Finding peace through mindful running

Posted at 6:08 PM, Jul 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-03 18:08:58-04

Marty Kibiloski is a competitive guy — in sports and life.

As a runner, he snagged an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia. He placed 56th in the Boston Marathon when he was 22 years old, finishing in just 2 hours and 23 minutes. He competed in the Ironman World Championship of triathlon. Oh, and along the way, he earned an MBA.

But Kibiloski was never satisfied with his achievements.

“I kept trying to prove, really, that I was good enough,” he said. “I would set a goal, I’d hit the goal and set a new goal, and that would continue and continue. So where do you stop? All that really does for you is make sure you’re never satisfied.”

Kibiloski was on track to become an Olympic runner when his coach died a few weeks before a qualifying race. He was devastated and made a grave error: He started out too fast and didn’t qualify.

“I was so tightly wound with my goal that I quit. I said, ‘that’s it: 2:25 (2 hours and 25 minutes), I’m a loser. I’m no good. I’m terrible,’ ” he said. “Those are the thoughts that I had. And so I threw out all my running gear and said, ‘I’m going to go on with life and just forget it, because I’m not any good.’ ”

Kibiloski was just as hard-driving as a sales account executive, and he started having problems with his wife. They had two children at home, but at the time, family was not his focus.

“I was too focused on my goals,” he said. “It takes a tremendous focus and physical energy to pull it off. To be real successful in business and sport can be all-consuming.”

After decades of living this way, “I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m not doing this right. My relationships aren’t as strong as I’d like them to be. I’m not in touch with who I am, and I don’t feel like I’m really enjoying life.’ ”

“But I had this long list of accomplishments,” he said. “So I went on a quest.”

How to run mindfully

Today, the 57-year-old is a coach with Running with the Mind, a company in Boulder, Colorado, that provides classes, retreats and online resources that teach runners how to enjoy the journey — not just the finish line.

Talk about a metaphor for life.

Turns out lots of runners are Type A goal-setters, just like Kibiloski.

“The people that, I think, are drawn to running are used to hard work and pushing themselves and tend to be goal-setters,” he said. “We start to compare ourselves to other people.”

This is where mindfulness, which employs the same principals used in yoga and meditation, comes in. Mindfulness is the basic ability to be fully present. It’s a mental state achieved by calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations without judgment.

Perhaps the best part is that it can be practiced anywhere, including on the running trail.

1) Notice your thoughts

“If things aren’t going well in the race, we start having thoughts like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m really slowing down,’ or ‘I’m not having a good day,’ or ‘I don’t feel so well,’ or ‘Three people just passed me. I feel terrible,’ ” Kibiloski said.

“If you bring mindfulness to that, you can notice that you’re having those thoughts, and we know those aren’t helpful. It drains energy from your body,” he said. “Your mind is listening to you, and it reacts.

“You won’t do as well in the event you’re trying to do, whether its training or racing, and then you also won’t feel good about yourself.”

So if negative thoughts creep in, here’s how to deal with them.

2) Focus on your breath or your body

“We might choose something specific to focus on. It could be our breath; it could be the sensations in our body. But generally, the intention is just to be aware of the present,” said Josh Weinstein, head of program development for Running with the Mind.

“If that awareness gets distracted by thoughts of the future or past or something we’ve seen and we’re not present, we just notice that and, without any reprimand or judgment, bring our attention back to the running and the sensations in the body,” he said.

“This is where we become more and more familiar with ourselves and our inner thoughts,” Kibiloski said. “And then we can decide which ones you want to hold onto and which ones you want to let go. And there’s a real benefit in doing that.”

In addition to paying attention to breathing or the sound of feet hitting the ground, “you can notice the beautiful trees, the sky, the trail in front of you,” Kibiloski said.

Runners also can spend time focusing on how their bodies feel while running — if a shin hurts or a hip aches — and slow down or make adjustments.

The most important thing for competitive runners is consistency, Kibiloski said. An injury could hinder training for months, so it’s better to catch problems early.

“You can be mindful in that way as well to prevent injury,” he said.

3) Hold goals more loosely

Kibiloski suggests holding onto goals less tightly.

“I can measure quality of effort, not time or stack ranking,” he said. “I can also have the criteria: Am I having fun at this? What can I do to make it more fun? Make that a goal versus the outcome.”

In the end, he said, “I’m happier, and my results are just as good.”

Running with the Mind holds retreats across the world that Kibiloski often coaches when he’s not working as a global account manager for an IT firm.

“There’s a disproportionate number of ultra runners that participate,” Weinstein said. “Eventually, they have to work with their minds. At a certain point, that’s the only thing that can get you across the finish line.”

Running with the Mind, the company, grew out of the book “Running with the Mind of Meditation” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a runner, Tibetan leader and head of a global network of more than 200 Shambhala Meditation Centers.

4) Your competitor is your friend

Kibiloski is also part of a group of runners in Boulder who’ve hit the trials together every Sunday for 20 years. The group includes hard-driving leaders of business and industry who’ve all come to the same conclusion: “You can achieve great things if you want to, and you can do it in a joyful way,” he said.

Beyond focusing on breath or body, they take a collegial view of competition.

Most running groups aim to train for an event, Kibiloski said. “Typically they are pushing the pace, maybe being too competitive in workouts with one another, which actually leads to overtraining and potentially leads to injury,” he said.

This group runs only as fast as the slowest runner on any given day.

“Not the slowest runner but whoever wants to go slowest that day, and we all stay together as a pack,” Kibiloski said. “I was trained by my coaches that my competitor is my enemy. The truth is, they are my fellow competitors. Without them, there is no competition. We’re striving together.”

For a guy who wished harm on his enemies as a young marathon runner, Kibiloski said his fellow salespeople at work now look to him when things get tough. He appears unrattled, they say.

And his wife? “We’ll be married 25 years this August,” he said.

A mindful runner, going the distance.