Monday, January 10, 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

The husband, at a friend's suggestion, bought me Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" for Christmas. It was a great gift: not too 'on the nose' with either of my two interests of late (exercise and knitting) and it allowed the husband to politely imply that I should read more than I actually do.

Full disclosure: I haven't finished the book yet, even tho it's a fast and compelling read and is less than 200 pages. I also haven't had a successful run since I picked the book up. I don't think there is any relation - I'm simply stating a fact: I'm slowly reading a book about a guy that runs for about an hour six days a week during the exact same period of time that I've been avoiding the track at my YMCA like I would avoid The Plague. Or Lima Beans. Or Republicans.


For any newbies to the daily activities of Triple T, about two years ago, I competed in my first sprint-distance triathlon (
Competed is a stretch. Only seven luckless bastards crossed the finish line after me. One was a woman in her late 60s and another woman needed the Tri Sherpas to come back onto the course and coax her across the finish line.). Then, last February, I signed up for a Triathlon Training Clinic at my YMCA. Since then, I've completed three sprint-distance triathlons, one half-marathon and I've sunk about $1800 into race entry fees and triathlon equipment. I've also hired an online trainer to essentially hold my swimming/biking/running feet to the fire and have set goals to complete an olympic-distance triathlon this summer and a Half-Ironman the year I turn 40.

Without putting a ton of thought into it, my reason for waking up in the morning centered around workouts. I accidentally tapped into Athletic Triple T some anomaly of my psyche that had never been acknowledged -- or even considered -- during the first 37 years of my life. Working out changed how I ate, what I drank (and what I didn't!), how I dressed, what I spent money on, what I posted on my Facebook page and what my husband and I talked about while making dinner. To the best of my ability, I was unable to stop myself from telling ...
anyone...the minutiae of my daily workouts. The enthusiasm about this new-found interest oozed out of me. And of all the disciplines, running is what I craved, because for every runner out there, you can find 25 others who swear they'd die if they ran more than six consecutive steps. To the billions of non-runners out there, running is badass, and the badass stigma -- with bragging rights to follow -- is pretty much what I need to carry my dead-ass through a workout.

Before hiring the trainer, I'd never run farther than 3.5 miles. And granted, those 3.5 miles usually followed a 10- to 15-mile bike ride, which was preceded by a 1/2-mile swim. To begin training for the half-marathon, I would run twice a week. One workout would involve schlepping up a hill (Chicago has few, and this one is at Montrose Harbor) or if weather was the enemy, running the stairs at the Y (this is as enjoyable as a pelvic exam). The second workout each week was a 'long run' -- a predetermined duration, to be taken at an 'ez' pace. The long runs started at 30-minutes (I'd come in at just under 3 miles in 30 minutes at my typical pace) and would increase by about 10- to 15-minutes each week.

The first time I broke 4 miles (it was a 4.11 mile run in 45 minutes -- I was over-the-moon excited with my accomplishment), I texted my trainer from the track to share my news. The next week, with 10 or 15 minutes added to the run, I went past the 5-mile mark. Each week, the duration and distance increased and Lance Armstrong (who lives in my phone on the Nike Plus app) would congratulate me at the end of my run. And then one week, the double-digit run! I cried the last 3 or 4 minutes of the run as I saw my Nike tracker creep it's way towards that glorious number 10. My daughter, who was stuck at the Y with me, quietly reading a Nancy Drew book while I ran, saw my tears and put her book down to run the last 2 or 3 laps with me. The drama on the track that day rivaled what most 'real' runners feel when they break the ribbon at Boston. But on that day, it was me, running in a circle on a padded, heated, indoor track for an hour and forty-five minutes. On October 13, I completed my first half-marathon.

Completing the half-marathon made me feel athletically invincible. I didn't do it fast, but that was never the plan. The plan was to finish. And that, I did. And I did it a full year earlier than anticipated, which added to the badass-ness that I craved. About two weeks after the half, I met an ultra-runner at a party which influenced me in the following two ways. 1) I decided that I would run a full marathon in the next two years and 2) I would consider running a 50-miler for my 50th birthday. Precisely two weeks after that, the wheels started to come off the wagon.

