The Slow Comeback
It’s time to rewind. A blog that used to be filled with stories of 20 milers, long trail runs, and 60 mile training weeks is going to look very different for a while.
Chemo is over. It’s time to run.
I have been “wogging” (I can’t honestly call this running) 4 miles most days of the week. My plan is to stay at 4 miles and increase the time I run until I’m running the entire distance.
Once again I’m reminded of how great “just” walking is. I walked as often as I could during chemo, but it wasn’t far because of the extreme fatigue. It’s taken me two full months to run half a mile without stopping, but all those weeks of walking have made me strong enough to even attempt it.
Since I finished chemo I’ve been very impatient, expecting to get back into shape within a few weeks and pick up right where I left off. It’s not going to happen. This body was beaten down pretty hard and it’s taken longer than I thought it would to return to running.
I’m okay with that. There’s no hurry. Really. I’m happy just to be moving again. Right now I don’t feel that old urge to push myself further and further. Maybe it will return one day, but for now there’s no training spreadsheet or running log calling my name.
My first goal is to run a mile without stopping. One mile seems like a million right now, but at least I’m halfway there. My next goal will be to run the full 4 miles of my daily distance, and within the next two months I hope to loop White Rock Lake (9 miles) with some walk breaks included.
Though I feel stronger every time I run, it is very, very hard to come back from being sedentary for six months. And I wasn’t just sedentary, I was being poisoned two weeks out of three from chemo drugs. It’s a serious understatement, but I’m glad that’s all over with.
One thing I noticed right off the bat when I first started running again was that I was keeping my old pace on my short run segments. I could only run for about a block before I was completely out of breath and wanted to die, but I wasn’t shuffling along. Alas, the brain remembers but the legs doth protest. It took me a few tries, but I finally figured out–just like when I first started running eight years ago–that I have to slow down to build up my distance and work on endurance first. Speed comes of its own accord.
Speaking of speed, my husband told me the other day that I have to start all over with my PR’s, as in “pre-cancer PRs” and “post-cancer PRs.” I cry foul! Nobody else has a cancer-imposed PR moratorium to deal with, so why should I? Husbands can be so irritating.
I almost always have marathon dreams a few weeks before a race. During those long months of chemo I inexplicably had recurring dreams of running in the snow. I could hear the crunch of the snow underfoot, feel the cold air on my face, and taste the overwhelming freedom of running. I have no idea why it was always snowing in those dreams, but I loved feeling that I could still run, if only in my dreams.
Now that we’re having an unusually cold winter here in north Texas (and I LOVE it), the snow has disappeared from my dreams, though I still have dreams of running effortlessly, breathing easily and without pain. Kind of like I used to.
I’m looking forward to running that way again, in real life. Soon. Very Soon.
The Selfishness of Our Obsessions
Most of us who run, bike, swim, or engage in other sports probably don’t consider our chosen activity to be an obsession. Those on the outside, however, may think differently about how we choose to spend our free time.
I run. My friends and I mostly run either before or after the sun comes up or goes down. We run in all kinds of weather and temperatures. Sometimes we run when we shouldn’t, namely when we’re sick or injured, and our days are pretty much built around our training schedules. We read books and magazines about running, write running blogs, talk, text, and keep up with Facebook pages about running, and some of us spend more money on running clothes and accessories than on anything else.
And we run half marathons, marathons, and ultra marathons. For fun.
You decide if it’s an obsession or not. Whatever you decide won’t change a thing for most, if any, of us. We love running, and it makes our lives better.
But how does it affect our loved ones and our non-running lives?
A few weekends ago Michael and I went to our friends’ house to watch a documentary called Ride the Divide. The documentary is about a 2745 mile long endurance bike race along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico and captures the difficulty, hardship, and loneliness of a race that takes six to ten weeks to complete.
At one point, Matthew, the leader of the race, questions what he is doing (he’s already won the race the previous four years), especially in light of the fact that his wife is having a baby in the next three weeks.
Carol, one of our hosts for the evening, made the comment that she thought that was “so selfish” of him to be spending so much time away on a race when his wife was about to have a baby. Another friend, Darrell, agreed. I stayed quiet.
