Moving back to the starting line

I’m currently sitting in the enormous Oregon Conference Center in Portland, OR for the weeklong PyCon 2016 (where I’ll be speaking later this afternoon, w00t!). However, I wanted to take the brief reprieve–there’s a career fair going on in the main exhibit hall right now, which I arguably don’t need to worry about for at least the next 6 years–to discuss something completely unrelated to Python or science in general (ok, maybe it’s grounded entirely in science, just not in the sort of research I do).

The thought that’s been slowly crystallizing in my mind for the past several months (yes, months) is this idea of “starting over” with running. It’s a tough idea to fully wrap one’s mind around; we certainly remember when we first started running, and we often look fondly at what we once thought of as “long” runs or “fast” runs compared to what we do now. But it never occurs to us–at least, it never occurred to me–that at some point before realities of aging set in, we may essentially have to start from scratch.

Start over. As in, among other things:

  • 3-mile easy-pace runs aren’t hard, but they’re not easy either.
  • Tempo pace feels hard after the first mile.
  • Hitting double-digit mileage in one run is really long.
  • Every single run feels at least a little bit grind-y.
  • (corollary to the previous point:) I have no idea what this “runner’s high” thing is you keep mentioning.

There are plenty of other little points, and I’m sure everyone could name a few from their own experiences (e.g. coming back from an injury), but the real kicker I want to emphasize in all this: these are things new runners don’t think about. They don’t have the experience or the context to remember previous easy runs that were truly easy, or tempo runs that got hard once you were a few miles into the tempo pace, or that it was the 20-milers that were lengthy (10 miles was a cutback run).

Maybe it’s just me and my superhumanly-overactive frontal cortex that runs every little thought into the ground before beating it ad nauseum, but it’s tough to shake the feeling of “this is where I should be in my running” when I don’t perform to my internal expectations.

It was about this time a year ago when I first started seeing a physical therapist in Athens about my nagging metatarsalgia in my left foot. The problem never really improved until months later when I invested in some custom orthotics. Even now, though, it can still be problematic depending on how tired I am and, ultimately, how hard my foot slams into the ground while I’m running.

This injury has resulted not only in a slew of secondary injuries from “compensating” while running (Achilles’ tendonitis, IT band warnings, foot pain)–DON’T DO IT, KIDS; DON’T ALTER YOUR RUNNING FORM–but it’s necessitated a huge pullback in the total mileage I’ve logged. I barely crossed 1000 miles last year after logging nearly 1600 the previous year, and right now I’m on track to do about the same as last year. Only in the last several weeks have I managed a sustained training regimen in the 20+ weekly mileage range.

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Finally putting in some consistent mileage again.

The thought bouncing around my head for months but which I’ve only just started fully elucidating is this: I’m essentially starting over.

My paces and average mileage hearken back to an era nearly half a decade ago, when I was just getting into running and had no frame of reference for any of these concepts. In some sense, particularly given the context of this post so far, that certainly made the process easier: nothing against which to compare myself. Just pure reckless abandon.

But as The Lady has pointed out numerous times, it doesn’t necessarily have to function as a weight, a reminder of what you once were, and how far you’ve fallen. Instead, it can serve as foundational experience, a guide for how to do things the right way. How many times have we said that if we could do it all again, we’d do it differently?

Of course, this comes with the caveat that we first have to accept that we’re starting from scratch. That’s the part that’s been months in the making for me. All this time, I’ve been implicitly assuming it would take only a short time (weeks? days? who knows) to work out the kinks and get back into fighting form.

If only any part of life were that simple!

No, this is a much more sustained effort; I took months off from running. Yes, I increased my cross-training, throwing down hours upon miles upon hours upon miles on the stationary bike and, weather permitting, my beastly Raleigh Talus, Sybil. But you can’t leave something for months at a time and just jump back in without skipping a beat.

So here I am. I’m not fully healed yet–metatarsalgia requires constant vigilance, and I have to keep up with my PT exercises to hold tendonitis at bay–but the last several weeks have demonstrated more promise than the months before that. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that those same past several weeks have overlapped with the time where the idea that I really was starting over began to consciously take hold.

Hi. I’m Shannon, and I’m a newbie runner looking to build my mileage and crush my PRs.

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