I don’t know if I can do this.
Maybe it’s not a good day for me to go out, I think to myself. My left leg hurts. I’m hormonal and tired and getting back into the swing of things after the first week back to teaching has been hard. Yeah, maybe today is just a rest day, I think as my left quad throbs.
I cross the street under the hot Honolulu sun. It’s January, but one of the benefits of living in Hawai‘i is usually that our weather is good enough that it’s always alright to run. Now, though, the heat in the late afternoon sun feels overwhelming.
I come to a stop a few yards after the corner, and rub my hands over my face. I turn back to the hill up to my apartment. I look back forward towards my route, up a different hill. This is one of the many small decisions I’ll make today, but for some reason my will to move my feet has been weighing heavier on my mind recently.
A little over two years ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to run again. After admitting to myself I was in pain for quite some time after getting hit with a car by running the year before, I finally saw a doctor who confirmed my worst and obvious fear: I am not invincible.
Tree Pose. PC: Stephen May
My doctor reminded me of something I should have realized but didn’t want to admit: sometimes when you deal with something a little physically traumatic like, say, getting hit by 3,500 pounds of steel, it will take some time to heal.
I was sad, and bummed, and upset. I didn’t know if I would ever run the same way again– my doctor said I would likely not. So, I did what a lot of folks would do: I picked myself up and adapted. I let myself fall in love again, this time with yoga, and ended up becoming teacher certified.
Still, some part of me knew that I could try everything in the world, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I love running. After some careful weaning, and a lot of cross-training, I started to try and run again. I finally got myself back into the right pair of shoes (Lady Issacs from my faves at Newton Running), and slowly– so slowly– I started to get back into running. I jumped into my first half marathon in May of 2013, more than a year after taking a break from Marathon running.
Now, that’s a lovely story, but it admittedly glosses over some tough bits. It glosses over the nights of painful foam rolling, crying on the floor of my apartment wondering if I’d ever run the same. It glosses over the weeks of stressing out before races, worrying if I’d feel great like I used to, or fall apart before reaching the finish line.
What I also fail to mention is that it’s not like I returned to running as fast as I used to be. In fact, my pace for even a casual run dropped by about 2 minutes. I hadn’t run miles that slowly in years, and when I would hear my watch beep and look at the time, I often felt disappointed. My run was that slow? I would think, aghast. The elation I had felt at even completing a mile would almost immediately be replaced with a ticker of negative thinking in my head. If you’re going to run that slowly, why get out of bed at all?
I hate that voice. I have done everything to fight that voice for other runners, especially new runners who reach out to me. I have often written and commented to others that any run is a good run, that any pace, is good. Any time you are strong enough to lace up your shoes, you should be proud.
So why couldn’t I show that love to myself? Why was it the moment my own running wasn’t up to some invisible bar I had created that I felt like giving up?
A pair of guys, seemingly University boys, saunter by me, taking up the entire sidewalk between the two of them– a pet peeve of mine. They are chatting, and I can’t hear them over my music and internal monologue about running, but I see one of them turn back and eye me up and down. While I have no idea what he is thinking– does he think I’m cute? Or gross? Or merely making sure I’m not going to steal his money?– I project the judgement I am putting on myself onto them. Unfair? Yes, I know, but I need the motivation, and I decide what they don’t know can’t hurt them.
Just another block, I tell myself. Just one more block up the hill to smoke them, and then I’ll stop. I swear I will.
It is April of 2013. During a particularly bad run, I am thinking about Batman. The new guy I have just started seeing loves Batman, and so we recently rewatched the movie Batman Begins.
My left hip begins to throb, and I know I need to stop and stretch, but this just makes me really mad. How can I stop now? I’m just going to have to slow down. Maybe I should just stop altogether. Maybe I’m not going to run right ever again. I stop to stretch out my hip, grumbling at everything happening to me.
When I am at my lowest, a strange thing happens: Michael Caine’s voice pops into my head. I know, it’s not exactly the Angel Gabriel speaking to Mary, but I suddenly hear the oft-quoted Alfred line:
Why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.
So… why was I running? Because I was being forced to by someone else? Was it going to hurt anyone but myself if I didn’t meet my old pace?
