Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts at 30,000 miles

This is the earliest running photo I could find. It's the St. Xavier
Tiger Invite in Seneca Park, Louisville, in August of I believe 1997.
I have been steeping this post in my brain for quite awhile, ever since I noticed that I was approaching a hefty milestone in my running life: 30,000 lifetime miles. It's a long way--more than the circumference of Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury, or Pluto. It's roughly the diameter of Neptune, the smallest gas giant (next up, Uranus! *grin*). It took me about nineteen and a half years, from a sticky afternoon in August of 1996, when I started running cross country in high school, to Saturday, February 20, 2016. Now admittedly, it's an estimate. I've logged my runs since 2007, but before that I did not keep track. Smartphones, the Internet, and GPS have certainly made it easier. For 1996 through 2006, I entered an estimate for each month into RunningAHEAD to give me my lifetime total. I feel pretty confident that it's close to the real number.

Running all those miles gives me plenty of time to think. One question folks ask me is what I think about when I'm out running. Well, sometimes I think about the horrible things going on in the world, and how I'm privileged to have avoided most of them. Sometimes it's just what's going on at work or with friends, and sometimes nothing at all, but sometimes I figure things out for myself. Here are a few of those.

On top of the world: just before Boston 2010!
1. A peak always follows a valley, and a valley always follows a peak. I only know where those high and low points are in hindsight. When I qualified for Boston, I felt invincible. I was certain that if I just kept running more and doing more speedwork, I could keep right on improving. But I learned that everyone's body has a different way of finding limits. Mine was mental burnout. After a brutally hard season of training with too much running and too little rest, I didn't get hurt, but my race times suffered anyway. Once I actually ran Boston (15 minutes slower than my PR on what should have been an ideal day), I lost my way. I wanted to keep improving, but the daily motivation began to wane. What a struggle it was! I was fighting myself all the time. It just didn't feel good. In hindsight, duh, I trained too hard without giving myself enough recovery time. But at the time, I thought I just needed to regain the spark and keep the train going. After months of barely forcing myself out the door to train, I finally hurt my knee when I slipped and caught myself from falling on an icy, steep downhill. I tried for weeks to run on it (taking a few days off, trying it again, etc.) before I finally gave up and just took six full weeks off, missing my second Boston. I was enormously disappointed, but a tiny bit relieved.

Later in 2010. Aaaand I hate everything. 
Once I was back to running pain free, I kept right on fighting myself. I could run. I was healthy; I could easily have built back up into real training again. But my mind was against it. I didn't run at all for the last two months of 2011. It took until 2014 for that spark to fully reignite. Right now I suspect I'm close to a mental high point again. How long will it last? No telling, but this time I know I can't stay here forever and I can enjoy it as such. And I don't have to fear the inevitable mental low point so much because I know that won't last forever either.

2. Slow down. Rest. I say this so often that if you've ever talked to me about running, you've probably heard me say it. It's like my religion. My approach isn't the only way--plenty of people run far less and do it relatively faster and race faster than me. Running a lot too fast is where you may start to have problems. In general, if you like to run and want to run as much as possible, intentionally keeping your pace easy on most of the miles you run--easier than what you're capable of--opens up many possibilities. My best long races come after cycles in which I slowed my training paces and took plenty of recovery time. That helped me not only train in my aerobic zone, but to avoid injury. I love running relatively big miles, but I have to run those miles mindfully and balance them with rest. I know I can't negotiate with my body--it will give all it has until it can't. If I can't be honest with myself, my body will give me the hard truth in due time, one way or another.

Foam rolling and watching Star Wars a few weeks ago.
I think rest and recovery are very general terms with multiple meanings. For some it's a shakeout run instead of a workout or moderately paced run. For others it means days off. Some measure by heart rate, fatigue, sleep patterns, etc. I go by my breathing. If I can hear myself breathing, it's not an easy run. It's simplistic but it works for me. I get minor niggles all the time. Right now I have a heel/Achilles thing. I have been taking care of it by carefully stretching and foam rolling my calf, gentle massage of the heel and foot, and icing the area. It's been perfectly manageable and has gotten better day by day, despite some serious training. Sometimes it takes reduced miles or even one or more days off, and when that's necessary I do it without delay. It's taken a while, but I've learned to differentiate between "good" pain and "bad" pain. It's an important distinction. I've been extremely lucky to mostly avoid injuries. I don't pretend to really know how (maybe it's just how I'm built!), but I have to believe that paying close attention to rest and recovery has at least helped to stop major problems before they start.

3. My body is awesome. For so many years, from a very young age, I hated my legs. I thought they were too big, and I really wanted my body to change. I never had a weight problem, so it was never an issue of needing to make a change for my health; it was complicated. I didn't start running to get the body I wanted, but when I started running, I started comparing myself to other runners and I wanted my body to be like theirs: lean and defined. Some of this was purely for vanity's sake and some was because I thought if I were skinnier I could be faster. Now VERY luckily for me, this never translated into an eating disorder. It so easily could have. But I didn't like what I saw in the mirror and in pictures of myself. Who does, right? I feel like just about everyone has this issue, in one form or another, no matter your body shape. I think for athletes, the issue can be become very sticky indeed because there is so much focus on the body and how it performs.

Same body, different angles, lighting, etc.
I still struggle with this. I still catch myself, when someone is taking my picture, angling my arms to make them look more defined, and sucking in my belly. I still look in the mirror and pinch and pull my jiggly underarms and bulgy waistline, wishing glumly for just a little bit of ab definition (I can get it if I suck in and flex really hard). I still look down at my legs when I'm running and feel dissatisfied because they seem enormous and can't go faster. I see pictures of others looking super fit and thin and think: I want to look like that, even though I know that it's an illusion born of camera angles, filters, and lighting. In fact, my foam rolling photo above is a great example of that--I didn't edit the photo, but yes, I did choose the one where my muscles were flexed just so. I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing flattering photos of oneself, but I never want to forget they represent a filtered reality. Lauren Fleshman's blog post about this issue from a few years ago is probably the best known writing on this topic as it relates to runners. So many people, especially women, responded to that post because it was such a relief to know that even a woman whose life revolves around her fitness still doesn't just look like that without some effort.

I know that I'm relatively thin (I mean, yes, I'm thin; I say relatively because I'm comparing myself to runners who are even thinner--duh, don't do that). I'm a size 6, 5 feet 5 inches tall, and generally weigh about 130 pounds. Objectively those are perfectly normal measurements in healthy ranges. But sometimes I feel huge. It's such a weird thing. I feel like I'm an unreliable narrator in a novel--like my own perceptions are untrustworthy. I've read blog and Instagram posts from women of every shape, and it seems many see the same flaws. And no matter how toned and fit and thin one gets, they see room for improvement. I feel that way too. I can't help it, but at least I can recognize it for what it is.

Mile 12 of 26 for the day--the moment
when I hit 30,000 miles.
I can't say I'm over these feelings and I don't pretend to have the answer to body image issues. But I've gotten better at accepting, loving, and being grateful for what I do have, which is a lot. What I've taken to doing is whenever I have these thoughts, I concentrate on what my body can DO, rather than stupid details about what it looks like. It looks fine. My legs WORK. They are powerful. I'm not the fastest but I can run faster than many, and as much as I want without getting injured. My legs climb mountains, make it through ultramarathons, run marathons and aren't sore the next day, and I hope, will run 100 miles in one day. My bones and tendons and sinews have stood the test of time and mileage. My body has been running for nineteen and a half years and has run 30,000 miles. These things are great and they make me happy. I'm proud of them. How can I hate my body when it is the reason I can do these things?

Here's to 30,000 more. :)

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