I woke up on a recent Thursday morning with the old creeping ache deep in my shoulder sending tendrils down the long boneshaft of my arm and I knew I’d done it again. What is the matter with me?
Is it because I made that joke, months ago now, surely long forgotten by the demon who controls these things? I had just come home from a long swim. I could no longer run (my drug of choice) because I’d wrecked my left foot and right knee months before, overused into long injury. I hadn’t raced since October; it was now January. I told my husband (who else to tell?) how many yards I’d swum that morning between 5 and 6:30 a.m., well before the kids get up, well before he has to leave for work. I’d swum 4300 yards, much of it butterfly and backstroke (breaststroke hurts the knee). I felt somewhat strong, felt my life unexpectedly knitting together from the raveled fragments of my “I-can’t-run” alter ego, a fierce and fiery thing that lives in the pit of my stomach, must be fed often and well.
“Great,” my everloving husband replied to my boastful compilation of yardage. “You’ll swim your way to a shoulder injury next.”
“OH, give me a shoulder injury, please!” I said, blithely ignoring the cursed voice down in the pit, the one now secretly tumbling to life, moaning down there, “AHHhhhhhhh.”
“At least with a shoulder injury I could run,” I said.
But that was so long ago. That was before I became somewhat addicted to swimming, had made temporary peace with the not-running thing, had in fact signed up for a 6-mile open water swim race now looming just three months away. Can’t run. Can’t swim.
What’s to become of me?
There are people, many people, indeed most people based on the live responses I’ve been getting, who would revel in this idea of enforced rest. A vacation! Put your feet up! Read a book! Not for me.
That’s the million dollar question. People blessed with the gift of insight may well have answered this question for themselves long ago. I see them out there sweating up and down the roads day after day, running, biking. What’s chasing them? Who? Do they know? They must know.
These thoughts come up only when I’m injured, out of the game. There is a pattern, a somewhat inherent logic. I see it now. I’m 45 years old and I finally see the pattern. Run, run more, run too much, injure, repeat. But how I got here and why I stay here, that I cannot figure out.
I don’t think much about running at all when I’m actually running. Out there on the road or trail, I think about everything else. It’s a little mental vacation. I sit back and watch my thoughts go by. It’s the only time I really do that, and I think it’s a bigger part of my life than I realize.
When I’m not running, I’m obsessed. All I think about is running. When will I run again? How far? Which route? Hills? Speed? With whom? Alone? Mostly I run alone, but I love my running friends. They get me like no one else does. All of this makes perfect sense to them.
Most days, uninjured days, let’s for the sake of argument call them normal days, I get up at 3:45 a.m., having gone to bed around 10 the night before. Sometimes I sleep right through, but here in this perimenopausal stage of life there’s no guarantee of that. Sleep is no longer automatic. Nothing is. I make coffee in my French press, half or quarter caffeinated depending on the sleep situation. I fill the press about a third full of boiling water from the kettle, heat about a third cup of soymilk in the microwave, and then combine. I add a bit of honey or brown sugar or Agave nectar, maybe even white sugar if it’s all we have. None of this is precise. It’s drug making, not hard science. I know hard science because I failed at it. But I make one hell of a cup of coffee.
Then I sit in a chair, precisely the same chair every morning, eat a Vann’s Gluten Free Waffle, and try to write for an hour. It’s the only time of day I can actually think. Facebook and email beckon like the devils they are, and I do my best to resist. Often Facebook and email win. But when they don’t and I actually get something written, which is rare enough, I feel like I’ve done the right thing.
And then I run, or more recently, swim. I go for about an hour and a half. Hard. On weekends I run for hours. I start early and run all morning. The races I sign up for usually top out at 50 miles, but I have done 100. There is no methodology to this training system. There are no schedules, no particular goals, no cycles, no easy weeks, and very few days off. I have no data. I don’t know how far I run in a week, how far I swim (that 4300 yard figure I mentioned earlier was guessing), how many calories I burn, how much total elevation I gain, none of that. I don’t keep track. I usually do weights or a second run or spin class later in the evening during the kids’ swim practice at the Y.