I wasn’t quiet because I disagreed with her. I remained silent because I had said the same thing several years ago about someone else.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. The title pretty much says it all. For me the most gut wrenching part of the book is when one of the stranded climbers is able to talk to his pregnant wife via satellite phone. It’s the last conversation they will ever have, and they both know it. Through my tears I thought to myself, “What a selfish thing for him to do, climb Mt Everest when his wife is going to have a baby.”
Years later I read that his wife was also a climber, and they had previously climbed Everest together. She knew full well the risks involved in marrying a climber and I doubt that she saw his climbing as “selfish.” The wife of another climber who died that day said, “I would feel cheated if Scott had been killed in a car crash. He deserved to die on Mount Everest.” (full article here)
I suspect it is the same for the wife of Matthew, five time winner of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race, and most other wives–and husbands–of athletes who have a passion/obsession for what they do.
But what about the rest of us? Most of us aren’t spending weeks away from our families doing what we love, but the hours we spend putting in the training miles, along with the occasional weekend destination races, do take their toll. My friend Liz, mother of two teenagers, once made the comment during one of our Saturday morning long runs that she felt selfish for running so much because it took time away from her children and husband.
I was surprised by her saying that, especially since her husband is also a runner. My own two children were already in college when I took up running, so it was never something I had to grapple with. I wondered if I would have felt that same way if they were still home.
Is it really fair to call something selfish if you love it so much, and see the value it brings to your life? Would our marriages and family lives really be better if we didn’t do something we loved, if we gave them all our time and didn’t keep some of it for ourselves? How much is too much? Do the rules change when we have children?
When does it go from doing something that makes you happy to doing something that makes you selfish?
Personally, I think it’s something that has to be discussed and decided upon between each person involved. Asking someone to give up something they love doing because it may be dangerous, or takes too much time away from the family, may be asking too much. Like most things in a relationship, each person has to be true to themselves, and some negotiation and compromise has to take place.
Joseph Campbell said, follow your bliss. But if one person’s bliss is another person’s agony, and our endeavors are seen as selfish and obsessive by the ones we love, it could be a high price to pay for happiness.
Long Run: No Matter How Much It Hurts, Just Keep Moving
Saturday we ran our first 20 mile long run in anticipation of the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa. It was warm and humid, and I was still ridiculously sore from a full day of gardening two days prior. I was sore in places not usually challenged by running, and I knew it would only get worse the farther I got into the run.
M woke up when I did at 4:30AM and commented on all the fire trucks and sirens he heard all night. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then remembered it was the Texas/OU game. I heard the low rumble of bass from a passing car outside our house and later noticed there was much more traffic as I drove to meet my friends.
Usually we have the streets of Dallas to ourselves on these early Saturday morning runs. And when you run 20 miles, you cover a lot of city streets.
It was warm and humid when we started at 5:30AM, 73 degrees and 76% humidity, but thankfully there was a brisk breeze to keep us cool. It was also overcast, which is always welcome on a Texas long run, regardless of the season.
There were six of us who started, and the usually quiet streets were already awake with Texas/OU fans. Some we could tell hadn’t made it to bed from last night’s downtown debauchery; others were either en route to the game itself or a bar where they could snag a seat to watch the game on HD.
We ran one of our favorite routes, which takes us downtown past the public library, city hall, the Old Red Courthouse, the JFK Memorial, and Dealey Plaza, which is the exact location where JFK was assassinated from the 6th floor of the School Book Depository. We stopped to look at the two X’s that are permanently marked on the road to show where he was killed, and to look at the window where Lee Harvey Oswald stood that day and changed history.
I’m always happy to hit the halfway point in a long run, but at 10 miles my legs already felt like they usually do at mile 24 of a marathon. They were really, really sore, almost to the point where I felt like I was limping. I probably won’t be able to walk tomorrow, I thought, and trudged on.
An on and on and on. Through downtown, over the trolley tracks and cobblestones of McKinney Ave, along Turtle Creek and the opulence of Highland Park, and up the Katy Trail. Keep moving.
