Sometimes I wish chemo would have erased any memory I had of my previous running experiences and abilities. Ok, I know that’s exaggerating to make a point, but still, I think all runners hold a certain fear of never achieving the abilities they had in the past. Whether it’s finally relenting to the unavoidable slowing that comes with age, struggling against a training plateau, or just hitting one’s head repeatedly on the ceiling of their abilities, this fear haunts us. It’s like a shadow we see behind us, too close, and we try to run away from it in so many ways. We try to run faster. We start paying attention to all the little details like flexibility and strength. We change our diet, attempt new training methods, and throw bones if all else fails. But surely, at some point, we either make the decision to burn out or fade away…from our past running selves anyways. We have to reinvent our running if we want to find the same joys and accomplishments that we did in the past. But that’s easier said than done. Runners are a stubborn lot and the decision to hold on or let go builds like lactic acid in our legs as we struggle to progress against previous expectations.
I, unfortunately, can’t shake this consideration either. Against my wishes, the measurements of my previous abilities, a multi-year list of podiums and personal bests, remain too close for comfort. I didn’t fade away…nor did I burn out…I had my abilities stripped from me like olympic medals from dopers, immediate and with heavy regret. Now I’m back running and training and making progress, but I can’t figure out if I should hold on or let go, because it’s a struggle. Training has been an incredible struggle for me, emotionally and physically, no matter the trajectory of my progress, which seems to be headed in the right direction. Still, I wonder if I’ve started out too hard, and need to scale back my expectations.
I’m training for a huge, local half-marathon in May, with an initial goal of running sub 1:30:00, which quickly adjusted to 1:20:00, and yet, now I’m debating whether I can even hold a 1:25:00. I’m trying so hard not to hold on to past expectations of my abilities, where anything slower than a 1:13:00 would have me freaking out and dejected in failure…now I can’t even consider that time as a possibility anymore. I can’t even remember how I ran that fast 2 years ago.
So I want to let go. Every failed workout. Every set of mile repeats where I struggle to even maintain a 6:30 pace is a slap in the face. It’s an insult and a bully telling me to give up and hide my face. It’s an internal voice telling me I don’t belong in competition anymore and that I should run alone, without ambition, in any way that doesn’t involve pinning a race number to my jersey. I want to let go of my past and my past expectations because they taunt me and are a measure of what I can no longer reach.
And yet…I hold on, in part, because I know I didn’t create this failure. I found myself in the grips of evolution’s cold hands, fighting against the cycle of living, with poisons in my body and surgeries that leave me completely wasted. So I didn’t burn out and I didn’t fade away by my own doing. I was just knocked the hell down and I’m trying as hard as I can to get back up. But it’s not easy and I’m struggling. I want to hold on, to what I’ve currently built in myself, but also to my past expectations, not because I believe I can reach them again, but because they give me SOMETHING to aspire to, with which to measure my progress…even if I never reach them. I take comfort in knowing that maybe I can’t reach them because the necessary damage sustained through chemo and surgery won’t let me reach them, that the lasting and permanent effects have damaged my running through damaging my body, and that it wasn’t of my own accord, that it wasn’t because I gave up, that I slowed down, that I let go.
But still, when I push and push and can’t keep my heart rate from rising out of control, when my legs seem to drain of all energy like a valve was opened, when my stomach revolts against my pace and forced me to stop, I just want to let go of it all. I want to abandon competitive running and training and figure out the next step in my running life. I want to “let go” because it’s a nicer way of saying I want to “give up”, and I don’t want to admit to giving up.
That’s the worst though, giving up, I mean. I know what that is and I NEVER want to be that person. I never want to be the runner that gave up. If I quit, it’s because forces outside of my control made me quit. And right now I don’t have that forces acting upon me. I might be permanently damaged, and may never get back to a point that I can comfortably say, “I’m ok with this…this is my limit”. But I don’t want it to be because I let go, because I quit.
I want to hold on to my past expectations and some semblance of my past ambitions, with a little bit of revising, of perspective, of recognizing that things happened to my body that are insanely out of the norm, that will cause irreparable damage in ways I haven’t been told or will be able to understand, and then make adjustments. I need to be ok with that, with letting go…a little bit…of past expectations, and yet, holding on…a little bit…to the measure of what I could once accomplish, if only to see just how close I can get again.
But I won’t lie, watching my peers and teammates run away from me hurts. How could it not? The wounds are too fresh, the races too recent. I still hold course records from a couple years ago, and I can’t imagine being able to push them lower to keep them out of reach now. It’s just a matter of time. And ultimately, I know that’s ok, but it still hurts.
With time, I’ll calm down again, throwing away my watch (metaphorically…those things are expensive!) and running only by the measure of my current abilities, rather than expectations of what I WANT to be able to run, constantly hitting the wall in workouts and “failing” repeatedly. I don’t know what those abilities will ever amount to at this point, but I still plan on finding out through repeated training, by running away from that shadow that still haunts me, through revised manners of both holding on and letting go. When that shadow finally overtakes my spinning legs and assures me that my abilities will never be what they once were…I’ll be fine. I’ll slow down, take a deep breath, and run easy knowing that it caught me because it was unavoidable, not because I gave up, not because I completely let go.
All that, however, is for another time. I’ve got more struggling to do as I desperately hold on to expectations like I hold on to goal paces. See you at the race, bib number pinned to my jersey. I look forward to finding out how fast I can make my cancer run.