I’ve been running events for time and distance since I was eleven or twelve and joined the track team. At that time, I had no idea that I had inherited the blood disorder beta-thalassemia from my father’s side of the family. And it’s probably better that I didn’t know then. Despite being one of the slowest runners on the team, I loved the feeling of lacing up a new pair of running shoes and heading out alone in the cool early morning.
That feeling never left me. The willingness to push my perpetually-backsliding aerobic capacity and attempt to keep my legs and back pain-free when running regularly, however, has ebbed more than it has flowed. Generally it has taken strong social incentive (joining Baylands Frontrunners and wanting to see the fun Saturday morning gang) and/or big scary goals (the Honolulu Marathon, the Whidbey Island Half, etc) to get me up and out on the trails or roads more than occasionally. And even then, I strongly prefer a fast walk to a moderate jog. My body loves to move; but it hates to struggle. Especially to breathe.
Yet every time I do persist with running for more than a few weeks, I feel the benefits. Better sleep, stress reduction, and an easier time with aerobic activities that I enjoy more, like dance and martial arts. With my body always carrying less oxygen than the average person’s, I am supposed to be acclimated to my normal. And I want my normal to include not dizzy after a minute of sparring, not ready to puke after 30-second sprints, not needing to stop and breathe after moderate activity. So I decided this summer to give running another try.
Opportunities for timed distance runs, from 5k fun runs to half and full marathons, abound for the Puget Sound region. 3.1 miles seemed a little too easy to reach before summer’s end, and 13.1 or 26.2 miles a little too hard for the time I had available (about six weeks between travel and editing deadlines). So I picked the Cosmo 7k despite its being pitched to a demographic I feel little in common with. (The marketing icon is a young willowy blonde with ponytail, and a cocktail glass, with pink galore.)
With six weeks of training time available, I mapped out what my sustained speed for 4.35 miles would need to be in order to complete the course in under one hour. My baseline run/walk was not so far off the goal, though it did contain more walking than running and only lasted for twenty minutes. I set up the pedometer, got a fresh pair of shoes, and charted out each week’s interim goals (increased time and distance with variable pace). With the sun rising obnoxiously early, it was no problem to work in a run before office time began, even as the runs lengthened. And as expected, my ratio of jog-to-walk increased fairly quickly. Many run days I woke up looking forward to lacing up and heading out.
Slipping back into a runner’s headspace was the easiest part of the training period. Plan a route; fuel up properly; take enough water; stretch. Easy. And exploring the neighborhood provided unexpected gifts: smiling students on campus, ferns and old growth trees on the greenbelt trails, exchanged waves with dog-walking neighbors, wild rabbit sightings, the odd crow feather asking to be taken home. Since I was running alone (except for one marvelous jog around Seward Park with my friend Shannon), I tried out listening to music. Turns out that helps a great deal to keep me from looking at my watch incessantly and annoying myself with ‘are we there yet?’ thoughts. And of course there was time to play with characters or just let my thoughts wander. It even helped me write some running scenes for Maji, whose speed and love of the sport I will never match.
Although my stamina increased, my pace did not improve much. I grew up with fast walkers, and can maintain under 15 minutes a mile for many, many miles. But the best I can stretch too when running is a 12-plus, with sustained effort. That’s a jog, and a labored one at that. No gracefully loping past walkers with an easy stride for me. Muscles cramp. Joints ache. I soak in epsom salts some days, and spray magnesium oil on my calves before bed. Is it worth it?
By the fifth week, I gave myself credit for an honest effort and the right to decide after the event whether to hang up my shoes or not. Fortunately, the event went beautifully. It was fun to be in a throng of runners again, letting the fast crowd zoom off first and then working my way incrementally past the folks struggling harder than I was. To clap and thumbs-up the women cruising back on the return leg that paralleled the outbound leg, and share an encouraging word with others pushing towards the half-way point with me. Seeing my best time on the reader board at the finish felt good, too. But not good enough to make me want to keep dreaming up new incentives, to find the time and energy, to stay disciplined.
The following weekend, I tried my first aquarobics class ever. And it was fun! And it kicked my ass without leaving me in pain. So now I give myself permission to return to running if I ever miss it too much. Until then, I’ll be taking fast walks, getting to the dojo when I can, and splashing in the pool as often as possible.