I have the great gift of an hour and an half most evenings to do whatever I want and I choose to do a second run or lift weights or spin class. I choose one of these three every time. Why? Why do I wonder why my body isn’t holding up? Why does this baffle me so much?
I guess I actually don’t see the pattern. Not really. Maybe in retrospect. There is, it seems, a running sized hole in my head.
But these days right now are not “normal” days. I am injured. I am not in constant, tormenting pain, but I don’t want to get there. So I have stopped running. I am taking a month or two off. (I AM TAKING A MONTH OR TWO OFF.) And because my shoulder is sore because I signed up for this swim race and then immediately went out and swam 5 miles out of the clear blue sky, without any sort of proper build up, and then did not rest but continued to swim for the rest of the week as if nothing untoward had happened, I am no longer swimming either. Not for at least a week. Lucky for me, I have Lyme’s disease concurrent with all of this. So perhaps this week or two off will not kill me.
There is the question of time, of course. If I can’t run and can’t swim, temporarily let’s keep in mind, what do I do with this huge swath of suddenly open time? Sleep? Nah. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right. Read? All the bearded Russians at long fucking last? Doestoevsky? Chekov? I loved listening to Tolstoy on my long runs last winter, back when I was running way too much, but couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Magic Mountain?
I chose Magic Mountain. This was back in January. I was just coming off a long Virginia Woolf binge and I thought Hesse might be the antidote. Sort of the opposite of Virginia Woolf. I had pertussis at the time, so I bundled up in my Patagonia down jacket, thrillingly purchased during last fall’s half off sale, and sat myself in a plastic Adirondack chair on the deck we built last summer to read Herman Hesse’s classic tale of not-much-going-on-in-the-tuberculosis-sanitorium-high-in-the-Alps. It seemed so appropriate. I’d started the book at least twice before, but never gotten past the first third. This time I made it half way before giving up, derailed by Haruki Murakami and Cheryl Strayed. I read 1000 pages of 1Q84 in less than three weeks, and then zoomed through Wild in under three days. I want to hike the PCT! I want to go to Japan!
I am invincible!
I am not invincible. Clearly. But why do I fail to grasp that again and again. Is it a failure to properly grow up? To acknowledge one’s age? Why do I even need to feel invincible? Why does anyone? Outside of all the ridiculously arduous and long events and races I sign up for (which fill up fast, by the way, indicating that I am not alone here), what in god’s name do I think I’m training for? The Trueheart Badass Motherfucker Award?
I have always said that I would have made an exceptional pioneer. Outside all day in all weathers chopping wood and chasing down chickens, a passel of well behaved, oh so helpful children chipping in, trailing behind. A twenty-five mile trip to the general store? Laughable. I’d be back before sundown. On foot no less. In fifteen inches of snow.
Or maybe not. I’d have been dead at 23 without modern medicine. Felled by a burst appendix. Mine was gangrene by the time they took it out. I’d had stomach pains for years. Badass Motherfucker, I’m telling you.
But I’m not a pioneer, obviously. I live in an era of high luxury. We all do. You have to make a conscious effort to get outside these days. Everyday life includes almost no exercise, though here at our house we do chop and burn wood. I’ll say that for us. But again, this is a choice. There’s plenty of oil in the furnace to heat the house. At least for now.
I was adopted at the age of 10 weeks into a largely sedentary family. I swam on teams and was running 10K’s by the age of 11. No one understood any of this, but they did their damdest to support me. My father, bless him, drove my friend Joanne and me hither and yon to adult road races he’d found for us in the paper. He’d follow the course as best he could, often through the busy streets of Boston, on an old upright bike he’d salvaged from the town dump. Not much for cheering, he’d clap for us as we trotted by. “You look great,” he’d say, barely audible, his voice lumpy and breaking. I know there must have been tears in his eyes. Other people screamed louder, encouraged by children on the course, but they didn’t know us. “Go, boys!” they’d scream at the top of their lungs.
