Why Do I Like Running: Pt. 8
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Chapter 8: Discovering the Joy
(Long and rambling, but time to wrap this up.)
I went back through my blog archives and found the point in time when I made the intentional shift from focus on weight to focus on performance. It was right at the end of July 2009. I was bored with the lack of goal-setting while in "maintenance" mode, and frustrated by the ambiguity of trying to measure and track body fat percentage, and had no desire to continue trying to lose yet more weight. I needed something to strive for, and I settled on the objective of training to run my first half marathon in 21 years. It's not like I was in love with running. It was just something I knew I could focus on that would help keep me interested while also keeping me in shape. As I posted previously, it wasn't supposed to be a long term effort. I thought it would just be a phase: complete the half marathon, cheer and then move on to something else.
I picked out a race that was only 6-weeks away, believing that I had enough of an aerobic foundation to complete an accelerated program that would get me from my standard once a week 3-4 mile run to half marathon distance. I wasn't interested in racing or trying to duplicate my result from years ago. I just wanted to be able to finish 13.1 miles without walking, and perhaps do so in under two hours. What started out as a 6-week project wound up turning into a 6-month quest that would reveal a new relationship with running that was non-existent in my younger days as a runner.
Six weeks! I chuckle a little at that now, but I was a novice and eager. I lifted training concepts and ideas from all the usual online resources: Hal Higdon, RunnersWorld.com, Cool Running, Running Planet...and put together a plan that built my mileage quickly to levels I had never before trained. Even my earlier half marathon, at age 27, hadn't incorporated the kind of workouts I was now doing. I found I wasn't just trudging through the workouts. I was anticipating them. I loved the variety: the intervals, the Fartleks, the hills, the tempo runs...and for the first time ever, the long runs. I learned how to pace myself and for the first time completed 8 miles without stopping. Then 10 miles. It was a thrill. It's hard to explain. Sure the workouts were tough and some I wanted to quit early. But they were energizing, and each success fueled the desire to reach for the next rung. I didn't realize it quite yet, but I was experiencing a passion for running that had never been there before. In a way, that training period was a lot like that first race in high school where I unexpectedly found myself in the lead and was spurred to higher levels of performance. That was happening to me now, but not in a single race; but rather in the daily pursuit of that 13.1 goal.
A series of miscues and misfortunes would derail me. First, I inexplicably had gotten the date wrong for the half marathon. I had thought the race was on one particular weekend, and I'd built my whole quickstart plan toward that weekend. But the race was actually scheduled for the following weekend. Somehow, when I had found the event online, I must have retrieved a stale page from 2008 and got that date on the brain. I never noticed my error, even after registering for the 2009 event and getting my confirmation notice. It wasn't until the Thursday before the weekend that I thought the race would be that I discovered the mistake. I had called the race coordinators, concerned that I hadn't yet received my race packet in the mail. That's when I figured out that I had the date wrong. Normally, I wouldn't have minded the extra week to prepare, but in this case I had a conflict. I was going to be out of town the following week. So my target half marathon went out the window and I wasted my $45 entry fee.
I was initially despondent, but then I consoled myself with the notion that there was another good race candidate in November: the Silver Strand. It was an easier course than Heartbreak Ridge, and I'd have plenty of time to fine tune myself. So I shifted my mindset and settled on the idea of another 8 weeks of running focus. I was liking the journey, so not a big deal.
Then, a week later, while on my trip visiting my dad in my old hometown, on the very day when the real Heartbreak Ridge half marathon was being held, I planned to go out on a 12-mile run that incorporated the 8-mile loop that I never was able to complete during my high school cross country days. It would be a vindication of sorts. But disaster struck 2 blocks from my dad's house when I turned my left ankle while looking over my shoulder preparing to leave the sidewalk and cross a city street. I came down with a thud, first feeling embarrassed in the event anyone saw me, but then quickly feeling the pain surging through my ankle.
