One of the best things about running is that you often don’t feel like doing it. When non-runners find out I run marathons, their assumption is often that I am somehow programmed to perpetually be in the mood to pound out 15 hard miles. I must be one of those magical people for who is never angry when that early alarm sounds, who actually looks forward to the feeling of sore hamstrings. (Okay, maybe that second part is accurate.) I believe most runners would agree, however, that one of the most valuable aspects of running regularly is not that you become immune to lethargy, but rather that you learn to use your mind’s own resistance as a way to make you stronger.
Lately my training work ethic has been about as impressive as instant ramen at a cook off. As is generally the case with bouts of inaction, I have plenty of excuses. Running two near back-to-back marathons this winter left me burned out on long distances. I’ve been working myself raw, hunched over my laptop, drinking too much coffee and perpetually behind on emails. I’m tired. I don’t have time. I want a beer.
I rely heavily enough on exercise to manage my anxiety that I’m never completely sedentary for too long—if more than a couple days go by without me getting the chance to break a sweat, I’ll become so irritated that I have to sneak workouts in like a junkie. I’ll shell out way too much for a gym day pass while traveling, or go for a quick jog around the block even though I know I’ll be late meeting a friend. I’d been diligent in training for my last marathons: running every single mile my coach recommended, and sticking to her detailed instructions on what heart rate zone to stay in. Lately though, my runs have often begun and ended with inspiring mantras like: “whatever, this is better than nothing.”
While still sliding by with what I told myself was maintenance for a few months, I had signed up for a half marathon that felt, at the time, like it was far enough away that I could continue to hit the snooze button on serious training for another couple weeks.
This morning, after making some exciting plans to half-ass a hike and then call it a day, I look at my calendar and get the rude awakening that the race is now just three weeks away. I’ve blown past the grace period and straight into 'totally screwed' territory.
I head to my best refuge when I need a quick jolt to get off my ass: the running shoe store. Running shoes are expensive, and in a way, that’s a good thing. One cannot underestimate the importance of wearing the right shoes. (A quick cautionary tale for those who don’t believe me: the first marathon I trained for, I lost five toenails on the same training run, because I was wearing shoes I thought looked cool. I’m sorry. I tell you this because I care.) Paying for a new pair of shoes also immediately raises the stakes of training: you can’t slack off now. You’ve sunken cash into this operation.
Outfitted in my fresh sneaks, I drop my old ones—muddy and gnashed from so many miles in crowded races and on empty puddle filled trails, into the store’s donation bin, and make my way to the park.
I had eleven miles on the docket for the day, and let the excitement of the fresh rubber under my soles bounce me through the opening of one of my favorite long courses—the Griffith Park trail. Under the ceiling of eucalyptus trees, and around the perimeter of golfers laughing and drinking beer, I find the familiar groove of putting one foot in front of the other. There is the heightened sense of smell I get when my lungs open up: the hose water, the meat grilling on nearby public barbecues that smells good to me even though I’m a lifelong vegetarian.
In my quickest miles, I imagine that I am a race care in sixth gear. I feel the breeze growing stronger on my face. I remind myself that going fast is fun. My heart rate hoovers at its edge, I check my watch. I am going…so much slower than I thought I was. Oh no. This entire time that I thought I’d been ‘maintaining’ my fitness, I had very much been letting it soften.
I realize that shaming myself won’t do much to help me slash through the miles I still have left. Continuing to move, to just do it, I remind myself that my decline is also proof that training works. Olympic marathon runner and poet Alexi Pappas says, "Training is like building a sandcastle. Each grain of sand is important, even if you can’t see them all." Those meticulous miles and speed-work had meant something. I am back to just the messy beginnings of a castle.
I’m rewarded as I keep running with the visual surprises that always show up to prove you were right to lace up today: a Boston Terrier puppy the size of a baseball waddles his squishy butt past me. Two equestrians on gorgeous horses gallop behind me at a steady clip. I love running with horses. It’s almost as fun as riding them. Moving comes so natural, is so necessary to them, that it’s easy to connect with your own drive forward. I break away from the horses, and take the home stretch alone. I’m slow today, but at least I’m back in the saddle.