Yesterday was my birthday and I have a lot to celebrate. I’m cancer-free, running again, and life has returned to some semblance of normalcy. Oh, and something I wrote is going to be published this month!
A few months ago, in the middle of chemo, I found out that a race report I wrote on my first 50K trail race in Palo Duro would be published in the running magazine Marathon & Beyond. I was thrilled, of course, but it was tough trying to do some minor editing and send off photos when all I really wanted to do was curl up in a little ball and sleep. Trying to make my brain stay focused and my fingers work on the keyboard was a challenge, not to mention the continually strong urge to vomit.
The editors were patient and kind with me, however, and the article will be appearing in the March/April edition–which means any day now it should be in the mail. If you don’t subscribe to Marathon & Beyond, you should. It really is the best running magazine out there. Almost all of the articles are written by real runners, people like you and me, who tell their stories about training, racing, and running. It’s a magazine that’s more like a small book, written by people who love running crazy long distances. That’s us, y’all! (And no one coerced me or paid me into saying any of this. It really is a great magazine, and not just because they published my race report.)
I haven’t written much lately. It’s taken me a while to settle back into routines and transition back to a regular life, whatever that is. I can’t play the cancer card anymore when it comes to housework or cooking, the kids have come and gone, and I’ve been putting a lot of work into the knitting business. And I have to admit, coming back to running after almost six months of surgery and chemo was much harder than I thought it would be. MUCH harder.
Those first few runs after my last chemo session were pretty rough. I could barely run ten steps before I was out of breath. I’m not exaggerating. I used to tell everyone I was starting back at ZERO with my running, but the reality is I started back at NEGATIVE 25. Chemo takes a lot out of you, and the fatigue has taken months to recover from.
So I started with walking. At first, it was only a few blocks with the dogs, then I felt strong enough to push it to three miles, then four. I added in small running segments, and celebrated when I was able to run one whole block without stopping, then two blocks. It wasn’t much, but it was monumental, all at the same time.
I decided four miles was the ideal distance for me, and my goal was to keep walking/jogging (AKA wogging) four miles until I could run the distance without any walk breaks. Interestingly, when I started running again, I picked right back up at my old pace. The problem, of course, was that my legs and heart weren’t conditioned for that pace, hence the fact that I was out of breath after ten steps. I needed to make myself slow down. I had to reteach my brain to slow down to a pace that I could more comfortably run. You would think this would happen automatically after such a long layoff, but it didn’t for me. I think this proves just how stubborn my brain truly is.
Running with my son’s girlfriend, Nicole, helped tremendously. She had never run before, and didn’t have any former running paces to mess with her brain. She naturally ran a pace that was comfortable for her, and it forced me to relearn how it felt when I first started running eight years ago–to slow down in order to run farther. This is all Running 101, but I told you I was stubborn. They say running is 90% mental, and this proves it (at least for me).
What also helped: the treadmill. Yes, doing the thing that makes me want to slit my wrists–running on the treadmill–helped the most to reprogram my brain to find the right pace. I set the speed to a very comfortable pace and ran TWO MILES without stopping. For me, this was huge. Just knowing I could run that far without having to stop and walk let my brain know that if I would just slow down, I could go farther. Duh.
After that mental breakthrough, it was Game On. Running was still hard, and I still had to take lots of walk breaks, but at least I was out there again. I ran only for time, noting each week how long it took me to cover the four mile distance. I decided to wear my Garmin one day just to see what my actual pace was, and of course it was a miserable run. Immediately, I got caught back up in my speed and trying to run faster than the last time. I ditched the Garmin afterwards and went back to the Timex. Eventually, a run/walk that used to take me 1:17:00 only took 51:00, including walk breaks. I wasn’t going to break any speed records, but that was unimportant. I was running again!
Now that I’m four months out from chemo, I’m still taking walk breaks. I’m walking less and less each week, and I’m slowly getting stronger. Yes, I’m frustrated that I’m still walking on a four mile run, but I vowed I wouldn’t beat myself up over this. Building up all the muscles and tendons in my legs again, not to mention making my heart stronger and more conditioned, just takes time. There’s no hurry. And some days, running four miles still makes me feel as tired as if I ran a half marathon.
I try to do yoga at least five days a week, and like before, I swear it makes me a stronger runner. I can’t recommend yoga enough. No matter what else happens with staying fit as I get older, I plan to keep doing yoga well into my 100’s (or longer).
