I thought I’d broken up with track and field, but a recent conversation with a local coach tugged my heart back. If I read it correctly, he was trying to recruit me to train with his group for the 400 meters—based solely on seeing me do core work at the YMCA, mind, so there’s a grain of salt to be had there.
But it set my brain’s gears in motion. Being a once-athlete, I think, does that to you. The voice of that old self calls back so clearly: Wouldn’t that be incredible—train hard again, be competitive again, be tough and hardcore and fast…
Hmm. Perhaps it was simply my ego I heard.
We’re in an interesting place, running and I. After my first real injury—a busted knee—forced me to cut back, I’ve started to more deeply re-engage. I sort of forced myself by ponying up for two race registration fees. The shame of getting dropped by the fasties in a 5K is that traumatic.
Thanks in part to that injury, pushing myself to the extremes I did before has been, shall we say, unrealistic. It’s odd, and displacing, especially at a point that I once thought would be a time of trying my first marathon. (26 years, 26 miles—it’s poetic, I suppose.)
It’s also displacing because, from 2004 until 2014 or so, running was my everything. Starting out as a sprinter, I eventually became a strong quarter-miler in my home state, which put me in a position to be on the varsity team at my university. From there, I explored the world of middle distance; I learned how to go on longer runs and maintain a steady pace and all of that fun. It was an adventure. I did love it.
Yet this love also turned codependent, i.e. I was the codependent one who needed running, and tried to make something special happen. Frankly, that’s the other reason for cutting back: the resulting burnout. Not uncommon, but quite unintuitive, considering that we often first start running because it means something to us. That is what leads to speed, and allows us to find freedom within the confines of the run.
But freedom, I’ve been learning, does not come as much from recklessness as it does from balance between momentum and inertia.
That’s not to say it’s been easy to learn.
It’s interesting: no matter why one begins a sport, there are skewed ways in which one can relate to it. In my case, it was obsession—or, if I’m honest, addiction. When you start to find your identity in a particular thing, I think that word applies.
This was, of course, gradual, and mixed in with positive things, so there was no single moment of pinpointing what was happening. But I developed this constant layer of stress that wouldn’t dissolve, rooted in the idea that I was never doing enough. Rather than acting on this idea by running too many miles, I did so by running too hard—and overall by thinking about it way too much.
(Perhaps I believed that this internalizing would have external benefits. As in, maybe I’d PR purely on the basis of how much I cared. A girl can dream!)
That kind of stress does affect performance, though—sometimes as much as physically overdoing it. If running is a mostly mental sport—90% mental, as one of my coaches put it—then how, and how much, you think about your training matters. That means overtraining is not always visible via weight or weekly mileage. And it means that if an athlete’s thoughts are tainted, it’s more than a small detriment.
Mostly, my tainted thoughts were fears of inertia—certainty that if I did not run with as much intensity as I could handle, I would turn the other way and become unable to pick myself up and go. I could not take a day off unless the calendar said to. I could not take training out of the forefront of my mind, because I did not want to consider myself lazy. And I could not include people in this pursuit of so-called “greatness” and make it fun, because that would mean I was not working.
These beliefs came into full bloom during the tail end of my time at university, and in retrospect, I see the emerging pattern: one of need. I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. Yes, you could call that an addiction.
This turned into trying to grip my “career” (a term I use rather loosely) with both hands after graduating, else we both might lose our meaning. I fully intended to keep racing on my own terms. But in this intention, I failed to comprehend the strength of the support that had surrounded me before. Nor, I suppose, had I wanted to, because all of this came down to avoiding the truth of my weakness.
By this I mean, when we are human, we are weak. That when we do anything well, including running and competing, we do it with honesty. This is good, and necessary, but again, not easy.
Sinking into inertia is, though—or at least, it happens easily. It starts with a week of late mornings where your body and mind definitely need extra sleep, and morphs soon thereafter into additional weeks of, “well, this is still happening, so I must still need it. Right?”
Wrong; the thing is, falling prey to inertia was about fear, too. Fear that control might slip away again if I started to constantly move again. Or that injury or imbalance would rear its ugly head again. Or that I would get too attached to movement and be unable, again, to let go.
That reversal came with its own set of unintended consequences, because, though rest is important, it can also turn into less of a springboard, and more of a mire.
That’s when I had to wake up, and realize: it’s time to learn to move in a new way.
The old habits that keep us from changing are potent, but facing down fear, thank goodness, is more so. Because the thing is, I do love to run, and living that out can be simple. It started with those two races. Since then, it has sometimes meant going on a long walk instead of a run; other times, cutting the run short just because I can. Some weeks it has simply meant an attempt to not run every day—not so novel, but stunningly effective for this extreme-embracing type.
Lately, when I see younger runners out on a track or trail, running their hearts out, I wonder: do they feel this? Are they so committed that they’re too committed? I wonder, and I want to overstep my bounds and ask them. I want them to be okay. I want them to know that they don’t have to be amazing or perfect for anyone else—they just have to love what they do, and that’s when they can be as wonderful as they already are.
Maybe that’s the truth each of us needs to go as fast or as far as we can. That it is not running itself that sets us free, but rather, how it allows for moments of being ourselves completely and radiantly. That, when love is part of it, we are free of the ego that demands we be anything but ourselves, and we can continue on our individual routes, ever full of life.
published in Like the Wind magazine, Dec. 2017