Three Things Running Taught Me in a Week

One of the happy Seattle landmarks along the route. Probably a lesson here, too, but I'm not sure I'm ready for it...

I mentioned in a prior post that I’ve arbitrarily decided to participate in the upcoming Spartan Sprint here in Seattle. I’m very realistic about my motivations for doing this – one part middle-age man wondering “Can I still do this kind of stuff?“, one part “Let’s try something that’s a community experience!” and one part “Maybe this’ll impress the ladies…”

And, of course, one part is “I bet this will give me lots of blogging material!” Hey, I’m honest.

The first part of training is to see if I can still run the distance at all – it’s a three-mile course with obstacles. As it happens, the Om Culture Center is exactly 1.7 miles from my back door, a nice run halfway around Lake Union. I did my run on that route a week ago Sunday. A week later, as I did it  for the fourth time, I realized there were three lessons that I’d learned from the experience.

1. You Run Yourself.

“Change is hard. What I can tell you is it won’t be as hard as you’ve imagined, but it will be harder than you would like.” – Doc, via Poetic Desires

This is not the first time I’ve run distance. I was a cross-country letterman in high school, and as a Marine I regularly ran 5-7 miles a day up and down the hills of southern California. In my head, running 3.4 miles should be no problem – that’s a light day.

Problem is, while my head remembers that experience of running, my body remembers the two decades since then. I’m having to let go of the expectations of a twenty-something body and adjust to the reality of a forty-three year old. Familiar words like “arthritis” take on new, immediate meanings, and entirely new words such as “plantar fasciaitis” suddenly become a regular part of my inner monologue. My body plays weird tricks on me – after a day of having a lot of pain in my left calf and my right knee, I went running, and both pains went away. Instead, my left knee and right foot started hurting.

That went away a few hours after the run. The pain in the right knee came back, and the right trapezius started complaining.

That’s what I have to accept. I can choose not to run or I can choose to take the pain that is associated with it. I have to be willing to pay the price for this body to accomplish the goal of the Spartan Sprint.

Luckily it’s not all bad. I do get to enjoy the fact that there are moments when this body reminds me of what it is capable of, when the stride flows and the breathing is easy and the pace just flows.

It’s not as fast, nor as quick a recovery as that guy in the letter jacket in high school. And more likely to collapse on the bed afterwards instead of lugging around TOW missiles all day like the Marine did. But that’s ok, because they had their day.

Now it’s my turn.

2. It’s Easier If You Look Ahead

This one has taken some figuring out. It’s a phenomenon I noticed on the Eastlake Bridge one morning during the second run, when my body really did not want to go. I had been focusing my gaze about ten feet in front of me, and my pace had slowed to just a little shuffle, barely more than a walk.

I looked up for a moment, eyes focusing on the other end of the bridge. My stride lengthened, my body stretched, and for a while everything became a bit easier. I kept my gaze up more after that (it’s an irregular surface along the run, so I do have to watch my feet sometimes) and noticed that it always helped, at least for a while.

I have this nagging feeling that there is a lesson in that, somewhere. There’s the obvious idea of “keep your eye on the prize” and things like that, big-picture stuff, but I felt like there was something more immediate that is there to be learned.

I did some research, and discovered (as all you runners already know) that there are definite physiological reasons why your body runs better with your head up. It reduces the strain on your upper body and the contraction of muscles. But there’s an interesting blog here about the many amazing things a marathon runner named Al has found during his time looking down. He fully recognizes that he’s slowing himself down running less efficiently, but the experiences he’s had along the way! The things he’s found! Handguns. Giant tools. A patriotic flag. Money!

Maybe the lesson is: yes, it’s harder to look down and see what’s right around you instead of focusing on far-off goals.

But sometimes it’s worth it.

3. Set Yourself Up to Fail

That second run, last Tuesday, was really horrific. My feet hurt, my breathing was ragged, my shoulder cramped, my knees ached, there was a blister on my right instep and frankly, on Wednesday I was still hurting a lot. In fact, I was not sure that I could keep on going, or that I should. That little voice started whispering Who are you trying to fool, Gray? You’re too old for this kind of playing. Take up Xbox or World of Warcraft like any sane grownup…

I have a knee-jerk reaction to voices that tell me I can’t do something, though, and that’s usually to go ahead and do it anyway. Sometimes that’s a good thing; I’m beginning to suspect that the older I get, the less useful it becomes.

I talked with Ben, a friend of mine who is training for a marathon (and who is also a good decade younger than me). He listened to my catalogue of aches and pains, and shook his head with a kind of silly, silly boy expression as I expressed my doubts about running the full distance along with my my pigheaded determination to attempt it.

“Listen to your body,” he told me. “Don’t force the whole distance. Especially if you’re just starting, try to give yourself a bit of a break.” He suggested I try running ten minutes, walk for twenty, try running another ten (or as long as I could manage) and “…and then just walk home.”

The young cross-country runner and the former Marine howled at this. Three miles? A lousy three miles and you’re walking? Why even bother?  Still, the next day I put on my running shoes and started on the route, knowing that I would end up just walking for most of it. I was ok with that; I would borrow from my friend’s experience and be smart, and let this 43-year-old body do what it could instead of what I felt it should.

Then a strange thing happened. I reached the end of ten minutes…and didn’t feel like stopping. In fact, I felt rather good. I kept running, telling myself that I’d walk for twenty minutes after I reached the halfway point (which came much more quickly than I expected).

I did walk. For about three minutes, maybe less, before I got the urge to run again. I ran all the way back home, feeling much better and enjoying the run in a way that I’ve not felt since high school.

The lesson there was that sometimes if you give yourself the ability to “fail” – or at least set the bar at a more realistic place – you can sometimes surprise yourself by exceeding the parameters. It runs counter to all the “set your dreams in the stars!” self-help success-oriented gurus out there, but I found it worked wonders.

Maybe instead of setting unrealistic goals and giving ourselves credit for trying, it’s worth it to set realistic goals and celebrate when we exceed them.

That’s what I’ve learned after a week of running. I’m going to be adding some weight training and climbing to the mix (remember, there’s obstacles on the route as well) but what I’m most excited about is May – the folks over at Dirty Yoga Co. are giving me the chance to review their program for a month. More on that later, but in the meantime, enjoy their entertaining marketing. This is the kind of yoga I can get behind…

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