Run Like Hell: A Runner’s Tale of Redemption

A long, long time ago, I ran junior varsity track for my high school (junior varsity on the track team at my high school was kind of like saying, “Eh, it’s like intramural sports, only with meets.  Here, have a uniform.”).  My junior year, our high school temporarily dug up its racetrack, which resulted in me not signing back up for track (“Me?  Go to other towns to practice?  You mean, put effort into this?  Surely, you jest.”)  And running essentially faded from my routine, replaced by absurdly brief trips to Northeastern University’s gym, where I’d give the elliptical a half-hearted stab as a way to “lose a few pounds.”

I returned to running after college as a way to (sigh) try to “lose a few pounds,” and later as something to process the immense strain of teaching overcrowded classrooms with unforgiving administration.  I slowly built up my distance, occasionally getting a good 5- or 6-miler into my day.  And — thankfully — somewhere along the line, I stopped running to “lose a few pounds” and started running because I liked feeling efficient with my body.

In 2013, running took on a new meaning.  It’s been over a year since the bombings and yet I still cannot articulate exactly what it meant to me, and how different it all is when it is your city under attack.  I watched what I considered a part of my Northeastern neighborhood become gated up and I laced up my running shoes with a brand new resolve.

One week later, I signed up for my first half marathon.

After a summer of absolute struggle — learning the hard way just how important things like hydration and blister protection are — I ran the Ashland Half Marathon, which started and ended where the first Boston Marathon took place.  I was brutally exhausted at points, but I maintained pace, never stopped once, and finished with a 2:07 time.  I immediately signed up for a 16-miler, convinced I would build up my running stamina and make it all the way to the Chicago Marathon.

Two things I didn’t take into account: an abnormally cold winter and my downright pathological ability to get injured.

After two separate injuries and the worst two-mile run of my entire life, I pulled from the 16-miler in January.  I nursed a pulled calf muscle & strained hip flexor (as well as two very achey knees) and waited for the weather to warm up.

What happened next, I’m not sure.  Perhaps it was because I had been using my cheap, short-term knee braces for every run.  Perhaps it was because I was using cheap, shoddy knee braces meant only for the short-term.  Perhaps I was overstretching before my runs and pushing myself past my means in yoga.  Perhaps it was a mix of all of these.  Either way, I ended up in the middle of a run with a hamstring tendon that kept getting tighter and tighter, to the point that it actually hurt to extend my leg.  Me being the egotist that I am, I refused to stop.  I had a half marathon in a month!  I was going to beat my old time by at least 8 minutes!  Muscle through, wimp!

The next day, I was in such agony that I could barely walk.

One month later, and things were still injured.  I downgraded to the five-mile option, somehow powered through without exacerbating my injury, and went home to lick my wounds.

In some ways, the injury was a godsend.  It taught me a lot about patience and acceptance.  It taught me to stay humble and to listen to my body.  I learned some vital techniques in yoga for those with hamstring issues, which meant that my real world fuckery was translating into yoga instructing skills.

And, in other ways, the injury was a pain in my ass.  Technically, knee.

So now it’s the summertime again, and the registration lottery is coming up for the Boston Half Marathon.  No, not a half marathon in Boston, but the half marathon that the Boston Athletic Association puts on.  At that point, I had been going on small jogs with my husband, testing out my knee after a spring of absolutely no running.  I decided to do a bit of a gamble: if I could get into the BAA Half Marathon, then it means I’m meant to run it, come hell or high water.

Two weeks later, I get the confirmation email, and I start out on my own half marathon training schedule.

While the previous summer was a slow, tedious climb to longer distances, I was able to bring myself back up in distance fairly quickly and, by the end of September, I was running 8-milers with relatively no difficulty.  I was on the fast track to owning the BAA Half Marathon, until one day when I went into a simple forward fold stretch and felt something pop.

I still don’t know how I did it.  I had long gotten out of the habit of forcing myself into stretches (a behavior I learned after months of post-injury hamstring pain).  I certainly had done stretches that were far more intense.  But there I was, one week before the race, potentially back where I started.

The only difference is that, this time around, I pampered myself.  I took it easy, even though I hated every minute of it.  I replaced training runs with light jogs.  I stopped pretending like I was a skilled dancer, twirling around the house as she did her chores (hey, whatever gets me to clean up the house, amirite?).  I went into my yoga classes and modified, modified, modified.  I even opted out of all the fun stuff in kickboxing (like learning how to do a spinning backfist into a spinning sidekick).  My house smelled of mint as I used enough Icy Hot to potentially render me eligible for stock shares.

I was the quintessential pushover mom, catering to the every whim of her entitled and bratty knee.

The day before the race, I found my right hamstring routinely cramping up, potentially because it was jealous that my left leg was getting all the attention.  I handled the way any proper adult would: I huffed and I fretted and I waxed existential about the futility of mortal bodies.

But race day waits for no man and I refused to pull from the race.  I woke up at an ungodly hour, drove all the way down to Boston with my husband in tow, and got ready to run for over two hours.

I learned a few things during that race:
1) You can fret all you want over lingering injuries, but you’ll most likely deal with something you were not expecting, like a misstep right out the gate that nearly twists your ankle in Exorcist-like ways.
2) Sometimes you have to undertrain in order to avoid injuries.  But be ready for exhaustion the likes of which you’ve never dealt with before.
3) Never underestimate the pervasive power of exhaustion.  At one point, I was so tired that I nearly burst into tears because a BAA volunteer went, “You can do it, Abby!”  Our names are printed on our bibs, but mine read, “Abigail” since that’s technically my legal name.  The onlookers made their words of encouragement personal by reading out people’s names at the end of their statement.  I heard, “Abby,” and spent a solid minute or two choking back tears, because, “he said my nickname!  He cared enough to know I probably don’t go by Abigail!”
4) Gu tastes disgusting, but it’s efficient as fuck.

I also remembered a few things during that race, the biggest one being that distance running is a meditative endeavor: after a certain point, calculating your distance and how far you have to go is a useless thing to do.  You become too tired, too disheartened, too ready to give up.  So you focus on the now.  You focus on the ground immediately in front of you, the footstep you are taking at that exact moment.  You become so aware of the present until you realize that it’s all you have, and you realize it in a way that you don’t get in your day-to-day life.

I hobbled, I stopped for water, I choked back tears.  I finished the half marathon, hobbled over to my winner’s spoils, and checked off the half marathon from my list.  In 10 months, I had gone from someone who was hell bent on getting a sub-2-hour half marathon to someone who was perfectly happy just finishing it.  I finished ten minutes slower than my Ashland Half Marathon, but I also finished without angering any old injuries.  And between Ashland and now, I learned to listen a little less to my ego and a little more to my body.

As is recommended, I’ll going on a small jog on Tuesday, and then probably taking the rest of the week off.  I’ll probably keep my running routine light for quite some time: just enough that everything heals but doesn’t atrophy away.  I might meander on my path to the Chicago Marathon — much like this blog entry is meandering — but I’m okay with slow and steady.  Because, apparently, when you’re talking distance, slow and steady will win the race (and by “win” I mean “finish in time”).

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