My orange pal Strava tells me I have run 215 miles in almost nine months in 2018, which is about 24 miles a month—or probably what I used to run in an average week for years (decades?). That was before last year around this time, when with the advice of my doctor, I decided to scale way, way back on my running to eliminate constant back + leg pain, and to preserve my (one precious) body for many more decades.
There are many things I miss about not running 20+ miles on a weekly basis: feeling the sandpaper salt on my cheeks and neck on the post-run ride home; the unexpected places my head would wander at mile 12 or 15; post-run gulping a big glass of chocolate milk, then pouring another round to take up to the shower; planning my routes to avoid—or take on—the hills; feeling legit when I'm talking to somebody like Kara Goucher; the knowledge that I could show up to any town, at any time and find a race, pin on a bib and join my tribe. (Did I ever do that? Not really. But it's kind of like sushi in NYC at 3 am: it's oddly comforting to know it's available.)
Do I miss those things enough to give up the one thing I've gained in the year since I scaled way, way back? Um, no.
Because as I battled for months and months with my body and this.one.simple.thing I just wanted it to do, everything around me grew denser and nervier. Strange metaphor, but go with me here: It was like I was living in glass jar. I could see the wide world out there, but physical pain and mental spinning were screwing on the lid so tightly, I wasn't sure it was ever coming off. Adding to the anxiety? Oxygen supplies were dwindling.
When I scaled way, way back, I figured out that not only does the top of the jar unscrew, I can actually climb out of the jar. And there's space—glorious physical + mental space!—out here.
That space is worth a full carton of chocolate milk.
I doubt my vertebra have found more room between them or the angry cluster of nerves have a new house in which to live, but these days, as I walk the dog and swim laps in the pool, I have this sense that I am standing taller, stretching out. My anthropomorphized version of this is that they are no longer cowering in fear, wondering when I'm going to launch into a run and start banging away at them again.
I'm no doctor, but hey: I live in this body, and that makes decent sense to me. (The endless glute bridges, clamshells and other PT moves probably help a bit too.)
As for mental space, making a decision is one of the biggest forms of relief going. It's the waffling that'll gnaw away at you—you can quote me on that one—and I waffled for over a year. With the pain gone, my brain and patience level have gobs of space that used to be taken up by obsessing over running, wondering when or if I'm coming back, what that will look like, what people will think, when the pain will return, etc.
That doesn't mean I have made time for 30 minutes of daily meditation practice (I haven't), or that I don't fret about when my next workout will be (I do). But the constant, low-grade worry that perched on my shoulder from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed—and then resumed the position in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep—hasn't been seen in about a year. Ditto for the endless tears I shed over it. I can still get plenty emotional, but running is no longer the catalyst.
Maybe that's why I feel like I'm standing up taller.
THE Q + A PART
Practically, what do you do on a weekly basis?
I relish my 30-40 minute runs, which I do about two times a week. I rarely run on pavement. For nearly all of my runs, I drive down to the nearby Highline Canal, a gravel, flat path, and run there. On the days when I get all maybe-you-should-go-longer-Dimity, I remind myself that nothing hurts. That I'm outside, running, in the air, under the sun, looking at the clouds, floating as best as I can on terra firma. And did I mention that nothing hurts?
I am definitely a go-for-it kind of girl, but I've gone for it too many times when it comes to running. I'm currently cool with folding my cards before the pot gets too large.
Other cardio: riding a bike (both outside, inside on the trainer, or at the gym on the stationary bike); stepmilling it; and swimming.
I strength train 2ish times a week for 20-30 minutes each. The longest I'll go is 90 minutes (60 of cardio + 30 of strength), but usually it's closer to 60-75, and I'm typically working out 5-6 days a week.
Does it feel empty not having a race to train for?
Yes, a little. But it also means the stakes aren't so high, time- and training-wise.
I don't have to plan my weekends or even, really, my daily schedule around my workouts. If I want to ride the bike at the gym and hang with Jason Bateman for an episode of "Ozark," that's perfectly fine. And since I'm already at the gym, I can do a few push-ups, planks, and one-legged squats and call it good enough.
And that's one thing I want to emphasize: good enough, turns out, is plenty good. I feel stronger than when I was I was solely focused on running. I feel pretty fit, too.
Is it running-specific fitness? No. Am I ready to hop into a 10K? No. Will I ever run another road half-marathon? No. But 6ish weekly hours of cardio + strength is plenty to make me feel like I haven't given up gallons of fitness just because I scaled way back on running.
How do you motivate?
Pretty much the same way I did when I was training for something. For me, the physical benefits of exercise have always been outweighed by the mental. I sweat regularly for mental balance and the sake of my family, my coworkers, my friends, pretty much everybody who comes in contact with me.
Aren't you envious of other runners?
Of course. When I see a runner, I wonder where they came from, how far they've gone, if they're training for something. I'm especially envious of runners who look like they're running relatively easily. But looks can be deceiving—and for all I know, that person's hip/knee/ankle could be barking at them.
So what are you going to do next?
I truly don't know. Happily taking suggestions for adventures or races that don't bulk up on running. I'm thinking about maybe entering a sprint triathlon next spring, but that's about as far as I've gotten.
The other day (while riding the stationary bike at the gym), I was watching Eat.Race.Win., a documentary about the 2018 Tour de France and a chef for an Australian cycling team. In one scene, the team director, back in the car, was coaxing his rider to push to the end and potentially win a stage. "Your limit," he yelled, "Go to your limit!"
I got a little wistful: Aside from some harsh words during SwimRun, my limit and I, formerly BFFs, don't really chat much these days. But now I feel like there's plenty of time—and space—to spend some quality, (nearly) pain-free time together in the next few years.