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The hard way

Sometimes you've just got to go all-out.

There have been a couple of times in my running career when I've needed to see a physical therapist. In each case, it was because I had done something stupid. (Who knew the rule against doubling your mileage in a single week applied to me, too?) And on each visit, the therapist was kind enough not to remind me of my stupidity.

While I try my best these days to avoid the PT's office, I find myself becoming more and more committed to a different type of physical therapy - a much more intimate kind. The kind that only athletes understand. I'm talking about the heart-pounding, lung-screaming, mind-bending therapy of all-out effort.

Yes, this is still the Penguin talking. And I certainly haven't given up on the slow-but-steady, joy-of-the-journey running philosophy that I've embraced for so long. Instead, what I'm suggesting is intense effort as an adjunct to my steadfast waddling.

Like it or not, sometimes there's just no substitute for working up a serious sweat. Over countless runs, I've discovered that distractions that I can't seem to shake while running at a comfortable pace simply evaporate as my heart rate increases. I've also noticed that whatever it is that might be making me crazy at the bottom of a hill magically disappears somewhere about halfway up.

Often what I'm really trying to do is outrun my anger. During a recent track workout, for example, an argument I'd had with a friend just kept replaying in my mind. I obsessed over all the things I should have said and all the points I should have made. Yet by the final 800-meter repeat, I was at peace with it all. It's simply impossible for me to be angry when I'm at 95 percent of my max heart rate.

Some runners may already know all this, but I bet I'm not the only one to become so content with my running that I tend to only do the things that make me feel good. After all, I like to run. I don't want to do anything that would make me hate it. But we shouldn't cheat ourselves of the kind of therapy that comes from intense effort just because we're afraid of moving out of our comfort zone. We have to push our bodies - and our imaginations - in order to get the most out of them.

Of course, there's also a kind of peace and serenity that comes only after an hour or so of just plodding along. There is a deep feeling of balance and integration that happens only at a pace that I can sustain for miles and miles.

That's why the tempo of my runs is now dictated more by my state of mind than by the plan in my logbook. If I am overwhelmed by frustration or filled with anxiety, I'll probably go out and pound. If, on the other hand, I am feeling great about life, I'm likely to head out the door and run as easily as I can for as long as my schedule permits.

For perhaps the first time ever, my running is in sync with my spirit. The mileage I log is no longer separate from the ups and downs of living my life. And so running does more than ensure the long-term health of my body: It bolsters the short-term health of my mind.

I've allowed the fears in the rest of my life to get processed by my feet. The result? Running has become the best physical therapist I've ever had.

Waddle on, friends.

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