Finding Presence in Running
By Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen and Daniel Marin Medina
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Dec 15, 2022
Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen and Daniel Marin Medina
Issue 1
Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen and Daniel Marin Medina met in New York through the running community. Once they found each other in Berlin again, they reconnected through their love for the sport and have since started a new project: the WAYV RUN KOLLEKTIV. Through WAYV, they empower and embrace the politics of putting black/brown, queer, female, trans, Muslim, different, underrepresented and marginalized bodies into motion. Together with their weekly training group, they serve an open and inclusive conversation that challenges the satatus quo and thus, the members create a progressive perspective of Berlin and the world. On a lovely May morning, Huyen and Daniel sit down over brunch to discuss their meditation and running practice.

DANIEL: When did you start meditating? Did someone introduce you to it?

HUYEN: Forms of meditation have always existed in my life. My family would pray in front of the altar, and I would watch them growing up. We would also go to temples where I would see other people meditating. One of my art teachers introduced us to art therapy and made us "imagine colors and shapes", leading us into meditative states. But the first time I read about meditation was when I was 14. My teacher asked me to hold a presentation on Buddhism because I was the only Asian in my class. So, I went to the library and found out about Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He was friends with Martin Luther King and is still alive. He built a monastery in France and Upstate New York, and I really felt connected reading his books. He is one of the pioneers who brought mindfulness into our Western everyday life. He talks about mindful eating, mindful walking. In 8th or 9th grade, I led a meditation in front of the class.

DANIEL: Honestly, I don't remember when the shift happened because, in retrospect, I've always been doing some form of meditation, just not knowing that it's what I was doing, like with drawing. Similar to Buddhist monks practicing repetitive acts, how you get lost in the motions and it becomes a form of active meditation where you are lucid, but your mind can wander. The type of stuff that I draw or the process that I do for drawing is very ritualistic. I have very specific music that I play and then just make tiny movements with my hand. Throughout that whole process, I'm hyper-focused on these feelings, and once the drawing is done, the whole process is too. The realization of that being meditation though didn't come until much later. With running, it's absolutely a form of meditation. When I first began, I wouldn't think, "Oh, let me go actively meditate." That was just a byproduct of what this thing sets you up to be able to do. Running is the repetitive balance of you, your breathing, your thoughts, and when you can find that super pure running and it goes beyond competition, that's amazing. That's the stuff. When else do we get to do that?

HUYEN: I think that's also how I started running. I never played sports in school, but when I lived with this family in New Jersey, my host mom - who was a super busy doctor with three kids - every single day, no matter how stressful it was, no matter how many babies she delivered, at 5 or 6 PM, she would come home and go run. Just for herself. That was the timeframe in the day where she was present for herself. When she motivated me to start running, I was like: "Fuck this after 15-20 min. This is so annoying, you know?" Eventually, later on, when I worked myself up to 45 or 60 minutes, I felt like I really needed it. I need that every single day.

DANIEL: Those first 10/15 minutes for everyone is just adjustment - it just feels weird. Your body doesn't know what it's doing, but then you fall into a rhythm.

HUYEN: And I think that was the beauty when running didn't feel hard anymore, but instead just like a flow. And it's hard to explain when people ask me: what do you think for the whole time? Because you're not listening to music, so what do you tell yourself? I'm always like: well, I don't think of anything.

DANIEL: You don't have to think of anything. It's so nice to fall into that pace where you feel like you could run literally forever.

HUYEN: That's how I felt during the Berlin Marathon in 2017.

DANIEL: I felt that during the past Berlin Half Marathon. It was such a nice realization to look down at my legs and look inside of myself and think: "Oh shit, I think I could do it."

HUYEN: That's amazing. When you find that space, especially for such a long time on your feet. The first 10km, I was present and aware, but it was so weird. At times, I felt like I was in a dream, and at a few specific points, I would just have to wake up like: oh shit, I'm running this marathon right now. I would look at my watch and see that I ran faster than I had trained for, but I tried not to be controlled by time. So, I tried to flow with it. It felt like a film strip, pictures and thoughts were just passing my mind, and I was just observing them. Then again, you're fucking running, which is insane. Interestingly enough, yesterday I was also thinking a lot about owning your body and owning yourself and taking, reclaiming control over it. And especially in the media and the world we live in today and especially as a minority and as a woman, you’re always concerned about safety. Surprisingly, it wasn't until I started running at 19 or 20 that I developed a relationship with my body and felt a sense of ownership over it. Before that, my body was just something that existed. Through running, I gained a better understanding of my body and its abilities.