Even though I didn't break it, and there was surprisingly little swelling and no bruising, it took what seemed like forever to heal to the point that I could put running impact on the joint. In a blink of an eye, I was knocked out of running. Silver Strand half marathon was out. I looked ahead to January 2010's Carlsbad half marathon instead and, for six weeks, tried to maintain my fitness through non-running activities.
I did a month long Masters Swim program during October, which was fantastic and dramatically improved my swimming technique and performance levels; but I found myself feeling very anxious to get back to running. I was totally caught off guard by that emotion. Before, I might have welcomed an excuse to not run. But now, the routine, the progress, and even the feeling I derived from running (both during and after) was sorely missed. I didn't dread running anymore. I craved it, and it took having it taken away from me to realize it.
I mulled that new emotion over in my mind. It was hard to explain why the change. But whatever the reason, there was a difference now. I was driven. I had an appetite for running now. It was becoming a part of who I was, and not just something I did for awhile to get in shape. I'd called myself a runner before because I ran some and did so semi-competitively. I thought that's what it meant to be a runner. But now, embarking on my 50th year, and was discovering what it really meant to be a runner, and it didn't have anything to do with speed or ability or competition. It had something to do with passion.
I began running again the 2nd week in November, just shy of my 49th birthday, and refocused my sights on the Carlsbad half marathon. Even though it was sold out, I started the 12-week training program hoping I'd luck into a transfer registration, which I did. I completed the half marathon, and even though I was more than 10 minutes slower than I was in 1987, it was a glorious moment. The event was festive, the weather perfect, the atmosphere energizing: if I could bottle the emotion and sell it, I'd be a billionaire. I was a runner...and in love with it.
I upped the ante and did the previously unthinkable: training for a full marathon. I loved the 18-week journey to that race, even though the race itself wasn't the glorious success I had dreamed of. (That's a whole 'nother story.)
I've been running for over two years now, with a few short breaks for rest and recovery. I've done two marathons, 4 half marathons, 2 10ks and 6 5ks. The race events provide structure and focus to my schedule, but it's not just about the racing. I like the feeling I get from running. When I go a few days without it, I start to get antsy. There are the times at the end of a stressful day when maybe think I'd rather just veg out, but I'll force myself out the door and, 30-60 minutes later, all the stress and anxiety will be washed away after a simple run through the quiet neighborhood streets.
Runner's high? It does exist, though it's mostly the apres' run where the euphoria manifests itself. I'll spend hours after a good running workout feeling like all is right with the world and eagerly anticipating my next shot of endorphins. I don't get that so much with other cardio-heightened workouts, like cycling or swimming. Running takes me into a different world, and even when it's hard and anguish-inducing, it's still a world that I'm eager to explore. Even during the hard parts, I know that there's a reward on the other side.
Running has become recreation for me. It's therapy, health-enhancing, goal-achieving, stress-relief, meditative, outdoor-communing...and even social sometimes, even though I enjoy the solitude at other times. It doesn't take a lot of investment in gear to do. It's all that rolled into one. Even the injuries are something of a motivating component since it's part of the puzzle/problem solving that I like, trying to read my body's response and figure out how to improve and avoid or reduce injury.
2010 was a big running year for me as I "Ran to 50." I culminated with the January 2011 Carlsbad marathon which, even though I just missed my goal of breaking 4 hours, was a vastly different experience from my first marathon 7 months earlier. I didn't train for as many events in 2011, but I've been striving for a PR-level performance in an upcoming half marathon just shy of my 51st birthday. And I have high hopes for 2012 and beyond. Even if I never achieve a 20-minute 5K or 3:45 marathon, I can't fathom slipping back into a non-runner way of life. I hope I don't, and wind up forgetting the joy that running brings me. I'd like to be one of those old men still running up until the day I die.
After all this, I don't think I really explained the "why" of it all. In the surfing world there's an old phrase "only a surfer knows the feeling." I imagine trying to explain the joy of running to someone who doesn't feel it (like the me who thought I was a runner but didn't really like running) is impossible. Somehow, some way, I came around, late in life and found it, almost by accident. Now, having a tasted it, I hope I never lose it.