Running has always been a reliable gauge for me. The ability to measure physical progress (or digression) is a relatively exact science and running affords us that yardstick, the way to continuously check if we’re heading where we want to be physically or if we’re stuck, or backsliding. During high mileage training, this constant measurement can become downright obsessive, always checking splits, assessing fatigue and weakness, tallying weekly mileage, but sometimes the changes are so subtle as to be barely noticed. It’s only after a long period of efforts, whether a couple months or a complete training cycle, that one can say, “Yes. I’m definitively a better runner than I was before.” One hopes.
After surgery, however, there was nothing subtle about the changes happening to my body. The total deterioration of staying sedentary for a complete month, compounded by getting sliced in two then filled with a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, is a manner of hitting reset on the body that i’ve never before experienced. I hope no one should have to know what that feels. What it did afford me though, was the ability to really know physical change in my body, so that I wasn’t just reading into subtle clues, but experiencing massive change. When, at first, you can barely sit up straight in bed, just walking down the hall feels like a massive victory. That change is impossible to overlook.
Somewhere down the line, though, the changes become more and more subtle. The body rebounds, gets stronger and stronger, and a point comes where we have to actually push against our boundaries to create physical changes, find new strength. For me, fortunately, I still retained running in my life, and the measurements it afforded me never went away, so that I could always assess if I was getting stronger…and faster. It’s a little disheartening to think about, but some people don’t have such a reliable way to measure their progression. Some patients leave the hospital, get to a baseline of comfort that is entirely manageable, but fail to reach previous levels of health and strength because they don’t push themselves. The effects of surgery get suppressed far below their blanket of comfort…and that’s too bad. It’s too bad because not only can they be stronger and experience a greater sense of complete health, but they might also not BELIEVE they can rebound from surgery to create an even better body and sense of self.
Running is one way to not only measure that change, but compel you to believe in the possibility.
Progression through running is an undeniable way to measure yourself, but it can also be limiting if one doesn’t hold onto a sense of perspective. And in that I struggle. No matter how many people assure me that what I’m capable of doing right now is quite astounding, I still struggle with keeping perspective in relation to my abilities. In part, because my perspective is stuck in the past. My perspective remains rooted to the person I used to be before cancer, when I could peel off mile repeats at sub 5 minute pace, where I could run for hours and only get stronger the further I went. Where…well…where I was just a different runner. My perspective hasn’t forgotten what that was like, which I feel is important to retain, but it also hasn’t fully accepted my present circumstance. Maybe I’m intentionally looking back, because the future is far too uncertain to expect the most from myself, no matter how hard I’ll try to find the future runner that can challenge the past runner.
I am trying to find out who that future runner might be, how fast he will be able to go, how far he will be able to run, but I’m stuck looking too far ahead into an image of potential possibilities and not looking back 5 months ago…when I couldn’t even sit up in bed by myself.
I’m running again, but not just running…training. For three months now I’ve been in full on 1/2 marathon training mode, gearing up for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon on May 2nd, working with my coach again. I’m up to 60 mile weeks, putting down various intervals, attacking hills, pushing against steady state pacing…and struggling. Struggling hard. I’m not the same runner I used to be and although I’m not limited by chemo at this point, I’m undeniably limited. I know this because running is a definitive gauge of measurement and the clock doesn’t lie. Effort doesn’t lie either and I’m struggling to find the efforts that are sustainable for me, while both remembering and forgetting the past runner in me. My coach has given me a few 4 to 5 mile efforts that I embarrassingly couldn’t finish, because what I thought was easy quickly turned south and became unsustainable. My range is getting bigger…but not big enough. I just don’t know what I’m capable of in relation to endurance at this point, which necessitated a new measurement. A definitive measurement. The Mile.
I felt like I really needed to reset my running, to figure out just how fast I can run for a mile and then make adjustments to every distance that followed. I emailed my coach about it and we set up a plan to run a point to point mile on relatively rested legs, to see what I could do. Not having run this trial in about 2 years, he sent me some remedial, and amusing, instructions for effort.
