Runnng for Joy

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I had trained for four months to attempt my first half marathon in over five years, the almost exact amount of time since I tore my left hamstring (high hamstring tendinopathy or HHT) during speed training for another marathon. I endured several years of no running, almost no walking some days as the spiking pain overcame any sense of physical capability. I tried ‘most every treatment imaginable, physical therapy, acupunture, chiropractic sessions, corticosteriod shots (eased pain for a month or two but masked the worsening injury), more physical therapy, autologous blood injection (twice; no improvement), plasma-rich blood injection (maybe a little relief), running gait analysis three-years post-injury when I was starting to jog slowly and for short distances, Pilates-centric core strength training, stretches, whey protein drinks, visits to highly-recognized academic sports medicine clinics, special glasses to help my body retrain itself to be in a more neutral position (the theory being less over-compensation by my hamstrings because I’d have to work the glutes and the quads more), etc. Needless to say, the depression and frustration during these past five years from not being physically as active as I wanted, almost needed, dominated my thoughts and my actions.

During several periods I slowly and carefully began running again, only to be thwarted at about the six to seven mile distance; and then, I’d stop entirely, try another physical therapist with new ideas about my injury and/or strength (or lack thereof) and programs to re-ignite recovery. Finally, last fall I began to regain some strength and better mobility and sensibility–trying to be smart about recovery and increasing speed, strength and endurance (the magic “three” that need to be synchronized for extended running to be achieved). I ran several 5k fun runs and finished first in my age group (although admittedly, by now, at my age (60-64) not many women are running). On New Year’s Day I ran a 10k, the first since the fateful injury in March 2010. The morning was chilly but clear, perfect start for another year, if not another day. I surprised myself and finished without difficulty, although I experienced, again, the biting pain. Fortunately, it didn’t last but clearly my body isn’t as it once was. 

Hope springs eternal as I decided to register for a half marathon. I reasoned I had four months to train, the typical length for most any training program. I faithfully followed the structured days, using a method that alternated running with cross-training (for me, primarily bicycling and occasionally swimming), to lessen the overall stress on the legs. I started doing track intervals or short sprints, which I actually enjoyed. I began intervals, longer runs at faster than race pace with slow easy miles inbetween the faster ones. One day a week was alloted to longer ones, going from eight miles up to fifteen on the schedule (although at my start, my longest run was the 10k or 6.2 miles). Some days went well, others the stretch of old scar tissue gripped me in vise-like pain. I told very few people of my plan, not wanting them to think my recovery was complete and that I only needed to put in the miles to prepare. Each day was a question, in my uncertain mind, of my limits to doing what I so wanted to do. Jealous of the good runs, afraid to jinx them, I suppose, I kept most of my training and progress to myself. 

As the half marathon date approached, I experienced some new pain, really almost a weakness, in my right glutes/pelvic area after some longer runs. I hoped the previous five years had taught me some lessons so I backed off the tapering even more than recommended, barely running the last two weeks. And then, I began not sleeping, not uncommon for me, but exacerbated by my concern about re-injury if I ran the half. Oh, I could probably do it at a slow pace, but I wanted to do it at a “real” pace, not a “well, of course, you’re older” pace. Funny the things we thing about when we think about getting older, having less capacity, seeing others decline or blame immobility or balance or sedentary life-style on “well, we’re older.” I refuse to take that attitude, although it is true that the body’s recovery and strength (cellular and muscular) decline over time.

The day before the race I read a note about a runner who’d just turned 40, now in the master’s category, and deciding that running for the long-haul was her choice, and not just maximizing the next run. Deep breath, yes, that is what I needed to do, what I’d told myself I’d do this time around as I started to run again. The decision: run the 10k, see how you do, how you recover, register for another half marathon when the ligaments and connective tissues are stronger and match the muscle strength.

The run was magical: cool but clear, along narrow roads next to just-greening vineyards, some rolling hills, but nothing overwhelming. I checked my pace on my Garmin watch, about what my previous 10k runs had been–or so I thought. I remember thinking the day before that if I wasn’t going to run the half marathon I should try to beat my last 10k time. Well, that seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. But somehow, somewhere, deep inside me, and seemingly unbeknownst to be, I found some strength and speed and raced to the finish in a time of 47:07 or a pace of 7:35 min/mile, something I’d only seen on my track workouts for 1000 yards at most. I was stiff and achy but inside, fireworks! How can I describe my joy at this simple yet marvelous feat for me? The world is in chaos and I cheer, silently, about a six mile run, fast for me, like molasses for elite runners.

I think of my father, his “run, run, stay light on your feet” admonishments to me all those early summer mornings many years ago when we played tennis on the junior high school courts before the town was awake. I was the least-likely of his five children to seek these goals; still, I think he’d be proud of me. My husband, who runs easily although with much concentration on mechanics, nutrition and form, believes in me. My sons were proud of me, although what must they think about this white-haired woman in shorts so obsessed about running? 

Friends congratulated me; some recognizing the effort over the past years; others in general for job well done; while others questioned what I was doing, aren’t many our age already sedentary or arthritic? Am I taunting the gods with wanting to be better than my former self? I suppose in the end I want to continue to thrive, to challenge myself, to live the best life I can, whether it’s running, helping others with my philanthropic work or being a loving, thoughtful, trusted mother, grandmother and wife. I can only be me.

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