When I was a little girl, I had an autograph book. It was not for rock stars or celebrities; rather, I filled its pages with the thoughts of people I admired in my 8-year-old world. It had a sage-green, glossy cover — vinyl maybe, but nice vinyl — and creamy paper pages. Linen stock. Its dimensions were little more than those of a postcard.
I don’t recall how I came to possess it — a birthday present, perhaps — but I was a serious child, and I set about collecting brief snippets of wisdom from important people, all of whom I have now forgotten except my mother. She wrote about perseverance — I can still picture her perfect penmanship against the ivory page — and then she explained it to me: what it meant to keep trying, to not quit.
She doesn’t remember doing this, but I have never forgotten. What she wrote and said that day became a part of my identity, and in the half-century since, the principle of perseverance has guided many of my professional and personal choices. I consider it a point of pride to finish what I start. And mostly, that has been a good thing.
So it was hard today to quit during my last long training run for a half-marathon. I had planned to do the exact course — 13.1 miles — which seemed reasonable. My last long run, a few weeks ago, had gone well; those 12 miles weren’t easy, but they were no harder than they should have been, and I had kept up with training.
But today, around Mile 11, the residue of an old injury kicked in, and the familiar discomfort radiated from my glute to the front of my right hip and became something more: pain. My mind was still saying “go,” but my body was saying “no.”
I don’t often experience this. Fatigue? Yes. The usual assortment of aches and pains that visit a middle-aged runner as the miles accumulate? Yes. A certain amount of inner whining if a particular day feels especially hard? Yes. I am used to running through all that– to persevering — and my body goes along, even if it is sometimes a little cranky with me.
Today was different. Something was not right: hydration, rest, diet. The stars weren’t aligned. We don’t always know what makes one run feel good and another bad. But after holding pace for an hour and forty minutes, my body was rapidly decompensating.
I don’t know about you, but I have non-running friends who assume runners are bouyed by a constant wave of endorphins — that we get a runner’s high that they don’t experience. It’s fun for us; it’s not for them. And that’s why we do it.
This is hogwash, of course — which is not to say that we don’t experience the occasional run that feels like flying, that makes anything seem possible. But expecting endorphins to show up every time you run is like expecting the muse to show up every time you write. More often than not, it doesn’t happen. You do it anyway, because you believe in the overarching value of the discipline.
Like so much else, running gets harder with age; the faith gets tested. The body can’t do what it once could, and hard effort exacts a toll from middle-aged muscles that it doesn’t from pliable youth. Serious training requires a willingness to persevere through baseline discomfort that can readily morph into something more significant and potentially injurious. And so, as we grow older, discernment becomes no less important than perseverance; we need to be sensitive to these bodies that have given us so much for so long, and honor them when they reach their limits.
I was reminded of that today: Often, we need the courage to persevere. But sometimes, we need the wisdom to quit.