It’s a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm but not too humid. My legs are feeling pretty good, and I’m not aware of any obvious issues to dim the prospect of a lovely run on the trails. All things considered, I ought to be more relaxed, but my mood is more apprehensive than eager. Over the next several minutes, I cautiously and deliberately perform an elaborate routine of exercises and drills designed to ease my transition to vigorous activity. But in spite of my ritualistic efforts, when I finally get going my first few steps are so slow that I’m not sure what I’m doing would actually be considered running.
And even though I am moving at the slowest pace I can imagine, it still feels like a struggle. It’s not only that my muscles are a little stiff and uncoordinated (not unusual), it’s that I’m anxiously trying to avoid triggering the strange condition my doctor humorously describes as “warm-up dysfunction,” where I experience a deep and distressing sense of fatigue at the onset of exercise. I continue to shuffle forward, trying not to think too far ahead and instead focus on the simple mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other. I monitor my breathing. I tell myself to relax and not panic. I let the minutes pass, and I wait to get to the other side.
And that is the really strange thing. At some point, my body will wake up to the fact that I am trying to run, and it will flip some switches somewhere and all will be well. I will be a competent runner again. My breathing will relax and cease to occupy all my attention; my legs will no longer feel like they are filled with sand; the clouds will part and the sense of gloom will lift. I’ll be fine — better than fine! — for the rest of the run.
It will be strange, to say the least.
Ancient runners, of which I am one, are notorious for talking about their infirmities. But until recently, I didn’t realize that it’s not because we’re beset by predictable problems with aging tissues; it’s because of the sheer weirdness of the way our bodies start to act out and malfunction. I was more-or-less prepared to get slower as I got older, but I was not prepared to be debugging basic physiological processes like breathing and heart rate.
I want to be clear that I don’t think my case is especially interesting, except to me of course. Many of my running friends are experiencing issues at least as severe as mine, or more so. While warm-up dysfunction, or whatever it is, is a source of frustration and also embarrassment, it’s also an occasion for curiosity and wonder. Trying to figure out what my body is doing and how to work with it is yet another research project, and I have no doubt it will provide me with valuable insights. But perhaps the most valuable thing is the daily experience of passing this mysterious threshold and discovering that there is another side.
To me, this is a really important lesson that goes well beyond my current issues. Take training, for example. I think it’s a universal experience to train hard and see little or no improvement. It might be a season of no progress. It might be as short as a few weeks or as long as a several years. Anyone who has had the experience, which means just about everyone, knows that being stuck like that is the worst. You question everything. You try anything.
I recently read a quote from Phoebe Wright describing her training during her freshman year of college:
“Doing more work is like punching a wall. You do it repeatedly and can’t see any improvement. But with each punch, the wall gets a little weaker. And one day, with one normal punch, you bust through the wall. (Or you break your hand… Which would be over-training! See: Entire professional career.)”
The thing is, you don’t know until it happens whether there’s something on the other side of the wall, or whether you’re just going to break your hand. It would be great if the other side was right there in front of you, getting nearer with every step, but more often than not, you’re not even sure there is another side.
I suppose it’s in the nature of breakthroughs that you never know when they’re going to happen. In some cases, there are signs — maybe workouts are going really well, or maybe a plateau has been reached and previous plateaus have been springboards to greater accomplishments. In those cases, the breakthrough might feel inevitable and it’s only the timing that’s a mystery. But I’m much more interested in the stories of people who are fighting on in what seems like a losing battle, looking in vain for signs of progress. When the wall seems solid and your hand hurts, it’s tough to keep punching the wall.
Then there’s this: there are no guarantees that there’s another side to every problem. For the easier problems of life, like cleaning out the basement or doing your taxes, it’s enough to see that if you keep plugging away, you’ll get there some day. Sure, you might give up before you do, but giving up will be a choice based on how much effort you’re willing to put in to reach an end that’s easy to imagine. But what if you’re facing a problem that looks insoluble, that doesn’t seem to respond to any amount of effort, that has no obvious other side. What then?
I suppose it comes down to practicing a certain kind of faith. And I suppose that’s why I find examples — both in my own and others’ lives — to be so powerful.
In the absence of evidence that you’re on the right track to anywhere, the first battle is to be able to shift your perspective to imagine breaking through. Yes, there is another side; now, what am I going to do about it? And then, whether reason tells you to continue or to turn back, at least you’re not likely to stand still, mutely contemplating the wall but unable either to keep punching or to seek help for your injured hand.