Maxine Greene, a brilliant teacher and educational theorist died in May of last year at age 96. Dr. Greene believed that creative thinking and robust imagining were the keys not just to an individual’s lifelong learning but to the thriving of a democratic society. She championed the view that children could be taught and encouraged to perceive the world not just as it is but as it might otherwise be. She challenged students to engage in the world “wide awake.”

Running wide awake is my current challenge. I don’t mean just tackling the pre-dawn jaunts that I have recently added to my mix (“fearly runs,” as my fiance calls them). I mean the kind of running that forces me to remain aware of my body moving through space. When I first met Marylee, my Pilates guru, she told me that a big difference between occasional runners and lifelong runners is that lifelong runners pay closer attention to their bodies. If I intended to run habitually during the decades ahead, she recommended I pull out the ear buds and listen to my body. She told me to stop when it hurts and be patient. She is helping me to think differently about my running. She is forcing me to focus on every step I take.

I work with Marylee because I am training for my second marathon. The first marathon was complicated by a severe back injury days before the event. This time around I have added regular Pilates training to try to get to the finish line without injury. But I am really working with Marylee because I want to do this for life.

After the first marathon I participated in a gait analysis with a physical therapist. Getting past seeing myself at close range run from all kinds of angles (blech!) I became fascinated by the physics of my running.

Different images of my gait came with captions like the following:

  • Over pronation in midstance—likely due to weak intrinsic muscles of the food and weakness of the ankle supinator muscles. Glutal weakness can also contribute to this.
  • Narrow base of support—this is evidenced by left foot crossing over midline of body, which may place increase stress of the muscles at the outside of the knee and hip.
  • This is the phase of gait where all your body weight is directly over the stance leg. Nine degrees of hip drop indicates weakness of lack of muscle activation at the left lateral hip. This increases stress from the hip down to the foot. Normal is about 4-6 degrees.
  • Increased vertical displacement—approximately 4 inches of displacement increases the amount of shock absorption your body has to control with each stride. This is commonly associated with overstriding.

Cool, right? But what was I going to do with all this information? While I continued to work on building core strength, my physical therapist layered in different exercised for me to correct bad running habits.

For example, to address overstriding, I worked to increase my cadence. I did this by running on a treadmill at an increasing tempo from a metronome. The physics of that are fascinating: in order to extend my running life, I need to increase the amount of steps I take. This unfortunately does not increase my speed—that is a whole other challenge to take on at a different time.

Eventually I transitioned to working with Marylee, my wonderful Pilates instructor, to receive a more holistic approach to what ails me. She does routine analysis of my posture and pays close attention to how my body responds when muscles become fatigued. She reminds me that running is mental, that movement is neurological, that just being aware of how I move helps to direct muscles.

At first I could barely run 3 miles without becoming exhausted. I was paralyzed by paying attention to everything I was doing while I was running. But she encouraged me that this mental fatigue was a great first step. The goal to getting me back on track was not quantity but quality. Now that I am about half way through training program for my second marathon, I have adapted several mantras that remind me of the neurological repositioning that will keep me going. The mantras and the ideas behind them follow:

Pull in and up. This is my main mantra. This reminds me while I run I have to pull muscles in from my lower abs, pull up through my belly button and mid-back, and carry forward through the top of my head. I have to pull in and up so that my weight does not collapse into my lower back and pelvis. I have to run taller with every step.

Lead with the left. I tell myself this because my hips are usually not square. My right leg is stronger and I need to train my left leg to share the weight. When I start to become fatigued my pelvis rotates, causing my right glute and my left inner thigh to overwork—both of which causeon my left knee.

Don’t roll. When I get tired, I roll my right ankle out, which causes an unequal distribution of weight when I land.

I have visual images that help too: I imagine myself being carried up and forward by a crane lifting me up by the ears. I think of myself running like a gorilla—landing square on both feet . . . somehow that helps.

There are times when I turn on tunes and just run, but generally the mantras keep rolling. Last check-in with Marylee, she showed me ways that my gait has changed over time: my stance is more square, my knees are tracking better, my core is taller and stronger. Apparently my muscle movement is adopting more sustainable patterns. However it is not habitual yet. When I run I have to remain wide awake.

Running like Maxine means that I am trying to run as I might otherwise be—a runner for life!

Jen Adams lives and runs in Chicago.