Saturday, December 15, 2007

Running addiction

In March 2005, I went out for a routine 4 mile run. I took about three strides, not even making it as far as my across-the-street neighbor's house when KABOOM! . . . my left knee just exploded, ricocheting pain all up and down my left leg, pain that I had never, ever experienced so acutely. Twelve years before, I had arthroscopic surgery on my right knee to repair some cartilage damage that had been an on-again, off-again source of aggravation since my first year in graduate school. That knee problem had just degenerated into a chronic condition that kept me from running for about two months. Three weeks after my surgery in October 1993, I returned to running, although never to return to the glory years that had culminated in a 2.53.46 marathon time the October before.

The second knee surgery came and went three weeks after my initial injury. But something curious happened after that -- I completely lost my desire to run. For some time, I hadn't particularly enjoyed my runs. I did them, but they felt like going to a job I didn't like, something I hadn't experienced since my four days as a dishwasher for Gino's Pizza when I was 15 years old. I couldn't wait to get back on the ice to play hockey. I was excited to start playing my drums again (as a left-handed drummer, I need my left foot to play the kick drum) and I even thought about playing golf again, a once regular enterprise that had, since my daughter's birth in 1999, been relegated to an occasional bucket of balls at the practice range.

About a month after my surgery, I bought a bike, and started biking on a semi-regular basis. I didn't (and haven't) turned into one of those crazy 100 mile-on-the-weekend cyclists. My bike rides are pretty much limited to commuting back and forth to campus, errands in downtown Bethesda and small trips in my neighborhood. For almost 2 1/2 years, I didn't run, except to illustrate drills for my son's baseball team. I was fearful that I would get hurt again, yes. But I really had just burned out after almost 30 years of running. There were peaks and valleys in my training -- lots of running my junior and senior year in high school, summers between college but less steady during the academic year, serious running in graduate school, including my first marathon, consistent throughout my twenties and into my early thirties, then a precipitous drop-off in my late 30s and early 40s. Even when I would take a break, usually never more than a week or two, I knew I would always go back.

So not to run from March 2005 until late June 2007 was a big deal. I'm not sure what made me lace of my running shoes on that random mid-week day and see if I could still pull it off. The weather was hot and humid as hell, but I had always liked running in that weather because, growing up in Atlanta, that was all I knew. I stretched a little bit -- although I never really stretched when I was a more competitive runner -- and took off to run a route I knew was no more than 2.5 miles. I didn't hurry, I didn't look at my watch because I didn't wear one, I didn't think about what I had to do at home or work . . . I just ran.

And it felt great.

No matter what other sport you play with a high aerobic component, there is nothing like the first sweat you break from a good run. Hockey is the only sport I have ever played where I feel as, and sometimes more, exhausted as running. Hockey, though, is anaerobic. For 45 seconds to 90 seconds, you go all out, take a two minute rest, and then get back out there. Running allows you to settle into a groove, tweak it a bit, and just relax -- sort of like playing a good blues or rock rhythm. Just keep it simple and let the space guide you.

So since that June day I have been running on a regular basis. Not a lot -- just three miles or so three times a week. And, no, like an idiot, I have not replaced biking or anything else with running. I've just added it to the list. Perhaps it's no wonder that, for someone who is supposed to be in such good shape, I feel tired more than I should.

Running now is much different for me than it once was. I have a nice route I take. I'm in no hurry to finish. I bring my iPod along so I can listen to music I always thought would be nice running accompaniment. I'm not "training" for anything or trying to hit target mileage points or break certain times. I'm not cataloging my running in a diary to make sure I am meeting my goals or keeping up with previous years. I don't have any desire to race, although I did get to run with my nine year-old teenage daughter in a 5K race that was the season-ending celebration for a running program she participated in this fall called, "Girls on the Run." I am running now because it feels good. Even though the weather this morning was cold and rainy, I put my stuff on and went out anyway, knowing that I was simply out to enjoy the run for what it was . . . .

. . . until I saw I guy about three phone poles in front of me. Do I let it go or do I draft him? If I do draft him, do I pass him on the hill to get in his head or just let him hear the footsteps, the blow past him on the downhill? Or do I do nothing at all and just enjoy the run? Remember, the competitive days are behind me.

Or they were until I caught and passed him. Half a mile later, I turned around and he was out of sight.

Now I could relax and enjoy the run.

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