Shift

I have a nasty habit of falling into old habits.

I train up too hard and too fast when I run. I get stubborn about my mileage, my pace, my frequency. I get impatient when I feel I can do better. Taking it easy is akin to giving up, and I handle both concepts with equal grace (or lack thereof). It’s how I sprained a hamstring tendon five years ago, trying to train for the Chicago Marathon — and how I turned that sprain into a minor tear by attempting a yoga class the day after and forcing a stretch where the muscles had locked up.

The injury took me out of marathon training, and out of mid-distance running in general for years. But recently, I’ve been trying to get back into it. Run more than 5 miles, or 6, or 7. I sign up for a 200-mile relay. I research local half marathons. For the first time in over a year, I hit 10 miles. For the first time in who knows how long, I’m hitting sub-8-minute miles on pavement. Right in front of me was a new set of goals, expectations, including maybe, just maybe, finally keeping my promise of running in the Chicago Marathon.

And then — not even during the run itself, but during a very, very gentle stretch, after a run that was anything but gentle — I feel a ping in my left hamstring. Not enough to have fully re-injured myself, but enough to awaken an old monster. Enough to remind me that tendon injuries never fully heal.

“We’re definitely in a new chapter.”

My husband says that as we meander away from Faneuil Hall and into the downtown area. It’s a brisk Saturday and lunch plans with a friend had fallen through and we’re just enjoying the city. My arm is linked around his arm, the sharp January sun hitting off the side of my face.

I agree: we’re in a new chapter. We start mapping out chapter outlines, where some ended, others began. My God, are we hitting new chapters with every season? Perhaps this is what happens when you live in adventure, when you explore and analyze and debrief and go out again. Your chapters end up a page long. A paragraph. The scenes change rapidly, the tone shifts frequently. The minor characters are a torrent of introductions and farewells; the main characters evolve fast.

But it is a new chapter. And it’s not the chapter from the fall, nor the chapter from the spring and summer. This is something new. And who knows how long it will last before another starts up.

But I’m okay with it. Things are shifting. The world is full of moving parts and they’re zipping around in a fevered dance. Things don’t always shift according to plan, or even according to what we initially wanted, but they always seem to shift in the way they were destined to go. And that’s why we have faith in this dazzling spectacle. That’s why we continue to read this story as the chapters start and end like a madman’s rambles.

I always get referential, this time of year. Well, at least for the last three years. And every year it’s a little different. One can’t help but look back, the way one would if a city was going up in smoke and the plumes can be seen from 100 miles away. But each year it’s a little different, the same way smoke has no choice but to dissipate and spread out.

There are some things I know will always have some level of an echo. Some things, like a father’s decline and death, like a tendon tear, don’t ever fully heal. The muscles around it just work a little harder, and there’s always a chance that something — a misstep, a reminder of old habits — will reawaken it, remind you it’s there. The gentle ping to remind you that you’re not the same person anymore.

Every year, a little different. And perhaps this is the first year where there is reverence in the retrospect. Reverence to the time when everything upended, the moment when life grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me to contend with things I’d been sweeping under the rug. And because of it, I’m the person I am today, on the path I am on today. I begrudge none of it. I hold no more anger to the timing, to the tragedies, to the people involved. I don’t even begrudge the feeling of injustice, the sense of unfairness at that time. Sometimes yarn is cut short and ragged for the sake of the bigger tapestry.

That time of my life forced a new chapter, and I went into it kicking and screaming. But now I’m grateful for the shift, grateful that the violent page turn created a cascade of new, exciting, better chapters.

These shifts, these adventures. This rapid-fire change of scenery and people and places and events, all things designed to make me evolve as a person. And I can’t believe I was ever someone who would run from this.

I used to think my luck was terrible, because of it, but now I know better. Because if you’re lucky, life will yank the security blanket and demand you feel with your skin where there are holes in your garments. If you’re lucky, life will put you into scenarios that force you to be better, do better, get better.

If you’re really lucky, life will force you into a staring contest with your demons and keep you there until you realize these entities are figments of your imagination. And then, if you’re really, really lucky, life will give you just enough time to enjoy them going up in smoke before turning you to the next set and going, “Round two.”

Getting back into running after awakening an old injury has been a slow process. I’m avoiding my old pitfalls, old habits. Learning, slowly, to be gentle with myself, to be patient, to allow things to settle back down. Nothing can be forced, here. Force things to go in one direction and you’ll guarantee that it’ll snap in the opposite direction instead.

Slowly, slowly. Little jogs, here and there. Indulging on snow days, cold days. Staying home. Taking a day off, two days off, three. Going moderately for 3 miles and calling it a day.

If anything, it’s been a chance to see how much I’ve shifted as a person. If at least a few of the habits fell behind as one chapter became another, then another.

I decide, on one run, to see if I can gently up my mileage. Nothing crazy: 5 miles, what used to be a light run once upon a time. No focus on pace — in fact, let it stay slow.

And I jog, and I jog without issues, without my hamstring tendon acting up. I jog, and I get home, 5.5 miles under my belt like it was nothing at all.  I check my pace: 8:30 average, a solid minute faster than I was planning. No pings, no reminders of the trauma inflicted, not even as I stretch everything out.

I smirk. Maybe I’m a little more healed than I thought I was.

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