I push my body forward in one of the most familiar ways that I know how, yet my movements felt anything but familiar. My legs feel as though they have been coated in thick layer of wet cement; still malleable but heavily weighed down. Every step is labored and far more difficult than my body remembers. My heart races, and my lungs join in on this pathetic procession with an internal scream of their own.
I laugh as I picture what I must look like right now: red faced, gasping, and awkwardly lumbering along down the trail as if this was the first time I’ve ever attempted to use my legs, never mind run. My entire body is giving off self preservation signals, begging me to just freaking stop. But I keep pushing forward.
It’s one of the few things I know how to do well.
One of the benefits of having been perusing this running “thing” (career? Hobby? Call it what you will) for nearly 13 years now, 5 of them recklessly chasing ultra distances, is that I am no stranger to the act of suffering. The concept of “embracing the suck” is something that now comes as naturally as reaching for something to eat when my stomach growls.
Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t mean that I love to suffer. Hell, most of the time I don’t enjoy it, not even a little bit. The art of suffering also has nothing to do with running ability, I’m far from stellar athlete. It’s just that over the years I’ve learned how to acknowledge those signals – the ones where my body is telling me to stop – and quietly but firmly say:
We’re going to keep going.
As any experienced runner or endurance athlete can tell you, there are a number of reasons and factors that could lead to a lethargic feeling, “bad” run. Low blood sugar. Delayed onset muscle soreness. A hangover (hey, I’m just being honest). But this particular suck fest could best be described as the “out of shape” variety of a bad run. What makes the out of shape sufferfest even more grim is knowing that you were once at a fitness level where this exact same effort would have felt easy. Usually, this realization causes my ego to burn nearly as much as my quadriceps.
But today, I don’t feel that way.
In fact, it occurs to me that this might be the first time in my entire running career that I’ve not either beat myself up for falling out of shape, or freaked out about how far I am behind where I think I should be at this point in a training cycle for any given race.
Because for once, I’m not in a training cycle. I’ve got nothing on my race calendar, save for a “just for fun” adventure race coming up this very weekend. My ultrasignup registration list is empty. And the craziest part?
I’m not even mad about it.
A few months ago, I thought I would be. Everyone did. Hell, my husband still looks at me with a bit of surprise in his face when he says to a family member on the other end of the phone: “Yeah, she’s surprisingly doing really well!” He can’t believe it either. We have all been waiting for the “Heather doesn’t have a jam packed race calendar, she’s going to lose it” shoe to drop (it’s likely a Hoka). But surprisingly, it never did. In fact, the opposite has seemingly happened.
You see, the past few months have been a period of immense growth for me. During these last few dozen weeks I’ve learned a number of things, including (but definitely not limited to):
- Just because I can’t keep most succulents alive (or inadvertently kill them almost instantly) does NOT mean I do not have a green thumb. Rather, it seems I’m meant for tropical plants. You can’t over-love those suckers, they say “thanks for the extra water” and keep on growing.
- You are (I am) allowed to change, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Life is far too short, and this world far too immense, to laser focus on one thing forever.
- In the athletic/endurance realm: you don’t always have to do “more” and you don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Taking a year, two years, or hell, the rest of your life off from extreme events or ultra distances does not negate or devalue the finish lines you have already crossed.
(Though I know I’ll be back…)
- There is no right or wrong way to pursue a passion you love. Well, OK, maybe there is a wrong way, humans have an awesome ability to royally f*ck things up. But in the case of running, I’ve realized that running a 15 mile week does not make me any less passionate about running (never mind any less of a runner, get out of here with that nonsense) compared to running a 75+ mile week. And I realize how silly that may sound to some, but for me, learning to let go of these ridiculous expectations has been incredibly freeing.
Suddenly, the thought of being able to build my strength, endurance, and speed up at a leisurely pace (pun intended), without any pressure to “catch up” to a preconceived level of where I think my fitness should be, or once was, leaves me with a sense of peace I don’t think I’ve experienced before in the running world.
What’s more, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the fitness that was once lost, will come back again eventually. It’s not magic, it’s science. Take a much needed break from running, and fitness is lost. But start putting in the work again, and the fitness comes back.
It always comes back.
As this realization settles in, and despite the lead legs and labored breathing, a smile spreads across my face. The nearly 70 degree late winter but almost spring (so close!) sun warms my soul just as much as it warms my shoulders. And I’m overcome with a feeling of euphoria. Dare I say…a runners high.
I’m back. It might look a little different this time, but I’m back.