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  • Michal George

Acceptance as Permission

So I haven’t written much lately. Not much. I’ve been running some. Actually, more than some. Apparently, I derive motivation and inspiration through movement in nature. This has taken on the form of trail running. I’ve been a regular on local Cape Town routes and have been entering races for some time. I’ve had some magical experiences this year such as the 13 Peaks adventure, which included tagging some of the lesser known high points on the peninsula. But a recent race in which I took part, feels worthy of reflection as a learning experience in being present.


On Saturday, October 9, I ran the iconic Otter African Trail Run. The route follows some 40km of the spectacular Southern Cape coastline between Storms River Mouth and Nature’s Valley. It is quite an adventure and as I found out the hard way, the trail is as brutal as it is magnificent. I trained, but having changed my approach to the preparation for this race, I apparently overestimated my ability or underestimated the route, perhaps a little of both.


The first 5km were up and down and rough. And The Otter never lets up. Even though the trail is never higher than 150m or so above sea level, one can expect to accumulate over 2000m vertical gain along the way. There are over 7000 ascending stairs to navigate on the day. I started cramping at 16ks. 25ks in it was so bad my legs had completely seized up and I could not really move any more. I stopped, leaning against a tree, and contemplated abandoning the race. But since quitting unnecessarily is completely disempowering, and not really my style, I looked to other ways of managing my situation.


What would it be like, I thought, instead of wishing the pain away, to turn towards it with curiosity and care? To accept it, unconditionally. Even to invite it in as a guide. What followed was an impromptu ritual of forgiveness and gratitude. Forgiving myself for the situation in which I placed myself, and expressing gratitude for my body, and for the beauty of nature reflected by my surroundings. I picked up a sparking shell on the beach and placed in my pocket. Then I took one little step, followed by another little step. A few hours later I stumbled across the finish line — my body broken, my heart wide open.


It appears that interpretation is key, and that how we relate to what we experience, expressed by the words we use, can powerfully influence our lives going forward. I’m well aware of the dangers of catastrophizing and the related self-negativity which often follows. Despite the tendency to emphasise the negative aspects of our experience which seems to be hardwired into our psyche, I attempted to understand and relate to my experience differently. No, I didn’t describe myself as a failure for not achieving the finish time for which I was aiming. Instead, I celebrated completing what is normally a strenuous 4 day hike, during the course of a day and well within the cut off time.


That despite the challenges, I kept going, that I somehow found a way to reward and stimulate myself internally, is the big take away from my experience, and one from which I draw heart. It has been shown in research labs that when faced with extreme stress, that moving forward is the most empowering way to proceed, and that this way of navigating the choppy waters of what life throws under our feet builds up our resilience. Taking one little step in the right direction can be enormously uplifting. Doing this one thing is not random if contextualised and appropriately understood. Movement, after all, is life itself.


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