Thursday, January 17, 2013

Running Doesn't (Necessarily) Suck

Here's the short version of a (not much longer, actually) email conversation I had with a friend from grad school:

Him: I love that you're so into running. This makes me endlessly happy.
Me: Running and five things that don't suck have kept me from going under for the past 6 months or so. It's stupid, but there you have it.
Him: It's not stupid. It's fucking beautiful.*

I don't know that it's beautiful. I'm pretty sure it's not beautiful while it's happening, despite my sweet running outfits and the cute—and effective!—headbands my sister-in-law gave me at Christmas. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I wasn't going to write this post, or at least not now—I'd been trying to decide whether to write it for a post on February 13, which will mark a year since I took my first walk on our treadmill, or for one slated for May 14, which will mark a year since I started the couch-to-5K running program through the Cool Running website. But both of those dates feel kind of arbitrary to me. Why not mark the anniversary of the day we decided to buy the treadmill? Or the day it got delivered and we spent an hour wrestling it into the house? It doesn't matter when I started or what I started or how long it took me to start. My husband and I bought a treadmill, I got on it, and it's saving my life. That's what matters.

I just wrote—and deleted—a long section about my physicality: how much weight I've lost, how much I still need to lose, my blood pressure, etc. But in a sense, that doesn't matter, either. My obesity—and although I am no longer morbidly obese, I am still obese—and my physical health weren't what got me on the treadmill, and the improvements I'm seeing there aren't what I mean when I say that it's saving my life (although I'm sure it's having an effect). And while I'm thrilled to be losing weight and enjoy hearing how great I look—and even while I keep track of rough calorie counts and weigh myself—my weight isn't what's keeping me on the treadmill, either.

What's keeping me there is my continuing quest to be comfortable in my own head.

From the reading I've done, and from my conversations with other runners, I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority in terms of preferring to run on a treadmill. I started that way because a) it was February and I live in New England, b) at my weight, I was concerned about doing this right and keeping myself as injury-free as possible so I wouldn't be able to use recovery time as an excuse to stop and c) I didn't want anyone to see me running. Good enough. Since then, I've taken some runs outside, which I was assured would change my mind about the whole outdoors/indoors thing. It hasn't, really, although it was nice to be able to run with my husband (who also generally takes his runs inside) and I'm no longer worried about people seeing me run. And maybe, once Spring rolls around up here again (like in, say, June), I'll head back outside. But maybe not. For one thing, I don't watch a lot of TV, and running with my iPad plugged into the treadmill gives me an excuse to watch—a guilty pleasure tacked onto a not-guilty pleasure. For another, running outside is the wrong kind of distracting for me. I like to keep track of how far I've gone. I like knowing that I've talked myself through the last half mile (or mile…or 4 miles…or 7). I also like to pretend I'm not keeping track of these things, by watching, say, Buffy put a stake through a vampire's heart. Sue me.

Also, unlike so many runners, I can't always run to clear my head. If my head is really and truly muddled, I can't get the focus I need to run. I can't find a rhythm, can't find the right speed, can't work my breath. The other night, I stopped my warm-up to have a phone conversation with my father. I wouldn't normally pick up the phone, but there's a bit of a family crisis, and if he wanted to talk to me, I was going to answer. But he's hard of hearing and his hearing aids don't work well on the phone (or, often, in person), and I ended up having to shout fairly upsetting things into my cell, just so that he'd be able to hear me. And I wasn't happy with his end of the conversation to begin with. I tried to get back on the treadmill after that, but everything was wrong. I was angry, and sad. The pace felt too fast, and my head was still coming up with things to shout to (or, let's be honest here, at) my dad. In short, sometimes when I need running the most, it's not there. But that's okay, because on the other days, the days where my head just sort of needs a light sweeping instead of a pull-out-the-rugs-and-beat-them-with-a-stick spring cleaning, running fits the bill. And if I do enough of the light cleaning, I don't need to beat the rugs as often, even when outside events interfere.

