Sometimes, the absence of surprises can be the most surprising thing of all.
When I returned from Africa two weeks ago I had no running routine, no strength routine, no base, and a strangely persistent case of jet lag that kept waking me up at 3 a.m. every morning, but made me lethargic and sleepy for hours in the middle of every day. Although generally hopeful about getting back into something like regular training, my efforts to re-establish a running routine were frustrated by a calf injury that threatened to flare up every time I extended a run beyond twenty minutes, or pushed the pace beyond “really slow.” As in sickness it’s hard to imagine health, in my injured and relatively slothful state, it was difficult to imagine fitness.
And yet, fitness was all around me, if I cared to look for it in others. My running buddies, for example, continued to hammer out weekly track workouts, log impressive long runs on the weekend, and prepare for big spring races. It seemed like it had been a long time since I had lived in that world. I wasn’t even sure whether it would be possible to get back there.
But one continues to observe rituals, and so a week ago Sunday I drove over to Patrick’s house to join (loosely speaking) the gang for a long run. Actually, the long run got started at 9:00 a.m., and I didn’t arrive until 90 minutes later. Instead of the 16 miles covered by my buddies, I covered only 4 miles, and I probably wouldn’t have done that much except my buddies overtook me as I was getting ready to finish and dragged me through another mile. It was a little discouraging how hard that last mile felt.
The next day, I ran for three miles, did a little lifting, stretched and rolled and massaged out my calf muscles, and felt sorry for myself.
On Tuesday, I felt no worse, and a little less sorry for myself, so I went out again, covering about four miles in Concord, running with neither ambition nor enthusiasm.
The next day, another run before heading off to Amherst to visit my Mom, staying overnight so that I could take her to an appointment the next day.
Thursday was one of those dank, foggy February days that progress from gray to gray and lend themselves to gloomy introspection and second cups of coffee. I got up early to get in a run, plodding out a four-mile loop on roads near the University of Massachusetts. It was a familiar route, one I had first explored as a high school kid… or was it junior high? It seemed impossible to believe that I’d been running past those same farmhouses for 45 years, and, try as I might, I couldn’t conjure up any distinct memories from what must have been hundreds of similar runs over that period. But something else occurred to me, something grounded solidly in the present: I didn’t feel half bad.
I finished the run with the sense that some shift had taken place, but it was a vague feeling, and not to be trusted. That afternoon I returned to Boston, too late to attend my club’s weekly track workout at BU. Just as well, as I still had no business running on the track.
I had another OK run on Friday: five miles in Concord, and the unexpected pleasure of discovering a new trail through town conservation land. Over the weekend, I logged another four miles on Saturday, and then another five on Sunday, the latter feeling especially strong and steady.
It had snuck up on me, but I had managed to run every day for a week. From those tentative first steps on Monday, each run had felt a little better than the last. My calf muscle had been responding well. I felt more coordinated, more like a runner. It was still pretty modest stuff, but it was undeniably more than treading water; it was training. I could feel my body adapting to the routine. I began to do something I hadn’t done in a long while, I began to look forward to the next weeks and months, to keeping it going, seeing where it would lead.
I think there’s something worth remembering about a very normal week of running. Personally, I find it easy to get caught up complicated or ambitious approaches to training. I preach the doctrine that every run must have a purpose, and I pay closest attention to the runs that target some specific physiological variable. Even at sixty, even out of shape, I tend to think that only the very long or very fast runs count for anything, because the point is to get better, right? And to get better, you have to challenge yourself with something outside of your comfort zone. For as long as I can remember, this attitude has permeated my thinking.
And yet, for over a week now, I’ve been running easily, well within my comfort zone, and something is happening. I want to repeat: there has been absolutely nothing impressive about my runs lately. I begin them at a shuffle, slower than 10 minutes a mile. I don’t consciously try to pick up the pace, but just follow where my legs and lungs take me. I try to finish before anything hurts. I try to follow Lydiard’s advice, to run today in such as way that I will want to run again tomorrow.
And I’m surprised at how much better I feel. It shouldn’t be so surprising, but like many people, I don’t appreciate “normal” as much as I should. Normal is never going to be the subject of a breathless article in the NY Times, but it is pretty great, all the same. Normal is the solid ground on which all of the fancy and impressive training rests.
Yeah, I can live with normal.