I finally fell apart around mile 17. My legs cried uncle and I had to walk. Normally this would feel like a defeat so close to the finish, and I would come in with my head hanging low, but I knew better than to push it. 20 milers are notorious for causing injuries, and starting on sore muscles was only asking for trouble. Hari, who is not even training for a marathon, needed to back off as well, and we walked it in together. After more than 4 hours of running, my feet were aching.
No matter how much it hurt, though, I was loving it.
Two weeks ago I had a fantastic 18 mile long run. The weather was cool and I felt strong and smooth. On the drive home, I had the thought that I’ve had many times after a long run: I wish I had the energy to keep going. As in, keep running all day, for the rest of the day.
When I’m not training for a marathon, the thought of a 20 mile long run causes me to shudder in wonder and revulsion. I forget that it’s simply a matter of building up the mileage, week by week, run by run, until it’s not only possible, but attainable. I forget how much I enjoy it.
There’s something about the long run that keeps me coming back. Part of it is the challenge of pushing myself physically and mentally beyond my previous limits. Part of it is being outdoors when most of the city still sleeps, when the only thing that matters is making it to the next water stop. But mostly, it’s the fellowship of running mile after mile with a group of people I’ve grown to love, people who know exactly what I’m made of, who’ve seen me when even my worst was the best I could give.
It’s difficult to explain. Something happens when you’re having a good long run. Something clicks in your brain. Body and mind come together and everything flows.
No matter how tired you are, life funnels down to only one thought: keep moving. That’s all you have to do, keep moving. It’s stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. There’s nothing else that needs to be done, nothing that needs to be worried about, nothing other than this one thing that you love: RUNNING.
Warming Up and Hitting My Stride
When I first started running it was all I could do to make it through one mile. It was tough, but like most new endeavors, I threw myself into running with fervor and enthusiasm. I quickly built up to two miles, but it took me awhile to figure out pacing. Finally, the day came when I could run three miles and not feel like I was going to die.
That doesn’t mean it felt good. Six years later, the first three miles are still tough.
It took me a long time to figure this out. The midweek three and four milers always seemed so much tougher than my Saturday long runs. I quickly knew I was a true long distance runner because I always enjoyed my long runs more than my shorter midweek runs. Once I got past the first three miles I was good to go. I remember many six mile runs at the lake when I thought I would have to walk back to the car at the turn-around, only to get a second wind around mile five and feel like I could run the whole lake.
Now that I’ve been running for almost six years I’ve noticed it takes me even longer to hit my stride. The first three miles are still not pleasant, but it isn’t until after the first six miles that my running starts to feel smooth and effortless. I noticed this the first time when I ran an easy five miles before a 15K race. I was surprised at how great I felt after the first mile of the race (which was really six total miles into the run). I ran fast, too, and placed in my age group that day. It’s happened to me several times since, and I’m always amazed at how fast I can run after already putting in five or six miles before a race.
I know elites and competitive runners tend to do a slow warm-up run before a race, and this is comparable, but I’ve always suspected there was more to it than that. I finally came across what I think is an explanation.
In his book The Marathon Method, Tom Holland writes about getting new runners to the point where running is enjoyable, and isn’t such hard work. He says most people who start running quit when they get up to two or three miles because they never reach that point of ease that I wrote of earlier. He calls this “the ‘cardiovascular turning point,’ or CTP, a physiological state that occurs after running for a certain amount of time during each workout.” Just like I’ve experienced, he says most people reach this point after thirty or forty minutes of running, which generally equates to about three miles. He also says this:
Over time the CTP is pushed back. In other words, after you become accustomed to running long distances, namely two hours or more, your body seems to “need” to go farther and you will experience the CTP at fifty minutes, an hour, or longer. This doesn’t mean that you are in discomfort until that point. It seems that once you have greatly increased your endurance, the human body almost wants to be challenged further and the CTP is pushed back.
This makes perfect sense to me. Even though it is somewhat irritating that I have to run six miles before my running becomes more flowing and effortless, now I know it isn’t merely my head telling me those first three miles or so are hard work. They really are. But after that, when I hit my stride and find that place where I feel like I can run forever, it makes it all worth it.