Finding space in the process

I ran a 10k this past Sunday, in celebration of Earth Day. It wasn’t supposed to be hard. It wasn’t even supposed to be a race. It was supposed to be a nice run with a few hundred other people in a pretty setting (the Morton Arboretum: lots of trees and nature). I was supposed to be one of those runners who emphasizes the fun in “fun run.” I was supposed to go easy until the last few miles, when I would present myself with the option of going harder or continuing at a leisurely pace. 
Well, I failed at these “supposed to’s” in grand fashion, racing to the best of my current ability and ignoring the complaints of my increasingly weak and angry legs. I felt good at the start, of course. I had only run one very slow mile to warm up. My legs were fresh and the surrounding crowd of runners and spectators filled me with excitement. The scene felt familiar, although it had been more than a year since I last toed a starting line, and almost a decade since my last 10k. It was like a homecoming and I found myself unable to resist the habit of a strong race start, just as when I visit my parents I am reduced to my childhood self, deferring responsibility to the adults. 

Within seconds of hearing the horn denoting the race’s beginning, I abondoned my plan of moderation. Or, rather, I convinced myself that I was being moderate because I was not instantly tired by my increased pace. That I was not collapsing within the first few hundred feet was proof enough that this sudden change in plan was reasonable. 

And I was passing people! And then passing more people! If you have never run a race, the elation of passing might not make sense. It is a race, the point is to run faster than as many others as possible. But each person I passed was proof that I am not the slowest person in the world (a thought that had crossed my irrational mind on many an agonizingly slow run during my recovery from the winter’s stress fracture). It was also proof that I can still hold my own in a race. That although I am not a Runner (or at least don’t want to be) I can still run, and well. It was proof that I have not gone soft, although my expectations for myself have changed. That even though my journal is filled with lists and charts I have made to chronicle the removal of running as the ultimate cure-all in my life, I am still competitive, I am still me. I have not lost my drive, and the bond I have formed with running is still strong. 

Shortly past mile two in the race, my confidence flagged. The course went up a hill (nothing like those that cover the Boston Marathon course, but much more steep than my flat Chicagoland training had prepared me for) and my legs began to seize. What followed was a torturous four point two miles during which I found it very hard to take in the scenery I had been so excited to enjoy. I noted trees and flowers and greenery on occasion, but the majority of my focus was on my legs and their intense disagreement with my pace. They fantasized about collapsing (just for a few minutes!) on the side of the road, where they could be calm and still. They shook and trembled in their quest to make me stop long before crossing the finish line. They made a pretty good point: I had not trained to go faster than a ten minute mile since returning from injury, nor had I run more than four miles since early January. I had every excuse to stop; this race was an experiment, after all, to see how I would hold up at a longer distance. If the experiment failed and I had to walk to the finish line, no one would think less of me and I could burrow under the guise of pain. 

For a brief moment, somewhere in the middle of this internal discussion about stopping, I did feel a phantom pain in my sacrum. “Aha!” I remember thinking, “here is my ticket out of this mess! I can’t be expected to finish now!” This was quickly followed, however, by the realization that I did not want to give up, I did did not want to stop. 

I concentrated on feeling strong in the places that weren’t my legs, which can were spent beyond control. I kept my back straight, my center of gravity pushed forward, my pelvis tilted up, my arms swinging across my body. If nothing else, my form did not deteriorate. 

For amusement, I read the signs posted along the course, which were rife with nature puns: “we are ROOTING for you”; “we know this race is a BEECH [tree] but you are looking great”; “we see that SPRING in your step”; “use those LIMBS”; “be-LEAF in yourself” (my personal favorite). 

I remembered all the emotional workouts I did during the two months I was injured to transform running from an activity of habit to one of spontaneity and joy. I remembered, too, the physical workouts I have completed in the two months since I have returned to running, growing strong and flexible to ward off new injury. I remembered to be grateful for the process, for the simple act of running, for the unexpected gift of my competitive fire. I knew if I stopped, no matter how good rest might feel in the moment, I would undo this effort. 

I slowed my pace as a concession to my legs, but I did not give up. I ran hard (for me, at this moment in time), I found the energy to sprint down the final stretch, and I finished almost ten minutes ahead of my original goal. My average pace was slower than that of my pre-injury slow runs. But rather than feeling bad for myself for my slowness, I was proud of how fast I have been in the past. My pre-injury body was amazing, almost without effort. I have appreciation now for my past accomplishments, most of which I had taken for granted. I was unable to appreciate my talent when it was normal. 

I am sore still. My legs really did not like those hills, but I am glad I raced and did not just run. I pushed myself. I stayed in the moment. I found new goals (to run an 8:30 mile again with ease) and I remembered that I can do hard work, even when my body and mind beg me to stop. 

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