Saturday, December 14, 2013

The third mile

Another running epiphany.  And it's not about running at all, really, so see if you can hang on here with me as I get to my point - it's there, I promise.

Today I headed out for a long run.  I'm a bit behind on my mileage for the month because it's been cold enough to be icy, and running on icy sidewalks and paths terrifies me - and doubly so because I live at the top of a hill, and hills, ice, and concrete are a lethal combo.  So, today, with no ice and temps in the upper 40s (how balmy), I laced up my shoes and headed outside.

The first three miles area always, always, always a slog.  I've run several hundred miles this year (I didn't track them all, but I'd say at least 550, maybe more like 650; it's only since September that I've been logging 20-25 miles per week), and this never changes.  I lie in bed, dreading getting up, especially when it's cold.  I lie there for a few minutes, debating: maybe I should roll over.  I'm definitely too tired to get up.  Maybe I'll run tomorrow.  But most of the time, I haul myself out of bed, feeling sleepy and anything but athletic.

Even when my running clothes are on, I'm still debating - maybe I won't go.  I feel achy.  It's not the day today.

But mostly I go.  I remember that I love the running endorphins, that I love being able to eat whatever I like without suffering from a thick middle, that I love feeling strong, I love pushing past what I thought were my limits.

And yet...

In the first three miles, I don't feel even a tiny little bit of that.  I head out the door, feeling proud of myself that I didn't go back to sleep, and then it hits me.  Running is hard.  I go a couple of blocks, waiting to find my stride.  No, it's still hard.  I keep going, and I feel weird little twinges and I think "wait I just barely started and I already feel tired!" and I wonder if I should turn around after three blocks.  I keep going out of sheer stubbornness because, well, I just started and I am out of bed and already feeling sweaty, so I might as well go a bit more, but I start negotiating with myself.  Maybe I'll just run to the water - it's only 1.1 miles, and then maybe I could just sit on a log and admire the view and listen to the changing tide, smell the seaweed, and walk home.  Feeling half certain that is what I will do, I keep going.  I start to think, "Wait, MayMyRun must have stopped, because haven't I gone a mile yet?" as I wait for the little voice on my headphones to tell me my one mile pace.  The voice comes didn't stop, I was just impatient to hear it.

(These days, I often run without music, but I wear the headphones anyway to hear MapMyRun tell me my milage, split pace, and overall time.)

I get to the beach, sigh, and think "One mile isn't far enough.  I should keep going," although I'm not really feeling it.

I push through the roughness of all of it, and the voice in my ear tells me I've gone two miles.  I think, "I should be warmed up by now!"

The next mile is the worst.  I do NOT feel warmed up, my head is NOT in a good space, and it is getting harder, not easier.  I realize that I am a crappy runner, that I may never enjoy it again, and that I'm heading the wrong direction to get home, and that I'll probably be late getting home because I'll have to walk the last couple of miles because it's going so poorly.

Still with me?  Well, good, because this is where the magic starts.

I don't understand it, but after the third mile is where something mysterious happens.  I can't describe it, except that it's the thing that keeps me going through all these miles, it's the thing that means I don't really want to quit.  It's the reason I can get out of bed to go, even when the voices in my head tell me that I'd rather stay wrapped in flannel and down.

At mile three, I stop thinking, and at the exact same time my head fills with all kinds of ideas that come out of nowhere.  I think of nothing, and yet I start to solve all of life's problems.

I forget that I'm running.

I look for seals, orcas, porpoises, eagles, river otters, osprey, blue herons, and sea lions.  I see all kinds of shorebirds that I can not yet name.

My legs keep moving, and I nearly forget them until the voice in my ear keeps counting off the miles.  At the third mile, I'm losing speed and slowing down, but in the fourth, fifth, sixth I find myself getting faster without trying.

I remember what's important to me.  I think about people I know and their struggles, and I wish them healing.  I problem solve things going on in my life.  My legs keep going, and I'm certainly sweaty, but I'm feeling good.

It goes like that for a  few more miles, until I start to move towards my current physical limitations - around mile ten I start feeling it for real, and I reenter the physical world with some more genuine aches and pains, but by then I feel strong and proud and sometimes I push a bit farther past that feeling, too, simply because I can, or sometimes I decide that it's enough, and I'm proud of whatever distance I really did.

What happens after mile three surprises me every time, even though I've grown to anticipate it - I always wonder if that magical feeling will go away, if this time I won't get the epiphanies, if it will be ordinary this time.  But no, at the end of mile three, every time, magic happen.

Today I was really thinking about mile three (when I was in mile four), and the epiphany was this: so often, we try to do something amazing and challenging that brings us closer to our dreams, and when we start, it's really hard and scary and it seems like it's impossible.  We definitely consider going back to bed.  Sometimes we do.  But sometimes, we keep going.  Three miles is considered a respectable distance for a daily run, so often, we use it as our little yardstick - "I did my three miles, so I can stop."

I ran three miles at a time for years and years, and it never really got better.  If only I had known that the magic starts AFTER three miles!  That the endorphins, the thinking, the mind silencing, and the mind productivity, never ever seem to kick in before three miles.  So, for all those years, I ground out the three mile runs, but I always quit just before it got good.

And the epiphany in my epiphany: I think that all my life, I thought that because the beginning was hard, the end would be even harder, and so I never kept going 'til the epiphany, and I gave up after what I thought was a respectable try, taking the good-enough job, the good-enough life, and the good-enough (for a while) partner and marriage.  Ouch.  Because "good enough" isn't good enough, AT ALL.

Right now, I'm in the hard part of my job search: 10 weeks on unemployment, tiny savings dwindling, and more questions than answers.  I've gotten close to what I hoped for, and then been turned down, and I don't know how many times that will happen .

In some sense, it would make sense to quit.  Go back to the familiar - or stay in bed.  I could go back to the world I already know (private sector).  I could lower my salary, benefit, or commuting expectations.  I could run to my parents' house (horrors).

Or I could keep going, and wait for the epiphany.  It always comes, sometimes big, sometimes small, but it comes.  The longer the run, the more it hurts, and the better I feel afterwards.

This evening, I'm lying on the sofa in my PJs while the rest of the world seems to be out and about, playing and having fun, because I'm tired from my run and my legs ache with a slow throbbing.  To someone who doesn't run, maybe that sounds like a form of hell, but to me, it's amazing.  I feel - amazing.  Strong, capable, confident.  Today I ran eleven miles, and it wasn't my best run, because I did a "nutrition experiment" and thought "surely those crazy GU things aren't that great and maybe I can go without them."  Well, I can go for ten miles, but eleven miles pushed me to my edge with no calorie boosts, and I really regretted not having at least one little energy hit and a whole lot more water to keep going.  Did you hear that?  I could "only" run eleven miles.  Crazy. 

I'm going to get the job I'm dreaming of, because I am not quitting at the three mile slump.  Sure, I'll make mistakes like skipping the GU or not drinking enough water (or screwing up an interview or missing an opportunity), but I will keep going.  I'll do another long run next weekend, and next week I'll keep making connections, finding interesting jobs to apply for.  I will run ten miles, or eleven, or fifteen; I will reach out to every connection I can.

But I am NOT stopping when it just starts to get hard, because I want to hold out for the magic.


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