At first, I blamed it on the upcoming holidays. I insisted on painting the dining room right before Thanksgiving (A tedious job, mostly due to 100-year old, cracking plaster and enough molding to choke a horse) and no sooner had the paint brushes and rollers been put away before I was up to my elbow in a turkey cavity. With barely a minute to recover, I was then on to the daughter's three-day stretch of five-performances of The Nutcracker on Ice, the school holiday pageant, tending sick kids, Christmas shopping, shopping for Christmas trees, baking Christmas cookies, knitting Christmas presents ... blah, blah, blah. The excuses not to workout seemed to outnumber the reasons to workout and I was lucky to make two workouts a week (I'm scheduled for five each week). My confidence in Athletic Tracy started to dwindle. And then the husband gave me this book (which I still haven't finished).

Murakami is one hell of a writer. And I have to laugh as I read this book, because five years ago I would have never guessed that I'd be a runner, nor would I have imagined reading a book about running. Murakami - a far more experienced runner (and writer!) than I can claim to be now - came up with a few things that have triggered thoughts about why I started running in the first place, and why I need to get back on the horse. Or on the track. Whatever. I need to run again.

Wanting to run v. being obligated to run:
"Some people are more suited for marathon running, some for golf. Others for gambling. Whenever I see students in gym class all made to run a long distance, I feel sorry for them. Forcing people who have no desire to run, or who aren't physically fit enough, is a kind of pointless torture." -- Haruki Murakami.

To the unwilling, running really is a hateful, hateful experience. I remember being forced to run in high school gym class. I vaguely remember the expectation that the entire class had to run a mile in 8 minutes. Not only were we (that is, we the girls, the boys, the skinny, the fat, the athletes, the band fags, the geeks, the dopers, the sluts, the prudes, the AV nerds, the rich, the poor, the meek and the mild) expected to run the mile in 8 minutes, but at the end, we were stopped and our pulses were checked to make sure they were within an acceptable range.
We were being graded on our pulse rate. In what fucked up universe does that make any sense? The point, however, is that running was mandatory and every single stride of those eight minutes was pure Hell for me.

Roughly 20 years later, I find myself buying a pair of trainers so I could do some walking around the paved path at our beach and instead of walking, I started to jog. Something about moving lifted a weight off me. The anxiety -- and self-imposed cloistering -- of being a stay at home mom didn't exist while I huffed and puffed my way around the park with my iPod shuffle. The music carried my brain to another place, one that didn't recognize the word, "mom". Then last week, heavy with some family issues and a problematic cervix (
I have a gift for working my cervix into any conversation, by the way.), I hit the Y track -- deliberately without my iPod -- and began crying about 10 paces into my run. And to be clear, it wasn't just crying. It was gasping, heaving, snot-flowing, sobbing around the track, over and over, round and round.

Running started as a distraction for me. Running, now, however, has become the place where I have to confront my demons, and sometimes, my demons really screw up a good run. This is all happening, coincidentally, as I approach my last therapy session (I've been seeing a therapist weekly for a little more than 2 years). Every time my foot hits the track, I may have to deal with -- myself -- unless the playlist is really spectacular and I can focus on the words of someone else rather than on my own thoughts. I think the idea of using running as an outlet -- not a distraction -- will really help me turn a corner athletically and emotionally, but I'm terrified. And I'm guessing that my hesitation to run -- even for just 40 minutes -- is the
obligation. I have to confront those demons while on my run. And once I'm obligated, once someone is checking my pulse to determine if I've earned an A, I just don't wanna do it anymore. Seasoned runners, I'm told, use running as a way to deal with anxiety or depression. Seasoned runners, I'm told, can run out their anxiety into some void. The end result -- the void -- sounds dreamy. The process, daunting.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses:
"If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I'd never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished." -- Haruki Murakami.

For a stay-at-home mom, I'm pretty damn busy. I also, on a typical weekday, have about five hours to myself. On most days, I get to choose what I do during those five hours. A typical day includes dropping the kids to school, heading to the Y for a workout (they usually last 1 to 1.25 hours these days, if I actually do them), general tidying, laundry-doing, e-mailing and Facebooking, bill-paying, grocery getting and on some days, if I feel I've been productive in the morning, I try to squeeze in some knitting before I collect my kids at 2:45 pm. But once I pick up the kids my time is no longer my own. I'm homework mom. And making dinner mom. And by 7:00 pm, a where-is-my-glass-of-wine, mom.

