Thursday, September 1, 2016

Today's Run was Both Routine and Remarkable

Today, I went for a run.  In some ways, today’s run was routine.  In other ways, today’s run was remarkable.

Let me back up and put this in context.  I used to follow training plans.  I would spend several months getting in shape for a marathon.  Then I’d take it easy for at least a month before beginning to train for another marathon.

Eventually, I learned to write my own training plans.  I’d figure out how many weeks I had until my next race and work backwards.  I’d start by figuring out when I needed to do my long runs.  They formed the outline of my training plan.  Then I’d fill in the day to day stuff.

As I became a frequent marathoner, I started using marathons as my long training runs.  Then I just needed to fill in the day to day stuff.  I also had to make another adjustment.  I no longer had the luxury of tapering for the last three weeks before a race.  I also no longer had the luxury of taking it easy for a few weeks after a race.  When you’re doing a marathon every other weekend (or every weekend), you have to train through the races.  Each race was also a long training run for the next one.

Now, even more than before, I was making it up as I went.  I could plan the races, but I couldn’t plan the day to day stuff too far ahead.  I filled in the details one week at a time.  Even then, I sometimes had to make adjustments.  I got in the habit of asking myself “what’s the best thing I can do today to get myself ready for my next big race?”

That brings us to this week.  Sometimes the answer to that question is, “rest.”  This week I took two unscheduled rest days.

Since February, I’ve been doing physical therapy to strengthen my hips, glutes, adductors and core.  After a two month break to heal from injuries, I started training at the beginning of March.  I had no aerobic base.  I also couldn’t run properly.  I had to relearn how to run.  I needed to make more progress with PT before I was strong enough to run properly.

My PT exercises always push me to my limit.  If the exercises start to get easy, my therapist gives me tougher ones.  I realized quickly that I shouldn’t try to run and do PT on the same day.  They both used the same muscles.  If I ran first, I couldn’t do PT with proper form.  If I did PT first, I couldn’t run with proper form.

Obviously, that limited how often I could run.  At first, I alternated between running days and PT days.  More recently, in an effort to pick up my mileage, I switched to two running days for each PT day.

I’ve been making good progress with both the PT and the running, but this week I had a small setback.  Monday was a PT day.  I felt fine while I was doing my exercises, but later in the day, I noticed some discomfort around my right ankle.  I’d stop short of saying it hurt, but it didn’t feel right.  It seemed like there was no elasticity.

I do most of my exercises one leg at a time.  Some of them are done in a standing position, so I’m supporting my weight on one leg as I do them.  My best guess is that I twisted my ankle slightly while doing one of these exercises.

My ankle still didn’t feel right on Tuesday, so I took a rest day.  That meant I would fall short of my mileage goal for August, but it was more important to make sure I didn’t make the ankle worse.  My next race is mostly downhill.  It’s going to put a lot of stress on my legs and joints, so I need to be 100 percent.

Wednesday morning, I felt better, but I still didn’t quite feel normal.  I took another rest day.  It was my third straight day without running.  Not only did I fall short of my August mileage goal, but I took a noticeable step backwards from July.  I used to obsess too much about mileage goals.  Having made mistakes in the past, I’m more cautious now.  There will be other months to rebuild my mileage base, but I needed to stay healthy.

This morning, the ankle felt normal.  I decided to run today, but nothing stressful.  I set out to run 10 miles at a casual pace.  My route had a few hills, but it wasn’t unusually hilly, and I wasn’t planning to take them too hard.  I just wanted to get in some easy miles.  It was like taking my legs out for a test drive.

At this point, I need to point out that 10 miles used to be routine.  When I was healthy, well-trained, and racing every weekend, I made 10 miles my minimum distance.  I did that so I could rest on the days before and after races, but still run 60+ miles a week.  If I wasn’t pushing the pace, 10 miles was effortless.  More often than not, my mind would wander.  I would enter a meditative state, where running effortlessly allowed me to clear my mind of everyday stress.

That was then.  This is now.  When I resumed running last March, 10 miles wasn’t routine.  I had to build up to it.  It was a “long run.”  Eventually, I got to the point where 10 miles didn’t feel like a marathon, but it still wasn’t easy.

Most of my runs this summer have been in the range of six to eight miles.  Often I’d tell myself, “If I feel good, I’ll run 10 miles.”  I rarely did.  I’ve always preferred to run in the late afternoon.  I do that even in the summer.  I challenge myself to adapt to summer heat.  It’s always tough at first, but usually gets easier by the middle of July.  This year, running in the heat never got that easy.  Maybe it’s because I was still out of shape at the start of the summer.  Maybe it’s because I’m not running as many miles as I used to.  I sometimes ran 10 miles, but it wasn’t routine, and it certainly wasn’t effortless.

Because I had two rest days, I started today’s run with fresh legs.  I started at a comfortable pace.  I didn’t plan to pick up the pace.  If I felt good, I’d run 10 miles.  I started with a 1.75 mile loop through my neighborhood.  After stopping to drink some water, I ran the same loop again.  So far, that was 3.5 miles.  After another water stop, I set out on an out-and-back course that’s 6.6 miles.  That would give me a total of 10.1 miles.  I still felt good.

So far, my ankle still felt normal.  Because my out-and-back route has a few hills, I wanted to pay close attention to how my ankle felt running downhill.  I wasn’t planning to run hard, but I usually focus on form.  That includes a slight forward lean going downhill.  That usually makes me speed up, whether or not I’m trying to run fast.

Here’s where my routine run became remarkable.  My mind started to wander.  That hasn’t happened all year.  I’m always focused on form.  Even when I run slowly, it never feels easy.  There always enough effort and attention to detail that I can’t relax.  Today, that changed.

For most of those last 6.6 miles, my mind was floating from one topic to the next.  I wasn’t paying attention to my form.  I wasn’t paying attention to how I felt.  I was just running, and it was effortless.

I have no idea how my ankle felt on the hills.  I have no idea if I was going fast on the downhill.  I don’t actually remember the hills.  I don’t remember running at all.  It just happened.  I remember each place where I needed to cross a major street.  I remember having to wait for traffic.  I remember reaching the turnaround point.  That’s it.  I was oblivious to the actual running.

Being able to float through most of my run and let my mind wander is something I’ve missed.  Up until today, every run was hard work.  I couldn’t actually enjoy it.  I’ve finally got that back.

There was one other thing about today’s run that was remarkable.  I can still remember the first time I ran 10 miles without feeling like it was difficult to finish.  That was about 20 years ago.  I always felt like that was a big milestone.  You need to reach a certain fitness level before running 10 miles can be effortless, even at a slow pace.

After my run, I realized I didn’t remember most of it.  That’s when I realized I was never working hard.  I had a 10 mile run that was effortless.  I’m still not as fit as I used to be, but I reached an important milestone today.

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