Monday, October 3, 2011


I woke up around 5 this morning, though my alarm wasn't due to go off until 5:30. I had my clothes set out for an early morning run. Rather than get up that early, I made myself go back to sleep to wait for my alarm. It's on thing to get up at 5:30 for a run, but quite another to do it at 5:00.

Except that instead of being  set for "get up in time to exercise" it was set for "get up just in time."

My relationship with running goes back to junior high track, and it was not love at first sight. I only joined track because some of my friends were doing it and because I liked the coach, but I was terrible. I wasn't fast and I couldn't run long distances--or, really, any distance--without getting shin splints. I threw shot and discus for two years even though I was terrible at both.

Still, a year after I quit track, I found myself running when a 4-H project on fitness got me interested in fitness. Two of my closest friends--both in my heart and geographically speaking--would be legit high school runners, but I was just doing my own thing. I probably ran not more than a mile at a time, but I was doing it because I wanted to and that made all the difference. I didn't have any problem with shin splints, and running plus puberty plus a healthier diet took me from pudgy to thin, where I would spend the next seven to ten years.

When my alarm finally went off, it was getting to be too late to work out and, anyway, the air beyond our flannel sheets was not particularly inviting, cold as it was. The whole morning, from our apartment to my office, was a chilly one. I did my fair share of work and then came home to go for a run. 

For the past five weeks or so, I've been nursing a shoulder injury. Its cause was overconfidence and under-attention, and I think I've been side-lined long enough by now to learn my lesson, but my body disagrees. I've had to lay off the bulk of my training: whereas I was lifting weights three days a week plus teaching a plyometrics class and doing some other cardio workout, now I'm saving myself for the class I have to teach--and I've rediscovered running.

I first really discovered running at the end of my junior year of college. I was on campus after most had left, because I was working Reunion Weekend, and I had some time to kill, so I was looking through books at The Kenyon College Bookstore and came across a book on running. I tore through it, quickly grasping the basic premise: if you can walk for at least 40 minutes at a time, you start gradually alternating running and walking, for instance running 2 minutes then walking 8 then running 2, etc, and gradually running more and walking less until you're running the whole 40 minutes. When I went home that summer, I started doing just that.

While I was at my office, the day had gotten quite nice--there was still a crispness to the air, but the sun was out and changing that minute by minute. I went home and changed into shorts, a t-shirt, and my Vibram Five Fingers shoes. I discovered Vibrams and "barefoot" running a few years ago--but long after my regular running days--after seeing Christopher McDougall interviewed about his book Born to Run on The Daily Show. I was intrigued by the things I learned about running... just not intrigued enough to really get back into running, especially since I was around 190 pounds at the time, with the cardiovascular fitness you'd expect of such a one. I bought the shoes back in early 2010 and ran some in them but hadn't really committed to running either in Vibrams or any other shoe. Until this injury limited severely my athletic choices.

I don't know how long it was before I was running for the whole 40 minutes, but I spent the next couple summers running the flat square miles of the Ohio countryside near my childhood home. The way I remember it, I was running 4 or 5 times a week at a steady 8:00-minute pace. I've never been fast, but I got to where I could churn out the miles. I remember a magazine describing a runner "eating up the miles with Zen-like calm," and that's how I envisioned myself. I experienced a real runner's high just once, while I was working at a summer school program in Connecticut: I actually ran about a mile and felt awful, didn't want to run any more, so I started walking, but then I berated myself into running--and just didn't want to stop. I ran for over an hour and felt like I could have kept going indefinitely, running 'til sometime after the sun had gone down.

Where I grew up in rural Ohio, all the county and township roads were layed out in a grid pattern with a mile between corners (state routes cut across willy nilly). This was great for my running, as I could easily mark out how far I'd gone, at least to the nearest mile. My usual route was to run down to the nearest corner, run 2 flat miles due west, and then come back, but often I would vary my routine to run around a while block. I was kind of bored, being home for the summer, and running was my escape.

Having read in The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss that I might encourage good running form by, among other things, keeping my stride rate above 180 beats per minute, I set about some weeks ago to put together a playlist that would keep me at the right tempo. When I started running 3 weeks ago, I put together the first list, but found it unsatisfactory. I found instead a bunch of old .midi files from back in the day, gathered ones that were nearly the right tempo and made them the right tempo, then also worked to emphasize the beats. That worked well, except for the computery sound of the music. Today I brought out another attempt at a playlist, and I went ahead and upped the tempo from 180 bpm to 200+. In other words, I may have learned something about what to do and not to do in the weight room, that wisdom is non-transferable to the running course.

I loved running enough in my early 20s to keep it up, at least occasionally, through my two years of graduate school, though as I got busier, the runs grew more infrequent, preparing my body for the years of not running that would follow. Once I got my first teaching job in western Pennsylvania, I was ready to close the door on my running career (without, it should be added, running a single competitive race). I thought I would keep running, but I think it only took one run with my taller, more athletic friend Tom to cure me of that notion, not only because I was hopelessly behind him in every way imaginable, but also because running in Pennsylvania meant running up and down hills. Growing up in Ohio did not prepare me for such things. I can remember vividly the hill that ate the soul of my running: it went up and up and up, and just when it looked like I'd reached the top, it turned and continued up. Twice. Twice it fooled me into thinking I had arrived, only to dash my hopes. I wouldn't be a regular runner much longer, contending with that, especially not when the hills were allied with fattening school food and generic adult busy-ness. I put on weight steadily through my 20s, though getting into weight lifting was at least some consolation, as it allowed me to carry my weight better.

I gamely set out through my yard at the faster tempo I'd set myself, working my way down to where I could run along the lake that borders our school campus. It's the same way that I've been running for the past several weeks when I've gone out, but it looks a lot different at 11 am than it does around 6 am, in that I can actually see the lake instead of the moonlight glinting off the lake, can actually see the grass instead of just feel it putting a damp chill up my feet and legs. I started off a few weeks ago running 30 minutes once a week, then twice a week, then upping it to 35 minutes. Today? Back to my college days and 40-minute runs. I had trouble staying on the pace I set for myself, but it was still a good run.

Ultimately it took two things to get me back into running, if that's what I am: an injury and losing 30-35 pounds. I'd been thinking about it before but it wasn't until I couldn't do my first choice workouts that I was able not only to go back to where my fitness journey started, but to reinterpret it through my experiences since then--the interest in biomechanics and "barefoot" running and a very different overall body than the one I had a decade ago.

1 comment:

  1. I understand a rocky relationship with running. I wish I liked it more. It is an efficient way to get into shape and get your work out in but I wish I liked it more. I'm a slow jogger at best. Races are fun though. Come to the St Jude race in Memphis sometime. First weekend in Dec. I plan on the half next year.