At almost any given moment, I can make an excuse to not workout. I'm excellent at it. Let's face it, swimming right now is a fat pain in the ass. And I know some folks that are avid swimmers -- and even in training for the Ironman -- that really hate the idea of hopping into a tepid pool of chlorinated water on cold, snowy days like today. And as far as the bike goes, if my crotch is still bruised from the previous biking workout, I'll skip the current workout in a heartbeat. Short of straddling a frozen turkey, there is no way to take away the pain of bike crotch. But there is almost no excuse to not run. Even if you're on the couch writing about running instead of actually running (as I am now), it's still not an excuse.

My 7-year old son is sick today and stayed home from school. I can't go to the Y for my 45-minute run workout (15-minutes of which will be stairs) since he's sick and my husband won't be home until after 7 pm. As soon as I realized that he'd need to stay home, I did these three things: 1) I called my friend and asked if she could take my daughter to school, 2) I called the school to let them know my son would be staying home and 3) I e-mailed the neighbors in my condo to let them know that at some point today, I would need to run up and down our front stairwell for 15 minutes since I couldn't make my regularly scheduled workout. I apologized in advance for this activity which would surely upset the dogs of the building. It's been snowing most of the day and from my quick trip to our basement washer and dryer, a route which takes me outside for 15 seconds, I can tell it's cold. None of this bodes well for me leaving my house tonight to run at the Y. Or to leave the house tonight and run on partially shoveled sidewalks in the hood.

It's is 2:05 pm, and not a single bark has been barked all day.

I must keep my reasons to run nicely polished. I know what those reasons are. Strong, firm thighs. The satisfaction of my hair getting soaked with sweat or wiping salty sweat remnants from my brow and eyes. General badassness. Or, perhaps I should just sign myself up for the Chicago Marathon and spend the next nine months running on nothing more than the fear and anxiety of impetuously signing myself up for the Chicago Marathon.

Could I have been anyone other than me?:
"I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different." - Haruki Murakami

So, back to my cervix. No, seriously. I had been having some issues for several months and ended up switching doctors and feeling a lot of personal anxiety for staying with a medical provider that was aware of the issues, but wouldn't run the right tests (more on this in a future blog post:
Are You Being Cervixed?). The short-story is that everything is fine, but there was a week in mid-November where I walked around convinced I had an advanced stage of pelvic cancer. And then the first week of January brought a lot of anxiety about an internal ultrasound which I was certain would reveal fibroids and polyps and possibly a cancerous mass containing three teeth and a toe. None of that happened. But, I spent a lot of time (I have those 5 hours every weekday to do whatever I want, remember?) thinking about where I was in life, why I am the way I am, and what would happen if something was wrong. Like really, really wrong. And all of this, of course, is happening while I'm avoiding my workouts. Here's where I landed...

Running has been a major part of my formative adult years -- those interesting years where I wake up in the middle of the night and realize that if I live to be 80, I'm almost half-way thru the game. What started as a distraction, has morphed into something bigger. Running challenges me and challenges how I perform all of my other duties each day. For instance, I try to get the workout in during the day, while my family is at school and work, because I don't want to be running in a circle at the Y when everyone is here at the house, surely watching movies and eating pizza and drinking wine and having a grand old time. Running has to get done on Tuesday so that I have Thursday to work on client plans and bios (and volunteer at the school and finish laundry). Running has to happen on Sunday so that I can re-touch the dining room paint and buy Paolo new jeans on Monday. The importance of running has elevated the importance of the other things in my life, some of which I didn't realize -- until the crummy cervix incident -- to be as important as they actually are.

Running pushed me out of my comfort zone. Quitting my job nearly four years ago and taking on the household full time also pushed me out of my comfort zone, I just didn't realize it while I was sitting on my comfy chair watching Gilmore Girls reruns. Hell, running has even made the Gilmore Girls important: if I run, I reward myself with an hour to knit and watch Rory and Lorelai turn Stars Hollow upside down. Running has helped fine-tune what I like about my life and how to prioritize so I can do the things I love the most with the people I love the most. Even though the past few weeks have felt wonderfully indulgent, knitting for 2 or 3 hours at a shot and getting the laundry done daily (even if the load is so small it could fit in a Ziploc freezer bag), I think I've reached the point where I need the challenge of the run. I need the challenge of making space for it. I need to get my badass back.

Not being okay with not running has shown me how important running actually is. And that, I think, is what I'll be talking about when I talk about running.

If you stuck with me this long, I should simultaneously congratulate and apologize for your efforts. Those were a lot of words to get to the basic point that I need to run again. Also, I think I ought to finish the book, just in case he dies at the end and I have to reconsider this whole 'running-is-a-good-idea' platform I seem to have so enthusiastically embraced.

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