DANIEL: For me, running coincided with a time when I was exploring my sexuality and didn't see my body as powerful. However, I noticed that successful runners had bodies that looked like mine, just a different color. I knew I needed to take advantage of this and gain control over my own body. Like you, I realized that I live in my body and it's important to know its limits and capabilities. It's amazing to have such a clear connection with every part of your body and know how it looks from both your perspective and someone else's. Only through running and sometimes dancing, do I feel truly present with my body.

HUYEN: I love that you can take that, after you have built a relationship to your body. After you spent more time moving and exercising and having control over your own body, I felt like “Wow!” I felt so empowered because I have control over not only my body but my life. Control over the next steps I’m taking, my destiny. And it’s amazing to translate that confidence that you gain through movement, through exercise, through running. Yoga does the same thing for me and you can take it to every aspect of your life. From being in relationships, to school, to work and more.

DANIEL: And this is what I’m saying, that a specific group of marginalized people can really benefit so greatly from finding that power over your own body. It’s these bodies who, because of certain social structures, aren’t allowed to feel in control of themselves black/brown bodies, the bodies of women, trans bodies - whose bodies are constantly subject to an outside oppressor. Running can allow them to feel in control over their own bodies. How do you stay present in running? Is there something you do?

HUYEN: I mean there is no music. No headphones. Maybe one out of a thousand times a podcast, but also not really. As anyone who would start meditation, I focus on my breathing. I think that has been interesting, it’s like my superpower. Having practiced a lot of yoga, having practiced a lot of meditation, I have gotten better at understanding how to control my breathing. When you can, in a stressful situation, especially in the last 400 meters in a race from a 5k to a marathon, if you can have control over your body and your breathing, you won. A lot of long distance running is having your breathing and your heart in check.

DANIEL: For this past marathon, I really only trained for two weeks. SI should not have done that race. I hadn’t done any strength training and my body was just weak. During the runs leading up to the race, I got these crazy stomach pains and I didn’t know what it was. It happened during the race, two miles in just terrible, terrible stomach pains. At mile 18, it was unbearable and I didn’t know how to keep it down. From then until the end, all I did was count my breaths. Inhale one, exhale two up to 10 and then repeat from mile 18 all the way to the finish. I don’t know how many times that is, but that is the only thing that got me to the end, keeping some control over what my breathing was doing.

HUYEN: Yeah. It works in 99.9% of the cases, where focusing on your breathing saves you. If you can control your breathing, everything else follows. And even in everyday life, let’s say you’re in front of a computer and you will see a very bad email or bad news. What I try to do then is step away, meditate or focus on my breath. To get back to yourself. For example on Friday, I mean I called you that morning when I had a very stressful phone call before and then, you encouraged me to just sit down anywhere really. So, I just sat down on the ground in front of my office and then meditated for five minutes. I felt so much better.

DANIEL: Yeah. That is the greater lesson.

HUYEN Also, I just love going outside to run in the mornings to see how the seasons change. To check if it’s going to be a hot or cool day. To feel connected to our nature.

DANIEL: Yes like staying aware with yourself but also aware of and with your environment. Exactly. What are the things that are happening outside of the place you live in. I don’t think we get to do that very often because even when we walk outside, we have our phones, we have our music. Running is one of the only times where you don’t have to bring anything.

HUYEN: It’s also about what we allow ourselves, to not be on the headphones right, to choose to be present.

DANIEL: Running is so much more than exercise. If you’re just putting on your stupid mix to get through a run, you don’t have to get through a run. Like enjoy the ride. And that also means enjoy the hard parts and enjoy that you have to spit to the side and that maybe you might poop yourself or that you didn’t plan well enough. Why not? So you get to do that. Love it, but also hate it.

HUYEN: But mostly we love it.

This content was originally published in PRESENT
Issue 1

Running and meditation don’t necessarily share the same spaces, unless you allow them to by being present. For both Huyen and Daniel, running has become integrally intertwined with forms of meditation they practice throughout their lives. To truly stay present in running, Huyen and Daniel don’t run with music, push past the initial discomforts of getting moving, and allow themselves enough time to find a flow of active meditation to carry them through the tough parts. Follow both Huyen (@goldtogreen) and Daniel (@danielrennt) on their running and life journeys as they train on the streets of Berlin.

I met Dennis back in Cologne through Hermes Villena, Béla Pablo Janssen and the rest of the ComeTogether gang we used to run. Good times. I collaborated with Dennis many times before and it was a no-brainer to have him on board!
I was always fascinated by his mix of professions and passions, notably writing (fantastic) poetry and travel books and being a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and teacher. Also, shout-out’s to Sergio for the great layout!