Thursday, August 30, 2012

My summer of tempered enthusiasm

I'm starting to notice a pattern in the careers of many (though certainly not all) ultra-runners, the famous and infamous as well as the mid- to back-of-the-packers. You discover the sport through a friend or blog or magazine article, run your first 50K, and fall instantly in love. You are, for most intents and purposes, a fairly laid back person with a seldom revealed, more intense dimension to your personality that points toward borderline ridiculous tests of endurance and strength. You tend perhaps to be the kind of person who "drives straight through" or "pushes on past" or "takes one last run" long after everyone else, all the normal people, have checked into a motel for the night or sought medical care or headed in for a hot toddy at the lodge. Suddenly in the midst of that first 50K, you find yourself unexpectedly surrounded by people like yourself. How unusual! Of course, you love these people. You bond. You want more of this.

So you train and you train and you race and you train. The world makes perfect sense to you now. You have a real "excuse" to go out and run as many miles as you want. You're training! You have 50 and 100 mile races in your future. These distances do not phase you. All of your new friends are running like this. All of your old friends think you're either superhuman or completely bonkers. You, however, are quite certain you have found your calling.

Things go along like this for a period of time. Maybe months, more likely years. For a lucky few, even decades. And then, inevitably (?) your body starts to rebel. Things don't work as well as they should. Body parts ache more than even you consider normal. You find yourself having to take breaks from running and this makes you sad. You have to think about backing off, about finding other outlets for all of that time and energy spent (gloriously spent!) running.

You must, in other words, temper your enthusiasm.

I haven't run an ultra since last October, almost a year ago. My foot and knee went south and remain doggedly un-well. I can run, but I don't dare take on 50 or 100 miles. I don't want to mess myself up for years and years. I do intend to get back to ultras, hopefully next year, but with a new sense of boundary and proportion. (I say that now; talk to me again in a year.)

So this summer I have, mostly through dire psychological necessity, tried to take on other challenges. My foot and knee do fairly well on flat ground, so I have focused a bit more on speed over the past few months. Track workouts, tempo runs, even some barefoot runs on the grass, you know, all of the stuff the real mountain runners shun entirely. And I like it. I like running fast on a track. It's a different kind of challenge, more intense and sharp, over quickly, but my-o-my. My kids are in on it as well. Inspired by the Olympics, they literally beg me to take them to the track every day. They're 7, 9 and 11, those magical years when you believe it entirely probable that you too will someday stand on the podium and hear your national anthem. They have clipboards and charts for their times. And they keep me on my toes. I'm not fast. But they are.

I have also re-discovered biking this summer. I've reconnected with some of my old biking friends from my pre-kid triathlon days. I like it. Even the hill repeats. I love moving quickly over bigger distances. Nothing hurts on the bike. Never mind that I more or less suck at it. It was always my weak link in the triathlon. My eleven year old daughter dusts me on her hybrid (me on my expensive road bike). But the rhythm and feel of the bike is somewhat addictive. I may get into it more seriously next year. I started too late this year. The bike season in New England is pretty short.

Mostly I have been swimming. I swam just about every day in the spring and early summer, 4000-5000 yards at a shot. My shoulder got a little cranky toward the middle of July, but I was able to work through it with the help of Bobby the Chiropractor Extraordinaire. He does something to it once a week that hurts like torture, like I will tell him anything he wants to know, government secrets, whatever, gladly, just to get him to stop. And then afterwards the shoulder feels amazing and my goodwill and natural reserve are restored.

In the spirit of the aforementioned "dimension" of the ultra-personality, I went ahead and signed up for a long open water swim race. 4.75 miles, sort of a 50K of open water events,  in the mighty depths of Lake Willoughby in the NEK (as I learned they call the Northeast Kingdom up there in VT).

More on that next post......