No. I ran because my heart demanded it. I ran because it gave me freedom. I ran because the mere action of moving quickly on foot brought me joy, no matter how fast I did it. I was running because pounding my feet into the pavement was the only way to hammer myself back together. I was running to pick myself back up.
If that was why I was running, then, any run was still a good run. It didn’t matter how fast I did it. It didn’t matter if it was perfect. What mattered was that I learned from it. What mattered was that I learned to pick myself back up.
I stretched my hip out and looked at my watch. It was slowly ticking seconds, each one telling me I was slower and slower, each one adding to the negative voice in my head trying to tell me I wasn’t worthy of the road.
So, I asked myself: Why am I running?
Runners–maybe athletes in general, but definitely runners– live by the watch. We agonize over split times, we think about how many seconds shaving off a pound of weight will achieve. We will scale back or up on the speed with which we are trying to fly, based on the time that a calculation has told us we should run by.
I don’t think that’s bad. I have done this to PR, this is often what motivated me to become better or beat goals, and usually exceed them more than I thought possible. In 2010, I trained for my 2nd marathon with the goal of breaking five hours. I trained hard, using that as my measuring stick. I ended up coming in at 4:25.
After that run in April of 2013 though, I did something a little bit radical: I shut off the watch. I decided I was no longer going to time myself to the second when I ran. Yes, I would still occasionally check my time and pace when I logged workouts. I would still do my best to pace myself when I ran.
I would also love myself enough to let go of something that does not serve or better me. During that time in my running career, all focusing on my time did was make me feel like a failure.
Failure, often, is a choice we make to look at ourselves and hold it up to some invisible measuring stick that often only we created to begin with. I didn’t want to approach running from this competitive aspect anymore, at least right then. I wanted to approach all my runs with a sense of joy and, ultimately, love. Love and compassion aren’t about the measuring stick– including towards ourselves. From one of the best TedxTalks from Father Greg Boyle:
You don’t hold the bar up and ask anyone to measure up; you just show up and you hold the mirror up and you tell people the truth. You say: you are exactly what God had in mind when he made you.
So, I chose to stop seeing myself as a failure. Instead, I decided I was worthy, no matter how fast I ran. I decided any run I do was exactly what I need, and all God is ever asking of me.
This method has generally served me well. I try my best to hold myself to the principle of ahimsa, which is generally described as “kindness towards others and yourself.” Before a run, I check in with my body. Before, if I didn’t want to run or I didn’t feel like running, I wouldn’t. I would do yoga. Or punch a bag really hard. Or dance.
Running for joy instead of time has eventually lead me to be a much strong runner mentally and physically than I was before my accident. Now, each run has a general sense of purpose, and it’s made running much less likely to feel like a chore and more like a reward. This means that I can normally approach race day with a sound mind to do better than I ever dreamed. While we can’t see the path we didn’t have (for me: what if I hadn’t been hit by that car?), I do know that I never thought I’d get as close to a sub-4 marathon as I did last month.
Now, though, that I am so close to new goals, it leaves me asking: is this enough? Does it still serve me to run without routine, only by feeling, and without some sort of internal drive? While it has made me a stronger runner, I‘d be lying if I said that I left each race (or even each run) feeling like I left it all on the course. I have been so focused on injury-prevention and just being happy to finish with a smile on my face that now I can’t help but wonder if I’m really pushing myself as hard as I could.
Yes, listening to your body is good, but at what point do you need the drive to push out of your comfort zone, maybe sink into the pain a little bit, and push yourself to do something you didn’t think you could? At what point do you let yourself fall and break again so that you can pick yourself back up and be even stronger?
I crest the hill and decide to go a few more blocks, then a few more. By the time I get to the edge of the beach, the throb in my leg has quieted down. After years of running, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I still often am: I am surprised that my body can heal like this, that I can push past initial pain and find flight in myself again, find joy in the beating of my shoes and quiet the doubt in my own mind.
I know I should probably turn around and let myself rest. Something in me says that I should be careful, I should stop if it doesn’t feel good.
But, right now, it does feel good. Knowing I can push past the pain feels good, and finding the high after overcoming this small wall feels great.
I smile, cross the street, and head towards the beach. Just a little bit more, I decide.