Friday, July 25, 2008

Running on Empty

The price of so many things has gone through the roof. Gallons of everything, from milk to gasoline are at record highs. My weekly grocery bill is the same as the GNP of some small developing nations. It’s mid-summer, and cucumbers are over $1. EACH. I can almost hear my mother clucking her disapproval and saying "Highway robbery." It is becoming more and more difficult and costly to fill our tanks both mechanical and physical.

Then there is our psychic tank. Running has always served me as the proper fuel, a way to recharge my flagging internal battery, lift my spirits, and provide an outlet for my stress, anxiety, and temperamental moods. When I started running a few years ago, I used to joke that I did it so I wouldn’t be relegated to the scourge of dumpy soccer moms everywhere: the dreaded pleated jeans. My vanity led me to discover the more substantive rewards the sport offers beyond wearing the cool pair of Lucky Brand jeans hanging in my closet. Some runs were not geared for anything more than to “bleed the pipes”. I’d start out angry or sad or pissed off at some offense - real or imagined - and feel reborn by turning up the volume on the iPod and running as hard as I could. It was almost always fun, the simple fun I remember from running down empty school halls without some monitor demanding my pass and telling me to slow down. It rarely failed to put a smile on my face.

I don’t think I ever took running for granted. I’d had enough injuries that put me on the sidelines and I was all too aware of what I was missing. Recently, my running has been a challenge in so many ways. My slowly degenerating thyroid - under attack by my own body – isn’t functioning as it should, and I frequently feel tired, my heart rate measurably higher, and my muscles feeling shot. What used to be an easy recovery run 8 weeks ago now feels like the last 5 miles of a marathon. My legs are heavy from nearly the start, there is little or no spring in my step. My heart rate starts to rise quickly and steadily, 140, 150, 160…and within a mile and a half is nearing 170, a number I usually see after repeated hard half-mile intervals, a tempo run at 10k race pace, or a long steep hill climb. The effort is palpable. But I’m going slow – 2 full minutes slower than my “hard run” days, topography chosen to deliberately avoid inclines. These days, the velocity of my heart is tied inversely to my spirits: they ride the same see-saw with one rising, the other falling in perfect tandem. Everyday is a struggle. Running is no longer fun.

I still keep running and try and find some grander purpose or lesson (“this will be great mental training for the last 10k of the next marathon – I’ll be so mentally tough!”) but even that has an element of looking forward to when I feel better, and I have no clue when that will be. It is yet another reminder of how hard these days are. In some ways, my body has become a lover who has abandoned me; I feel oddly betrayed. I have no idea when these days will be behind me, and for now I’m left without that which makes me feel better spiritually. Running has become a double agent, sabotaging my happiness and giving secrets to the enemy: It is a source of stress. I’ve taken to inserting walk breaks when my heart rate spikes, and while I’m trying to mentally coax my heart beat down – watching and cheering the falling numbers on my monitor – another inner voice chides this; walking just feels like surrender.

I find myself envying my kids. I watch my sons cut through the water during a swim meet race, overflowing with energy and the ability to recover in the time it takes to chug a Gatorade. I look at them and think “I wish…” But I’ve also learned enough in this life to understand the danger of spending too much time looking backward, pressing some mental rewind button because the fact is there are no do-overs in this life when it comes to the days ticking off the calendar. I have only the here and now and there are no guaranteed tomorrows. In five or ten years I hope to be able to reflect on this time, and don’t want to say “I wish… if only I’d…” I only hope I can be strong enough today – right now – to mitigate if not wholly prevent regret tomorrow. I need to do my best to live ‘in the moment’. I’ll have hope that in the future my body responds quickly to the medication. That the overworked muscle in my chest will be humming efficiently, my muscles and spirits will follow suit, and I can look to the sky and say “Thank you for this day” and really mean it.

When I used to feel my motivation flagging, I’d think of a fall race: the smell of autumn leaves mixed with Ben Gay, the current of anticipation at the starting line, the rush of possibility. I could get addicted to the feeling of crossing the line after a great race. Today, I miss that. But I miss more the simple feeling of being able to crank out a last fast mile on a training run, to climb a hill and whisper “I own you”, to race Father Time and feel he’s outgunned, to run and not need to look to the past for inspiration, but to find it right there, in that moment.

My mission, my goal has become much more humble. On the days where my physical and mental tanks – which are so interdependent – are approaching “E”, I’ll summon all my discipline to look neither backward nor too far ahead. I’ll focus solely on the challenge of that moment. And I’ll hope - with every beat of my heart - that it’ll be enough.