering how I was ever going to run another step without music. I couldn’t possibly imagine running past seven miles without music. It sounded like torture. Somehow I got it in my head that I HAD to have an iPod, just like everyone else seemed to have at the time, and with christmas coming up the timing seemed perfect. Of course, I DIDN’T get that iPod.

And somehow I managed to run past seven miles without music. I had no choice really. I was forced by the necessity of progression to keep going in silence, the memorized music in my head as the only replacement. 9 miles. 11 miles. 13 miles, with nothing but memories and daydreams.

Now I remain unplugged, intentionally. I’ve deliberately chosen to keep from distracting myself, from making a time-consuming activity seem less time-consuming, from making the mental struggle of distance running, well, less of a struggle. I could very easily put some earphones in, use the music to push me through long runs and days lacking from motivation, but in the end I think I would be doing myself a disservice.

I’ve chosen to unplug because in a race scenario you are always unplugged. It is a pure test of both your physical and mental strength, and the distraction of music is not allowed, forcing you to rely only on what you’ve developed to that point. So if I’ve trained myself to run relatively slowly through a 22 mile run with nothing but the narratives I’ve created in my head, then doing the same in a race scenario will be routine. It will remain the purest of efforts, a test of strength with no external aids. Just legs and lungs.

Admittedly, when others talk about “unplugging”, they are often referring to a more extensive disconnect from digital technology, separating from email, social networking, etc., but then again, any measure to reduce our reliance on technology is in a form, “unplugging.”

I choose to unplug every time I step outside for a run, and the connections I create for myself in the process tend to pay off when I really need them.

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