A couple of months ago, I foolishly signed up for a half-marathon. As the race is in mid-May, I told myself I had plenty of time for another commitment in my busy life, plenty of time to become habituated to running again (because I ellipticize nearly every day), plenty of time to add mileage gradually so I wouldn’t get injured. I found a training schedule online and thought, “Easy. I’ll reach the longest run a month early.”
Now it’s spring break, and I’m really just starting to run again. Ramping up has been harder than expected—the ramp is steeper than it would have been if I hadn’t said “no” to treadmills and so much Chicago weather—but age and weight also make me feel like a plodder, earth-bound when, even two years ago, I could at least occasionally fly.
During my running prime, in my late 20’s and early 30’s, I was 25 pounds lighter. I was so cadaverous that a friend seeing me at a start line for the first time in a long time said, “Man, you look great! You look like they just dug you up for this race!” It’s crass to say how fast I ran that half-marathon, but I broke my ten mile personal best during the 13.1 mile race. After the finish, the friend and I ran a seven-mile cool down together.
Now, out for three or even two miles, I await the feeling every committed runner knows, the sense your brain and not your body matters most. When you’re in shape, no distance seems impossible at the right pace, and no pace seems impossible with proper training. You don’t dread the day’s workout because it has become easier to run than not to and because, at a certain level of fitness, it’s fun discovering how much you can do. People say the key to a long running career is simple—Don’t Stop—and the truth of that advice comes from winning that invulnerable mentality and clinging to it. You don’t want to rebuild.
But I’m rebuilding. My edifice looks mighty rickety right now.
Chicago has been cruel. The last few days, my first week of “spring” break, the temperature has hardly climbed above 30°. The wind gusts and, heavy as I am, seems to throw me off my feet when I round a corner or cross an intersection. The clothes this weather requires are long de-elasticized and/or missing, so I run in shorts and return with my thighs red and numb. I’m wearing socks for gloves. I’m leaden. I’m sore. I have blisters. Time crawls from mile to mile.
I’d shake my fist at the sky, but I’m too tired.
If you’re my age and complain about how hard running is, people offer some variation on “Humans weren’t meant to run.” However, a lot of anthropologists actually believe evolution favored distance running and explain our upright posture as evidence runners among us survived tree-dwellers. Sure, cheetahs and antelopes are faster, but humans can (and do) run such sprinters to death, pursuing until exhaustion makes prey vulnerable. In college, I watched a film about a bunch of Kung Bushmen running a giraffe down over days. The cameraman eventually shot the giraffe because he’d used most of his film, and the tribesmen were still at it. Our leg length relative to body mass, the energy stored in long tendons and muscles, our lung cavities, the shortness of our arms, all allow us to move efficiently, with minimal expenditure of effort.
Or ought to. In the African bush, I’d be on the menu rather than dining.
I understand someone attributing my running renewal to vanity or some pathetic mid-life battle with mortality. Maybe I should be playing golf—though no anthropologist has unearthed any ancient clubs yet. Perhaps I’m simply sublimating my self-loathing. But, as awful as training is right now, I remember better days, days I’d love to restore not because they would remind me of my youth or former glory, but because, to me, running once felt good, felt natural, felt right. And I like to think life is an endurance race and not a sprint.
That’s a rare perspective these days.