On Walking and Focus

It’s been more than two years since I went to the gym regularly but sometimes when I’m anxious I still think about running, my legs pumping with my feet in sneakers as my arms swish back and forth.

I only ever ran on the elliptical. I didn’t like how the treadmill made my knees feel and I’ve never gotten into running outside except to catch a bus that has just pulled in. When I played tennis in high school and we ran laps around the rectangle of six or eight courts, I would come up last, breathing hard with my red face framed by tiny sweaty curls. The doctor called it stress-induced asthma. I left for college never to worry about it again, aside from a dash at age thirty through Chicago O’Hare that left me coughing all the way to Tucson.

I don’t like running but when the stress adrenaline teases my muscles I think about it because sometimes running makes my mind go blank. This is something that never happens otherwise and so you’d think I’d chase it more just to get a break from myself.

But in thirty years I’ve gotten perhaps a little too comfortable with the sound of my own inner voice. I don’t know what I’d do without it. My tennis coach saw me getting in my own way, my critical brain bringing me down and suppressing what talent and form I had and encouraged me to let my intuitive self take over and swing the racket. I liked the concept but never mastered the execution; I’ve been talking to myself too long to know how to shut up.

I do walk, now, when I’m upset and my chest tightens and I can’t bear it. I walk and walk until my muscles loosen and I can breathe more deeply and talk to people like a normal human being instead of shutting down or lashing out. I could run again and get those moments of silence that even meditation doesn’t bring. But I do some good thinking while walking, when the movement brings some clarity, or at least lets me focus on the music in my ears instead of the chatter in my head.

Walking narrows my field of vision and uses the tension in my muscles productively. One day last month, when the temperature dipped low enough after work that being outside was a joy, I left my office near the Mall and decided not to get on the Metro. Instead I would walk to the next closest station in the direction of home, and see how I felt.

When I got to that station the weather was still beautiful and I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I walked to the next stop, and the next, until I’d gone about three and a half miles and took a bus to save my feet. All told I walked four miles that afternoon and arrived at home tired but satisfied, my mind clearer.

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