The first double-digit run in a training regimen carries a lot of psychic weight for a runner; it occupies an outsized space in the mind while — at least for me, now — moving the body into the realm of serious mileage.
I wasn’t looking forward to tackling the distance this morning. An 8-mile run two weeks ago left me sore and spent; it was the kind of disheartening experience that reminded me of just how young I no longer am and made me question whether I have any business training for a half-marathon.
And then today, and a run I knew immediately would be different. I eased in at a 10-minute pace, and let my body find a comfortable rhythm as it warmed to the familiar motion. By the end of the first mile, a smile had spread across my face. And there it stayed as the miles unfurled: I ran along a river into a cool, gentle head wind, waving at other runners and cyclists and grinning like an idiot.
I would be lying if I said those 10 miles were entirely pleasant. Around Mile 6, my right hand started to tingle and go numb, the result of a shoulder injury aggravated by repetitive motion. Around Mile 8, the ghost of a water- skiing injury began making plaintive noises deep in my glute. And all along, my bunions were working in earnest at breaking through the inner toebox of my relatively new shoes; as off-kilter bone, they will eventually prevail, but the process can be painful.
Running feet take a pounding, and after several decades, mine are downright ugly: thickened toenails, most lost at one time or another to too many miles in a not-quite-right shoe; blister atop callus atop bunion; ground-in dirt that seems as permanent as a tatoo. The veins are so pronounced that my chickens regularly mistake them for worms and attempt to tug them from my feet.
But they work still, those feet, and today there was something else working too, some X factor that runners know well. Yes, I have been training in the two weeks since that miserable 8-miler, and I can feel my body growing stronger. I ran earlier this morning than I did that day; it was cooler. And I had a packet of energy gel, a departure from my coffee-only routine. Maybe that accounts for it.
Or maybe not. I put a palm-sized bruise on my inner thigh yesterday muscling out an old fence post, then inhaled concrete dust installing the new. I might reasonably have anticipated a tough run as a result. But I got instead 92 minutes of grace — my body settled at a 9:12 pace — the last five miles slightly faster than the first. And I know from experience that, had I been sensible and rested yesterday instead of building fence, I might nonetheless have had a tough run this morning. I can explain neither.
Running is like that. When you’re training, you figure out a good plan and stick to it: You do the work. You eat right. You stay hydrated. You try to get enough rest. You bring every element to bear that you know will support your best effort.
Still, you never know how it’s all going to turn out on race day. Sometimes you eat the bear; sometimes the bear eats you.
But training again in a focused manner has reminded me powerfully that the race itself is not the most important thing; it is, rather, an end to a means. A race defines a goal; the goal determines the preparation. But it’s in that preparation — in the means — that the good stuff happens, and even the hard stuff that ultimately turns out to be good because of what you learn — or remember — about yourself in the doing.
Always, aging is instructive: I understand that I will never again be the pain-free runner of my youth. I understand that I will always be tired after hard effort. I accept that the best I can hope from training is to delay — to mile 8, 10, 12 — the onset of sensations that make middle-aged running a challenge. To push them out; to expand the space where grace may yet be experienced.
Getting older has taught me, too, to appreciate caprice, to understand that I can neither predict nor control what my experience will be on a given day. I can prepare, yes, but then the run has its own life: sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, often a little of both.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking it around Mile 4 this morning: God, I hope I have a day like this on race day!
And then my grin got a little broader: You have it today, I thought. You have it today.