2-3M WU gradually increasing effort
Short break to change shoes, lose some clothes, stretch
4 x 100m striders
First 400 relax and getting into rhythmical breathing (get around hyperventilation)
Second 400 maintain or gradual adjustment (unless out way to fast then dial it down now)
Third 400 turn the screws ever tighter
Fourth 400 Exorcism!
Oh, and have fun!
I made my way to the stretch of rail-trail broken up by only one road crossing and began going through the motions, heading out for a slow 2 mile warmup, getting focused, envisioning the act of running fast and suffering through the effort. I felt an intensity gather in me I haven’t tapped into for so long, a combination of excitement and considerable nervousness. My mind and body were going race-ready, switching auto-pilot and taking over. I slowed to a stop at the self-created start line, shed my mittens, went emotionally inward and started going through warm up drills. The intensity increased as I laid into the quickened 400s, my legs feeling powerful and in control as I turned over my stride at a pace that caught me off guard, not having done this in so long. It felt good.
The routine completed, I looked up the trail, listened for the silence that assured me no cars would block the first road I crossed and poised myself to lay into the mile…to come out at the end, no matter what the watch read. I looked up, frozen as if waiting the starting gun, then hit my watch and started in.
The first 200 felt instinctual, the sensation of being driven by something outside myself, not consciously pushing and yet being pulled into the stretch all the same. I worried I was going to hard and tried to stay relaxed, remembering coach’s instructions to get into rhythmic breathing, which is what I did. With quickened breaths that exhaled a pattern of considerable effort, I let my lungs fill and release without overskipping beats.
Letting my mind relax into the motions, I tried to remain distracted from the distance that reached too far out ahead for comfort. My legs remained powerful as the effort of my breaths slowly increased, letting me know I was pushing against my threshold. A twinge of panic filled me as I doubted my ability to hold on to the finish, not even hitting the halfway point. But halfway did come and although I tried to get a read on my pace, I couldn’t focus on the watch face long enough without breaking my overall rhythm. I decided to go by feel.
Pushing into the third quarter I made a decision whether to hold back, to adjust pacing according to how I felt in the moment. I was pushing hard, I know, and although I didn’t want to back off, I did try to consciously run more comfortable, smoother…to no avail. I had hit the point of the mile where the real battle begins.
That distinct increase of pain, tightness, and perceived weight began to fill my quads, threatening to drag my legs into the ground and grind me to a halt. But somehow, I kept moving forward. A runner passed me in the other direction and waved in greeting, but I was redlined and couldn’t summon the ability to respond. I was on the tightrope of effort. Any attempt to break rhythm felt like it could knock me to the ground, my legs spinning out of balance and tangling in on themselves like a knot of yarn. My breathing fell out of sync and I made conscious efforts to bring it back in line with my arms and legs moving back and forth under my torso, but with each consumed patch of asphalt the rhythm broke again, sooner and sooner than the last. I was going chaotic.
At some point during all this mess I had entered the final quarter and quick glimpses ahead brought the undefined finish line into sight, turning effort from the body to the mind, knowing that if I could just hold on emotionally, I would make it to the finish. Everything in my lower body was burning as my quads were now inflamed with the effort, seemingly dragging my body into the ground as if bags of sand were hoisted onto my waist…and then slowly drenched with water. Each step threatened to pull me down to the pavement and my patterned breathing was completely gone, inhaling and exhaling wildly. The suffer face took over and my eyes cinched up like knots pulled tight, the corners of my mouth spreading out to bear my teeth, revealing an anger needed to swallow up the last 50 meters of the effort with legs still spinning over madly, the entire body somehow remaining upright despite it all.
With one last act of resistance to ease up and let gravity take over just a few feet from the finish, I pushed through and quickly glanced at my watch.