Running, for me, is something quantifiable. It's something I can count and control. It's practice in pushing myself and at the same time in not pushing myself too far—and believe me, I need all the practice I can get in both. I started after I came back from seeing my cousin Turquoise for what we both knew was the last time. I wanted, more than anything else, something to count. I was desperate for something to make sense, and numbers make sense to me. Added bonus: following a plan meant that I made no decisions. If the plan said to run for 60 seconds and then walk for 90 seconds, that's what I did. If it said to take a day off, that's what I did. It was the perfect combination of control and lack of decision-making for me right then. I counted my days and my weeks, I tracked my progress in a little journal (one I still keep, where I list "calories"—you all know that calorie counters on gym equipment are ridiculously inaccurate, right?—the length of the workout, my highest speed, and my highest incline). When Turquoise died, about two weeks after I started the program, I took a day or two off to do basically nothing, and then I got back on again. And now, less than 6 months after I started "really running" (for more than 20 minutes or so, and without walk breaks), I'm still getting back on.

My longest run is 7 miles, but that's going to be changing in the next few weeks. I was pretty lazy over the holidays—my parents were here for Thanksgiving, and we were in Florida with them for New Year's, and let's just agree to not talk about what happened over Christmas week cookie-wise, shall we?—and so I'm taking a couple of weeks to build myself back up, and by then I'll be well into training for a half-marathon. It meshes nicely with my goal of putting in 750 miles of running this year. Sometimes I do not know who this person is, the one who lives in my brain and takes on physical endurance challenges. I don't know when I became someone who thinks of a 4-mile run as her "easy" or "short" run.

I should add that I never liked to run, at least not in the way we tend to think of it as adults. Sometimes I ran to get somewhere faster, like when I spotted my sister's car in the driveway when I was walking home from school, or as part of a game, like when all the cousins played flashlight tag in the front yard at the beach house on an August night. But I hated running the track in gym in school, hated being told I wasn't running fast enough or trying hard enough. I never really learned, as a kid, to try to get better at things I wasn't good at. Practice, for me, was to get better at things I could already do well, like singing or acting. I hated the burning chest feeling of being out of breath. And no one ever—literally ever—told me that it was okay to be comfortable when I ran, to keep my effort level to a point where I was breathing hard but not huffing, to stop before I was exhausted. I stumbled across that information when I started learning about running, and suddenly it became okay to be slow (and trust me, while I have increased my pace by well over a minute per mile, I am still REALLY slow—it cracks me up when runners write about being slow and they're trying to break an 8-minute mile or something. I want to mail them dictionaries with the definition of the word "slow" highlighted).

I'll probably write more about running. And about food—real food, not aspartame or Splenda or any product that includes the word "Diet" in its name—and about poetry and yoga and the other things that keep me steady when I might not otherwise be. I might write about how cool it is to only own 2 pair of pants—both jeans—that fit because I've been shrinking out of them too quickly to keep up, or about the way that my rings spin around on my fingers and how I pretend to be annoyed by that but am actually pretty pleased with myself. I'll almost definitely write about the half-marathon training, and about maybe finding a race to run this spring (and some shorter races to run between now and then).  And I'm trying to find a way to write about two options I'm not willing to take (bariatric surgery, which I no longer qualify for, and antidepressants) and why. I'm still figuring it all out—the running, the food, the blog, my own head, all these things that do not suck.

*You have no idea how many ways I played with the word "fucking" up there. F*cking. F*ck*ng. F*&%ing. Then I figured, if you know me, you know I know my way around a curse word, and if you don't know me, you might as well learn that part about me now. 


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  2. so inspiring!! I'm signed up for a 5K in Braintree in April. It's the 3rd time I've participated but *this year* will be the year I run it without stopping.

    I can't run on the treadmill. I just can't figure out how to stride and get into a rhythm. But I need to so I can get running again. Haven't run since November.

  3. Christi, that's cool about the 5K--which one? Check in with me if you want. I love having running buddies. They keep me honest!

  4. I started running for many of the same reasons 7 years ago, but I allowed life to get in the way and unfortunately I fell by the wayside. It has only been within the few months that I have hit the pavement again (outdoow runner here, no treadmill!) You inspire me to keep at it.

  5. Ruth, it's the Run for Charlotte on April 7. The course is by the South Shore Plaza. There's a 10K too.

    And in other news, I seem to have gotten the hang of treadmill running.


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