Currently I am dealing with the absolute worst injury of my life: some light knee pain. I don’t know what it is for sure, or exactly where it came from, but it came at a time when I was just starting to get back into running, a sport I have some history with. And while I wait for my knee to heal, I figured, why not reflect on all the great things I’m missing out on?
The realization that running isn’t so bad after all
The first day back is always interesting. The last time you did any significant cardio was… well, you had to walk up the stairs one time because the elevator was broken. What was pacing again? You don’t really remember, but you’re no wimp, so of course slowing down isn’t an option. No way are you going to let old man pushing the stroller beat you. After all you’ve been running your whole life, and you’re fit, remember? In fact, you start to feel kind of good. You realize this running thing isn’t so bad after all, and getting back into shape will be a cinch. Then you look at your watch, realize it’s been… about five minutes.
By the last mile, you wonder if your body has just degraded to the point that you’ll never be able to hold a comfortable ten minutes pace ever again. The only thing keeping you going is that realization in your head that the middle of the sidewalk isn’t the best place to lay down, nor is there any food and water. But when you get back, something funny happens - you feel kind of good! That’s the runner’s high, the gift given to anyone who managed to get off their ass and finally go exercise. That, along with the copious amounts of terrible food you decide to eat (because that three miles must have burned at least two thousand calories), makes you feel good enough that you consider what was unthinkable just a few hours earlier - maybe tomorrow wouldn’t be a bad day for another run.
This process repeats itself for a while. Maybe a week, maybe two, maybe even more. But then, a change starts developing. You start lasting a little longer before hating yourself. You begin increasing your distance a little. By the end your run, you only feel tired enough to do absolutely nothing for an hour rather than two. That’s when you know - it’s coming back. Your fitness, the ability to really run long and easy, the thing you’ve always known you have, but sometimes struggle to find it.
For me, this is when I start to find satisfaction in running outside of runner’s high and the extra food I get to eat (not that the second one ever goes away, of course). Once it becomes easy to go out and run for five or six miles, running actually becomes fun. Rather than constantly struggling, it’s just a time to relax. I get a chance to think things over, enjoy some scenery, or more typically just think about how much I am going to be running the next day. By this point it’s hard to stop - and why would I?
Those special days where stopping just seems silly
Here’s one thing about me - I like running on the track. I’m not talking about racing or workouts or anything else - just easy running. For most runners, it’s hard to imagine anything more boring. But I’ve always enjoyed it, especially during high school track, where I could run around and just watch my teammates do whatever they were doing for practice that day. Certainly more interesting than just looking at the same old trees.
So one day, I decided to do an easy run on the track. One of my teammates asked me, “How far are you planning to go today?”. And really, I didn’t know, so I just told him, “Until I feel like stopping, I guess.” And so I went. It was a pretty typical run, nice and easy. But eventually, something seemed a little off. I got to around three or four miles, and realized that, strangely, I didn’t feel like stopping yet. My feet felt light, I was enjoying the run, and what else was I going to be doing instead?
I kept going. By around mile six, it was starting to get strange. Even for me, a six mile run on the track was a little much. People were asking me, “How much have you done?”, and when you tell people you have ran around in a circle more than twenty times, you can’t expect to not get looked at funny. But I was still feeling good.
By the time I got to the mid-thirties, I was alone. At this point, the monotony of the laps became almost a meditative experience. Thirty six, thirty seven, thirty eight… I was basically counting, except it took me two minutes to get the next number. Eventually I did stop - at fifty. It was dark and sprinkling, but I went to the middle of the track and just sat down for a little, took it all in. Why had I just ran for about an hour and a half, around the same circle for an absurd number of times? It didn’t make much sense to me either, but I realized what an experience it had been. The fact that I got so much enjoyment out of the simple act of running to be able to run those fifty laps was amazing to me.
I’ve experienced this only a few times, and each time is special. It’s as if the part of you that usually says, “it’s probably time to stop now”, is just turned off, and you feel like you could go forever. These are the days that, when they happen, remind you why you started running in the first place.
The races that you can’t help but smile about
My freshman year of track, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had run cross country in the fall, and wasn’t very good at it. But to my surprise, I wasn’t so bad in track. I finished the season running a 5:19 mile, somewhat better than the ~6:40 mile I had ran the previous year in eigth grad P.E. So, me and my friends set out a goal - next year, we were all breaking five. “Breaking five” was the goal for everyone who was somewhat close to it. It’s about the point where, while not elite by any means (our top runner was pushing around 4:20’s and below for the mile), you can finally start to call yourself “fast”. So I went to work, all in hope of one day seeing a four in the minutes column.
That summer, I trained. Cross country was coming in the fall, but my mind was always on sprint and the great five minute barrier. Cross country finished and I had seen great improvement, and was hopeful for track… but spring came and went, and while I had improved in other events, my mile didn’t budge, and I was no closer than the year before. Junior year was the same story. My mile did actually improve, to a 5:14, but those extra 14 seconds seemed like an eternity.
Senior year was different. Over summer and fall of cross country, I trained harder than I ever had before. I ran up to fifty miles in a week, and never missed a Saturday run, “recommended” by our coach but typically never done by me. Over basketball season in the winter, I continued running on the weekends, not letting myself get out of shape for track.
Spring. One more track season, and my last good chance to break five. The season started out great - it took me less than a month to break my old PR (personal record) of 5:14, and I was inching closer and closer to five every race. Finally I got to the last league meet of the season. I was coming in with a 5:01 in my previous race, and was determined to get it. I went, confident, right on pace, finished, heard my coach call out the time… 5:00. The extra second haunted me. Could I have just pushed a little more, ran the race a little better? I only had one last chance, at league finals.
Leading up to the last race of my high school career, all I could think about was the goal I had set three years ago. I acted confident, and told everyone I was going to get it, but you never know until it happens.
The race itself was relatively unexciting - I was basically racing against the clock, and I came into my last lap way ahead of pace. But the feeling of accomplishment was like nothing else. The five minute wall had stood in front of me for four years, and all the improvement I had seen this season would have been for naught had I not finally broken through. That’s why, when I think back to that race, I can’t help but smile and realize how much I love running. In a single moment, four years of hard work came together and created something magical.