My own daughter has some of this, as do her brothers, but not as much. At the age of ten she swims for two hours every night with the teenagers on her swim team and will not be talked out of even one night off. I cannot tell you how happy and relieved this makes me. Perhaps it’s all genetic, simple as that. I have been programmed in my DNA to want to get up at 3:45 to run or swim or whatever I choose to do to wear myself out on any given day. I’m not really fighting demons; I’m doing what I am supposed to do, channeling thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers, people on the move, survivors.
But my original question stands. Why do I always seem to take it too far? Why do I beat myself up over and over until I’m injured? Sabotaged? And then why do I get so frustrated when I can’t run? What’ so wrong with taking a goddamn rest?
Again, I rarely ask these questions when all cylinders are firing. I simply go about my business, hard wired evidently to the endorphin rush. It’s only when the system breaks down that the more considering, philosophical part of my brain takes over.
There are the obvious answers. Lead most among so many endurance junkies are body image issues. Let’s say it plainly: I don’t want to get fat. But nobody does. I cannot imagine anyone in this society at this particular time in history actually setting out to get fat. It just happens. It’s incredibly easy to do. And yet, I have never been and likely will never be, bony and thin. No one would ever come up to me on the street and offer me a sandwich. No one could reasonably call me too thin. “Too thin,” short of unnatural starvation, is not my body type. Fit, yes. Skinny, no. I have a glacial, diabolically slow metabolism. I will always be average size. Size 8, or sometimes with these new deflated sizes, size 6. Big boned, say what you will. I am not terribly thin. If that’s the goal, it ain’t working.
So, there must be something more going on here.
I simply like to run, to swim, to wear myself out. Could it be as simple as that? I don’t know. I like to do a lot of things and I don’t knock myself out making time for them, don’t miss them like crazy when they’re gone. Do I? I like to read, write, cook, work in the garden. But given the choice I’d run before any of these things. Running falls behind parenting on my list. Just about everything does. My kids are at lovely ages, 7, 9 and 11. We spend our days together, viscerally attached (we homeschool). They come sit on my bed in the evenings when I’m trying to read, trying to get some sleep, just to chat. I watch their faces as they tell me stuff and I am totally absorbed. It’s like I’m enchanted by these beautiful faces and all the unexpected things they’re telling me.
Okay, I’ll take my children over running. My husband, too. Toss him in the mix. My friends. But which friends? Do I have to choose? I choose not to choose.
That said, running makes me a better parent, better spouse, better friend. I’m sure of that. Especially when the kids were little and so much more demanding of time and attention. I’m and introvert, for chrissake. I need a little space. Recharge the battery, so to speak. But how much recharging does a person really need? An hour a day? Two? Three?
I have almost forgotten what it’s like to run for hours, it’s been so long. Running for hours today would mean undoing months of not-running. Months of so called healing. I can manage five miles a couple of days a week right now, and I have to make that feel like enough. This too is a challenge. Recovery is long and slow requiring the kind of patience I wish I had. And it’s so easy to misstep. The aches and pains sneak up on you mid-run, a little at a time, like a frog put in cold water set slowly to boil. The little twinges you ignore. The steady strain you explain away. (It’s the healing process! I’m releasing all the bad stuff!) And by the time you finally turn for home you don’t even notice that you’re limping a little bit, that you’ve gone and done it again and it will be another two weeks before you run again, all that time and patience undone in a single afternoon. It’s enough to freaking kill a person.
You find yourself saying things like, “If I could just run 5 miles every day, nothing more, I’d be satisfied.” But it isn’t true! That’s just the voice of desperation talking. You’re greedy, plain and simple. 5 miles a day simply ain’t gonna cut it. No one trains to run 50 or 100 miles on 5 miles a day. Insane to even consider it.
So I’m working on patience. I’m training myself to be patient, which is in itself an excellent exercise. It’s all I can do. It has to be enough.
(Ah, so easy to end like that. So tidy. If only life were this true.)