My only goal for the entire year is to run at least four days per week. No races, just base building for an entire year. I haven’t always met my goal of consistency. Some days I use the cold temps as an excuse, other days the wind, some days I’m lazy, and a lot of days I just can’t get motivated to run alone. Running is hard now, and it used to be easy. Building up to my previous level of conditioning is going to take a long time, and I promised myself I would be patient. Running is definitely much harder when you’re just starting out, and I haven’t reached the point where it feels “easy” again. But I will.
Of course, my running buddies are all much faster than me now, and I hate holding others back, but they have been great about meeting for an occasional “wog” during the week. I’m also doing a long run every Saturday again, and my closest running friends have been nice enough to run with me. I’m up to 7 miles, and in a couple of weeks I plan on running my first post-chemo nine mile loop around the lake. It will be hard, but I can’t wait.
Most importantly, I’M ALIVE, and that’s the best thing of all to celebrate this birthday!
People are attracted to running for various reasons: they want to lose weight, they want to live healthier lives, it’s cheaper than a gym membership, you don’t need a lot of gear, they enjoyed running when they were kids, or they want to run a marathon before they reach a certain age. People who continue running, past the 5K’s, 10K’s, and half marathons, those who run longer distances and think nothing of going out for a Saturday 20 miler, are a particular breed of crazy.
Those are my people.
We have no problem pushing ourselves to run longer and longer distances, and then test our training in a race. We’re goal oriented and enjoy making plans. It’s our days off, when we should be giving our legs a rest, that we struggle with.
Today is a rest day. I have two scheduled each week, Mondays and Fridays. After giving everything I’ve got on the five days I run each week, I always look forward to the rest days.
It’s the unscheduled rest days that I struggle with the most. I suspect that’s true for most runners.
I run with a group of very experienced, serious runners. They train hard and race to PR. Many of them win races and place in their age groups. Every single one of them could write a book about how to train for a marathon and what not to do to get to the start line uninjured and ready for your best performance.
That doesn’t mean we follow our own advice.
Last Saturday at breakfast after our long run, my friend Kurt made the statement that runners are bad about doing two things: not resting enough and racing too often.
I actually think I’m pretty good on both fronts — but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it. I’m one of those strange birds who likes training more than racing. There is nothing like having a great race, where everything comes together — weather, training, nutrition, energy, course, mind — and you feel great from start to finish and pull off a PR. But I’ve had some pretty lousy races, too, and I struggle with getting past all the uncontrollable variables and still enjoying the race.
I’m in awe of people who race every weekend. I just don’t feel that urge. I like having two or three goal races per year and building up to and looking forward to that day. I like longer distances, and they take longer to train for. And I’m certainly not winning any races these days, so I don’t have the incentive of being first across the line each weekend to spur me on. The older I get, the less I care about speed and more about endurance and strength.
I used to love getting medals, but now they just sit on the wall in the back bedroom, pretty much forgotten and not all that important anymore. It’s rare to get a race t-shirt that’s made for a woman, so that’s never been a big draw. Now I’m all about the experience itself being the reward.
As for rest, I think I’m pretty good about listening to my body and taking a day off when I need to — even though I hate missing a run on the training plan. And I rarely take a complete rest day. I usually do yoga, which seems to give my legs the rest they need but also works out some of the kinks from the week’s training and loosens them up for the weekend long runs.
However, I was surprised at how frustrated I felt when I ran my first 50K a few weeks ago and had to take more rest days than any of my other friends who ran it. This is where age comes to play. It just seems to take me longer to recover these days. When yoga doesn’t help, I know it’s time to back off and give myself a complete rest day.
Post-race, except for the quads, I felt great. I was still floating on my happy cloud of accomplishment a week afterwards, and I wanted to run, dammit! My quads had other ideas, though, and every time I ran more than a few miles they tightened up and let me know I needed to be smart. A week later they finally felt good enough for a trail run, only I never seemed to warm up and felt fatigued and grumpy the entire run. This was another signal I needed to listen to: recovery takes time, and the body knows better than the mind.
So I backed off and lowered my mileage, and within a week I was back to normal. Lesson: rest is good, and recovery takes time.
We’ve all known people who didn’t give themselves enough time to recover and wound up battling one injury after another. We’ve probably done it ourselves. When you truly love running, and have your next race planned before you cross the finish line, it’s hard to not keep pushing yourself.
Just don’t forget to sometimes give it a rest.