And like getting overtaken by a tidal wave of relief, the precious comfort I managed to outrun down the stretch of pavement swallowed and engulfed my body, extinguishing the fires I had set in my quads. The gulps of oxygen came fully and erratically before settling down and staying within the capabilities of lungs pushed beyond their limits. I had completed the mile. I had survived. And I had measured myself.
5:45. And I still struggle to retain perspective, because a part of me cringes at those numbers. The runner that consumed me before surgery could run a mile in 4:30. And 5:45 is not 4:30. The runner in me before surgery ran 26.2 miles straight at 5:34 pace…and the current runner in me was going ALL OUT for a 5:45.
But perspective…I told myself…keep perspective. I started in on my comfortable miles after the time trial, assessing what just happened down that stretch and finding the positive in the effort. That, of course, involved perspective. First off, I told myself, “you ran that well!” Coach told me how to run each portion of the mile and I managed to do just that. I didn’t go out to hard. I adjusted when it seemed pertinent. I suffered when I should have suffered. And I pushed hard when that suffering seemed insurmountable. That’s how a mile is run…and I ran it correct. That 5:45 was honest. I offer no excuses.
And then, well…there is that whole surgery thing. I mean, yes, I have cancer, but whatever. I don’t really even consider that a limiting factor anymore. That’s a consideration and perspective to hold for much further down the line, because right now, cancer is just there, sort of like an odd, unobtrusive bump that no one can figure out is just there. Almost benign. An anomaly. A blemish. Surgery, however, is something else, and very, VERY recent. I forget that sometimes. I really do, becuase I’m running and training again, and if I’m able to train, then I’m doing VERY well physically. And people that are doing VERY WELL physically probably haven’t had extensive surgery 5 months prior. They might have had it a year or two ago, or at least, that’s what it feels like. But I do the math.
August 23rd to today. September, October, November, December, January. That’s essentially 5 months ago. 5 months. Which means 4 months ago I started running. And “running” 4 months ago meant going out for 1 mile at 9:30 pace and then having to stop because I couldn’t breathe. I barely made it home with another mile of intermittent walking and jogging. But I added more and more each day, pushing myself just a little bit each time, with no future goal or expectation ahead…just running to enjoy it, to get stronger, to measure my progress. And then everything started to change, relatively drastically, till come November when I emailed my coach and paid for his services again. That was 3 months ago. Which brings us to today. 4 months of running. 3 months of dedicated training, and I’m suddenly doing a mile time trial in 5:45. Nevermind what I said about being mildly embarrassed. I’m actually pretty fucking ecstatic.
My perspective continues to shift, narrowing the window of perception from 3 years ago to 3 months ago, when I remember what it felt like to go for a 6 mile run and wonder if I was going to be able to finish. I remember how redlined an 8:00 mile felt like and how even the slightest incline or sudden rise in the trail left me completely winded and muscularly wasted. And yesterday my coach had me run up and down a hill for 24:00 minutes straight, culminating in over 3 miles of non-stop hill running. Perspective indeed.
And I imagine if I didn’t have running to gauge my abilities, to test myself, to see just how far I have actually come away from surgery and what I might be able to do three more months from now…when I run the mini-marathon. I don’t know what’s going to happen then, but I do know that running is going to progress me physically toward that moment, and along the way I’ll be able to test myself, to gauge my abilities, to remind me of just how far I’ve moved away from that time after surgery when I couldn’t sit up bed, and to give me one more significant expanse of perspective.
And this is always our challenge…to remember the capabilities within us by looking to the past, to what we were before adulthood, criticism, and self-doubt (and sometimes unavoidable circumstances like extensive surgeries and disease) slowly crept in, crippling our desires and efforts, and to see past that, to look to a future self that is unhindered, unrestricted, and capable of so much more than what we’re told and what we believe. Then in the process, continuing to push ourselves physically and emotionally, using whatever gauges we have at our disposal to find the other person, the other runner, within us…to determine if we are headed in the direction we really want to go.
Running pushed me 5 months away from surgery to a 5:45 mile and I plan on using it to push me towards a new measurement on May 2nd. This time for 13.1 miles.