Sunday, October 3, 2010

Long Run

6 days from today I will run the inaugural Gulf Coast-Louisiana Northshore Half Marathon. It should be a great race, along the lake, a sunny and cool October morning on the Northshore. I've been training consistently, watching the aches and pains, stretching, taking days off when needed. Saturday I ticked off 6 quarter-mile repeats at a 7:30 pace and was breathing normally throughout the entire workout. Yesterday morning I ran 11miles that felt like 5 or 6: I never got to that point in the run where I'm typically muttering things like christ-just-make-it-go-away-make-this-stop-why-the-hell-do-I-put-myself-through-this-every-weekend or don't-look-at-me-lady-what-the-fuck-are-you-looking-at-haven't-you-ever-seen-someone-take-her-shirt-off-in-the-middle-of-the-park? or dear-god-is-that-a-client-cannot-let-them-see-me-stumbling-around-the-edge-of-the-track-trying-not-to-hurl , or anything even close to that. I listened to Ben Folds and even sang along a bit during my favorite tunes. And last Wednesday night, after a terribly exhausting day of work, I did a 5-mile tempo run down the streetcar line that left me feeling like an 8-year old, but in a good way. I feel ready for the race, in good shape for it; I may even be in the best shape of my adult life.

And I am scared shitless.

Okay, so that's a bit of hyperbole, but the emotion is real and really negative. At the end of a long training phase, right before a race, I like to do a few visualizations; I think they help me feel mentally prepared and push a little excitement and energy into those final workouts. But I have found, when imagining myself lining up in Fontainebleu State Park for this race, a strange tightness forms in the center of my chest, and I get a little woozy. My left hip starts to ache and suddenly I'm aware of the kink in my right hamstring. I try to picture myself crossing the finish line and instead of jubilation and relief, I see pain, frustration, disappointment.

This is not good.

It's no mystery to me that this all stems from my Mardi Gras marathon experience last Spring: I sustained an injury that I initially thought to be sciatica but turned out to be a stress fracture in my hip that took 10 weeks to heal. I was surprised by how deeply that experience affected me; running isn't even close to being my job, as my daughter once assumed, so why should a hiatus feel so devastating? In the intial stages of healing, I harbored the deep, paralyzing fear that I would have to stop running entirely--like, forever--and that thought produced a wellspring of emotion so powerful and dark that I was forced to examine where it was coming from. What sort of crazy attachment was provoking such emotion?

Driving down St. Charles Avenue one evening at dusk, as I watched the runners trot up and down the streetcar line, I began to cry so uncontrollably that I had to pull over. My leg throbbed; I saw a PT who taught me some active stretches, told me to stop sleeping on my side, and was careful to make no assurances that I would return to running. I went home and curled up in bed. I took walks that felt like torture, both physically and mentally. For the first time ever, I walked the Crescent City Classic, and had to down a couple of jello shots along the way to keep from becoming visibly despondent. Something had been stolen from me, something really valuable, and I was convinced I would never get it back. I tried talking about it and found that my fears were met with either bland reassurance ("you'll run again, give it time") or benign dismissal ("you could always take up swimming/cycling/tennis"). Every time I got on the stationary bike at the gym I wanted to throw my magazine across the room, preferably right into the bulging calves of the runner pounding out intervals on the treadmill in front of me.

One day, just before Jazz Fest, I realized my hip had stopped throbbing. I went for my walk in the park and decided to try a light jog; I was surprised and thrilled to find that it didn't hurt. I jogged one half mile, then walked the rest of the way. I did this again a couple of days later, and again and again and again, adding a bit more running each time. Over the summer I thought I broke my fear of racing by participating in the NOTC Free for All Summer Series, a series of 2-milers in the blistering heat; I performed well at each of them and so signed up for some fall races. I did the Crescent Connection Road Race in September and though it is a killer, I was the 20th woman to finish and nearly won my age group. I should have conquered this fear by now, but still it lingers, clouding my vision, warping my ability to judge my readiness for this race on Sunday.

The subject of identity is one I broach almost every day; the people with whom I work often come to me with these questions or struggles, and my job is to help them form a picture of themselves that feels real and meaningful. And though identity is not entirely about the things we do, it is partially that. What's the first thing we typically ask someone we've just met? Isn't it about what they do for a living? And when asked to describe ourselves, don't we typically start with the things we like to do? What's more, don't we tend to omit the things we used to do--the activities that used to define us--but don't engage in anymore? For example: I spent most of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood engaged in playing, writing, and studying music. Every day, for significant portions of the day, I engaged in musical activities; thus, I called myself a musician. But grad school killed that joy for me and the regularity with which I engaged in musical activities declined and so I no longer describe myself as a musician; that part of my identity has been retired (though not permanently, I hope).

Running has been an active fixture of my identity for a long time now. Even before I took it seriously, it was something I held on to as a stable and continuous facet of my existence, something I could point to and say: yes, I do this thing. When you willingly get up before dawn to engage in an activity a few days a week for years on end, you earn the right to claim the activity as your own. When I became a parent it was especially important to me that I hold on to this thing. In those not-infrequent moments of existential ambiguity, where my mind starts to wander into the bright, empty spaces, when I look at Sydney and start to wonder about the point of having children and raising children and giving it all up just so that those children can grow up to have children and raise children and give it all up all over again--in those moments, part of what pulls me towards a more reasonable place is the reminder that I have things that belong to me, things I create for myself, palaces I've built. Running is one of those things. It is precious. It is something I am building.

It also keeps me healthy (well, except for the hip fractures). I struggled with nearly debilitating joint pain throughout my childhood and adolescence; doctors could never figure it out but both my grandmother and my mother suffer with it. I missed days of school, I cried through many nights, and nothing ever helped. Nothing except running; since I started running regularly, in early adulthood, the pain has ceased. It has simply gone away. My moods are more stable and I rarely have trouble sleeping. I've always been a physically active person but all of these improvements are attributable to running.

So what if I have to give it up? What if, 7 or 8 miles into this race, something *pops* and I have to limp to the finish? Will that be an indicator that the end has begun? Or will it be just another setback?

There's no way to predict, of course, so I will just get up on Sunday morning and drive to the Northshore and line up with the rest and give it a go. I'll try not to think about that last time, or all the times ahead of me. I'll remember that conversation I had with my daughter a few weeks ago, when we went running together and she stopped about three-quarters of a mile from our house and claimed she was too tired to make it home and I told her that being a runner means finding strength when you think you don't have any left. I'll remember how she brushed the hair from her face and picked her arms up by her side in the way I'd shown her and put one little foot in front of the other, all the way home. She thought she was done, back there, but proved to herself she had the strength left to continue, and that was a very important lesson for her to learn.

A very important lesson, indeed.