When You’re Smiling, the Whole World Smiles with You

Posted on June 14, 2013. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

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If there’s one thing that bothers me it’s being ignored.  Not by my mom or siblings or friends, but by complete strangers.   It seems odd to me to pass another person and not make eye contact, whether I’m in a hallway, on the sidewalk, or in a grocery store.  I find it especially weird to not acknowledge someone when we are the only two people in sight.  Like, say, on a trail in the middle of a forest.

I try to be a friendly everywhere, even when I run.  I like to smile and say hello to everyone I encounter. On long runs, however, I may not always smile at passers-by. If you catch me in the last quarter or so of my run, you may get only a nod, a flick of the hand in your general direction.  Eye contact, for sure, but it may be the case that all the extra energy I have is expended by looking at you.

However, I rediscovered something during last weekend’s long run.  The power of a smile.  I don’t mean how a smile affects the recipient—at some point in my run I really don’t care. I just want to get the damn thing over with and get back to my car.  I mean the power a smile can have on your energy level.

I started my run a little later than usual last Saturday on a trail I haven’t run since February.  It was packed—alarmingly packed—with people of all persuasions:  Runners, walkers, bikers, stroller-pushers, dog-walkers, meanderers, and even kids on Big Wheels.

I found all these people to be a challenge.  On the one hand, I was happy they were there, particularly the runners.  My competitiveness piqued and I ran a little bit faster because of it.  On the other hand, there were so many people (dogs, bikes, walkers spread in a horizontal line across the trail—and even a startled deer) to dodge that I initially found it difficult to get into my own head space.

But once I was there, it was bliss. Thank God. The reason (one of many) I run.

Since it was later in the morning than dawn, the Texas sun was up and blazing.  Since it was later in the morning than I’m used to, I didn’t think to bring a hat or sunglasses.  I headed back to my car squinting into the sun, sweating profusely, and probably not quite the friendly runner I try to be.

Before long, my squint screwed into a scowl.  I didn’t really notice it, however, until a pack of people came into eyeshot, walking slowly toward me.  Somehow, I had been running a stretch of trail virtually alone. Just me and the cardinals and an errant mosquito or two.  Bliss. Thank God.  Another reason I run.

Because I had such a long stretch alone, I forgot about people, pulled into my head, and apparently twisted my face into a grimace.  When I passed this mob of walkers, I forced myself to make eye contact, and I smiled.

Incredibly, all the tension in my body melted away.   A simple smile loosened my facial muscles, which are connected to my neck muscles, which are connected to my shoulder muscles, then back, arms. You know the song.  It’s all connected, and like a ripple the tension throughout my body released.  I felt stronger, lighter, and faster.  In short, I hauled.

And then I remembered that I had heard this before from numerous sources:  We tend to clench our jaw, tighten our face when we’re stressed.  If we can remember to relax our face, our whole body loosens and we de-stress.  What better way to relax your face than to smile?

So I tested this theory for the rest of my run by making faces.  I must have scowled, grimaced, frowned, glowered, glared, smirked, and puckered, then alternately smiled, beamed, grinned, and glimmered.  It was amazing what a difference a simple expression could make in the whole experience of my run—my pace, gait, attitude, and posture improved remarkably.

I made it back to my car and walked around the park a bit, drinking water, cooling down.  Another group of walkers I vaguely remember passing must have parked there too, because they came back loudly, chatting it up.  Until they saw me.  They stopped, quieted down, and gave me a wide berth.  I guess I had forgotten to pay attention to passers-by mid-experiment.

I made a point of walking by them as I left.  I smiled, Chesire cat-like, and nodded.  They averted their eyes nervously, as if I wasn’t there.  For once, I didn’t mind being ignored.

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