I didn’t know I had it in me. I really didn’t. Hell, I wasn’t even planning on training seriously again, but as seems to be a case of groundhog day with me, patterns keep repeating themselves, especially with running.
There was that one moment though, months ago, when the fire burned hot, a flood of emotions filled my stagnant body, and I became fully committed to marathon training once again. High mileage weeks. Long runs. Two speed workouts per week. The whole shebang. I was ready to wake at 6 am, 5:30 if necessary, and put in the work no matter the weather, under sleeping skies…whatever it took. I just wasn’t done. Two weeks later and my aspirations burned to ashes with a hamstring that tightened so violently I was lucky to make it through a work day, let alone a work out. I relented back to periodic jogging and admitting defeat to cancer, slowly internalizing the truth I wanted to pretend didn’t exist, that cancer had taken running away from me. Even with renewed psychological and emotional aspirations I wasn’t quite sure my body was up to the task, with the various offenses it had endured, the lingering numbness in my feet, the compromised lungs. All of it. The tightened hamstring was less a muscular tension and more a punch to the stomach.
I kept running though, quietly, calmly, with no other motive but to finish the mileage I started and begin the day accomplished, relaxed, and with the confidence only covering a certain distance can create. It was, again, my catharsis, my therapy, and not a lot more.
Of course, the slope of running tends only to run downward, compelling one to pick up speed, cover more ground, and experience the body changing towards some matter of positive progression. Each week tallied more and more miles. Long runs became longer and longer. The feelings of accomplishment piled on top of each other to become increasingly irresistible, demanding a greater and greater experience with each effort. The sum of these efforts, of course, add up to the great “what ifs” embedded within our competitive nature. What if I raced a half marathon? What if I raced a marathon? What if I could break my post-cancer Half PR? Hell, what if I could tap into my PRE-Cancer half times?
The slope had pointed downward until it veered dangerously close to vertical. I found myself suddenly timing my easy runs, returning with surprisingly quick efforts. I added an interval workout for the sake of variety and to play with the joy of running fast and breathing hard, which is like (I assume) taking “one small drag” of a cigarette after quitting for a year. I had, obviously, started training again. Because soon after I was keeping track of weekly mileage and planning for future weeks, then committing to two workouts a week, while building long runs to efforts that required a significant post-run recovery time. And I was eating a lot. Like, a lot a lot, and remaining hungry.
I was scared though, not just because I was training without a definitive purpose. I TELL myself I’m just being prepared for the next Ragnar relay I’m doing with my friends in June, but I know that’s a ruse. I TELL myself I want to be in shape to run well during my July vacation in Ocean City this year, which is a genuine desire, but definitely doesn’t require 80 mile weeks and speed workout progressions….and the psychological struggle that comes with both. I was scared, because I didn’t know what abilities lay within me anymore, and I’m scared to find out. I don’t know if I want to find out how far I can take this. I don’t know if I want to find out that my barrier of potential isn’t very deep, isn’t very fast. I’m scared to know that if I find myself on the starting line of a local race again, that I actually won’t be on the starting line. I’ll be tucked back in the 6 minute milers (no offense), and I won’t handle the frustration of not being able to get back to where I once was, to feeling defeated, to essentially punching myself in the stomach.
I’m also scared to find out that I might be much faster than I imagined. As wonderful as that can be, I’m scared what my type A mind will do with this information, with this need to play out the abilities within me, when I know the obsession can get out of hand. I don’t want to lose myself in the need to progress like I have in the past, and yet, I also don’t want to let potential go untapped. I’m scared, also, that I might find the physical potential to really get down, but no longer retain the psychological strength to keep pushing when the usual nerves and apprehensions come into play.
I have the excuse to quit and I’m scared I will use it.
I say most of this in past tense though, because although it is all true, I have ALREADY tapped into abilities I thought were lost to the ravages of surgery and offense of chemotherapy. The first timed workout I did using mile repeat measurements was a 1, 2, 1 effort, and although I was strained during the first mile, I never in my mind thought I could touch anything below 5:40s…but I hit my watch to read 5:23. Seriously, I had NO IDEA this was in me. I followed that up with a consecutive 5:40 and 5:39, then a final 5:24 for the last single mile effort. The fear was somewhat overwhelmed by my excitement to see myself hitting 5:20’s again for the first of my speed workouts, which, I hoped, meant I could only drop these further.
I was scared, of course, but less about not being able to tap into previous abilities and more with where I could take this. If I ever felt like I clawed back a part of my life from treatment, these numbers are it. But one workout is essentially a fluke that needed verification. Over the past couple of weeks I ran a 4 mile progression, then 5 x 1 miles, then alternating miles, before throwing down on another 6 x 1 mile workout this morning, trying to verify this fluke as genuine ability.
I found a flat stretch of trail marked by wheel-measured 1/4 mile increments, psychologically prepared myself for the workout, and did my best to suppress the fears of finding out what exactly was in me…what was STILL in me. Wherein some of the past workouts I was so fearful that I almost didn’t start them, resorting to an idea that i’m “doing enough”, this time I wanted to be ready to put in full effort from the start. The weather cooperated at 50 degrees, the trail was flat, and when I passed the finish mark for the first mile…my spirits dropped. My watch read 5:11.
No way that was right. These markings had to be off. This couldn’t be a true mile. I wasn’t sure I’d ever drop below 5:20 again, so to dip into 5:11? No way. My workout had started, however, and I just told myself that the strained effort was going to reap physiological rewards regardless, so just go with it. After a 3:00 active recovery I started in on the next mile, crossing in 5:13. Then 5:15. Then 5:18 and 5:18 and 5:18. And I half started to wonder if maybe the distance was accurate and my fears were unfounded and I had tapped into a part of me I thought gone and what comes next and how fast can I go and what if I signed up for a race and…
I couldn’t leave those numbers just hanging there in doubt, of course, so when the running store that applied the markings opened later in the day, I walked in to confirm that, yes, these were actually measured by wheel and not the unreliable method of GPS calculation. I had actually run a 5:11 mile and then followed that up with five more within the range of 5:18. What the hell. I had no idea these abilities lay dormant within me, somewhere, just needing the time between surgeries and coaxing out through sustained training to show themselves. But, at least during this workout, here they are.
I’m not going to say I’m not scared of where this might go. I’m not going to say that I won’t be fearful of starting each workout, wondering if I can maintain this physical effort and keep pushing against that wall of ability, where it currently lay. I’m not going to say I’m no longer fearful of putting my ability on the line in a race. For now, however, I’m going to ride this wave of satisfaction and excitement for as long as I can, letting it suppress the fear that preceded my efforts.
Right now Ima see how just how far I can take this again, before biology or treatment does it for me.