I’m fascinated with the process of running progression, primarily because it requires a deliberate destruction of the physical body. You simply can’t become a better runner without pushing your body past its previous boundaries, without stressing oxygen delivery systems, without tearing muscle fibers. You just can’t.
Fortunately, over time we’ve figured out how to precisely damage the body in a way that is controlled, restrained and does not lead to complete deterioration. On the contrary, we’ve learned to damage ourselves in increments, subtly, so that we are able to continue running through the damage and allow the body to repair itself, in effect making us stronger, more efficient runners. It’s a fascinating process and it was crucial to always keep in mind during high-mileage training in order to keep myself from running recklessly, from not letting my body recover from previously sustained damage and therefore damaging myself further. As my coach would put it, “From saving you from yourself.”
The process went like this. Run HARD during Tuesday speed workouts. Push the oxygen delivery systems to their breaking point and deplete the body. Strain the interconnected muscle fibers throughout the body, creating micro-tears that resulted in soreness and precarious steps the following day. Then back off. Run EASY the following day and allow the systems to recover, the muscle fibers to repair and rebuild…even stronger. Then run HARD on Thursday, mimicking the previous damage from Tuesday’s workout. Follow that up with an EASY run on Friday, repeating the same necessary recovery. Put in a long run Saturday, straining systems in a different manner, breaking down muscles more and more…then repeat the recovery on Sunday and Monday. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Over and over. Damage, repair. Damage, repair. Damage repair.
It sounds mildly masochistic, or fulfills the idea that “One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result”, but the most important dynamic of this process is the strength gained in recovery. We create not only a process of reparation, but also of progression. We get better. We become more efficient. We get stronger. We get faster. And that’s why we force ourselves to break down in a controlled manner, so that we can build back up ever so slowly, increasing our ability to run at new speeds, new distances. Very few people can just leave the house and run 26.2 miles, but leave the house and run further and further, in increments, and suddenly you go from exhaustion after 3.1 miles to euphoria (well…and exhaustion) after 26.2 miles. You get the picture.
I’ve always been fascinated by that controlled progression, feeling it’s upward trajectory, it’s positive outcome, and I’ve always tried to hone it to my utmost advantage….
Which is why I’m struggling so much now.
I’m trying to engage with that process of damage and repair, of breaking down and then building back up, but the effects of accumulated chemotherapy have now become so strong that the procedure has been reversed, the terms switching places. I’m now building up incrementally only to be broken down to a greater degree. I run at every opportunity I can get, trying desperately to stress my systems yet again, to create tears in my muscle fibers, to push my oxygen delivery systems to their brink, then let the repairs take over and create a stronger, faster me. But chemo is too strong and I can no longer run with any sort of consistency, any reliability, and repetition. I’m now relegated to running one day, ANY day I can, breaking my body down, letting it recover…but then unable to build it back up again to create that continued progression where I’m getting stronger and stronger.
Instead, I’m breaking down, building back up ever so slightly and then breaking down even further. Building back up just a bit, then breaking back down again. Over and over. I’m now running only trying to maintain small progressions, to slow the deterioration process as much as I can. Maybe at some point I’ll hit a happy medium, a stabilization of sorts, but in no way am I able to get stronger and stronger anymore, as I was trying to do after my surgery and through the first handful of chemo treatments. Eleven, going on twelve, treatments, and the chemical foe is proving stronger than my physical resolve.
I don’t mean to be such a downer though. This is, undeniably, not a fun process to experience, but it’s not like I’m being pushed into a dark corner, blanket over my head, waiting this whole thing out like a seed in winter. I’m still trying. Every opportunity I can get, whenever my feet are free of pain and not disabled from “falling asleep”, I get to the gym and run. Even if just five miles, I still manage to run and try to retain some sense of strength, of continued progression, of fighting back the breakdown of my body. If there is any agency I have over this cancer experience, keeping my physical self as strong and as healthy as I possibly can is it, so all I can do is keep at it and wait for that moment where I can switch the ratio of building then breaking back to breaking and building.