What I do when I’m not training

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Really? It’s been nearly a full year since I last posted here. Damn. 

Here’s what happened. I got tired and I got shy. Everything I wrote felt banal. What used to feel important just felt not worth anyone’s time. 

Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s all just blah blah blah my life blah blah blah insert universal point here. Or maybe I was thinking too much and not letting the juicy stuff flow. Whichever it is, I figured I ought give this another try. I’ll post at least once a week for…well, for a while, and I’ll see how that feels. 

I started this summer with plans to compete in a difficult trail race in August. I was looking forward to the challenge. 

I can pinpoint the 6 mile trail run that did me in. It didn’t seem that way at the time. But, walking in New Orleans in the days following that run, I could feel my leg just — stop — just give out and I thought, wow, my quads are tight. They were, but it was more than that. I kept walking and running and sometimes it felt okay, even the day I ran a hard 4 miles up hill and up trail and then 4 miles back down. The runs after that stopped feeling okay, but I still got up early one morning to join friends for a cement road run. When I got out of the car, that was it: my left leg was not connected. I used my hands to lift my leg out of the car and limped hard through the next few weeks. 

Because I couldn’t walk or run, I got into the pool. Blessed be and holy wow, I am so grateful that I learned to swim as a kid. 

I swam a bit after college and on and off when my kids were young, and I’d taught myself how to breathe out of both sides during freestyle laps. It was difficult for me the first few times in the pool not to compare swimming to running. There’s no comparison. 

The first few swims, I counted my laps. Then I looked online to see equivalents: one mile of swimming is equivalent to how much running. Obsessively for three days, I read reviews of swimming watches so I could find one that would help me measure both distance and time in the pool. I thought about what I would need to do to go farther and faster. I was going to turn swimming into running. I’d work out X hard for Y amount of time. 

One day in the pool, I noticed I was starting to feel tired. I’d lost count of the laps. I wasn’t sure I had done enough or that my workout was sufficiently hard. But I was sure that my body had gotten tired and felt ready to stop. So I chose to push just a bit beyond that first signal and told myself to swim five more laps. Then I stopped. I’d measured my swim by  my body.  

I found an outdoor pool, and I discovered how much fun it is to swim with fins. Knowing my arms and shoulders needed to build up strength, I crept up from swimming twice a week to three times and now I’m at four times, including some speed laps. I am beginning to feel stronger. And more alive in the water. 

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, more than a month, I took my dog Zee for a walk. I went super slowly. I stopped often to stretch. I danced some of the steps, or walked backwards, or walked wide stance, whatever I could to reduce the intensity of step-step-step. Walking hurts more than anything else right now (I’m not even trying to run). Swimming feels good, and I always feel better after dancing Nia. This was the first time I walked and didn’t feel worse afterwards. 

I’m excited that some day — will it take another month? — I’ll walk without pain, and my dog and I can wander for an hour or two. 

Because I am not entirely bat-shit crazy, I know I’ve got to take it slowly when I’m strong enough to return to running. I can do a mix of running/walking and I can try pool running. I like the idea of running two or three times a week, out on the bosque trails with my dog who needs to run, maybe 4 or 5 or 6 miles. Just to run. 

When I started competing in races, I didn’t realize how much this would change my perspective on movement, exercise, and training. I began to see a five mile run as kind of nothing. It wasn’t a hard workout. Doesn’t every athlete put in two hours a day? My Nia classes weren’t always intense, so, sure, I can run in the morning and dance in the afternoon. Teaching a Nia class became my rest day. There were no days off. I didn’t want days off. 

I added in weight training not because it’s fun and intrinsically motivating but because I was supposed to (it’s encouraged for post-menopausal women) and, well, it would make me a stronger runner. Some of the training is fun, sure, and I’ve learned a lot. But given a choice of dancing, running, walking, hiking, biking, or swimming, strength & weight training comes in last. A friend challenged me - why was I doing this thing if it’s not about the joy of movement? 

Training to compete can take up a lot of energy and time. Everything in life – what we eat, what we do when we’re not training – becomes a part of training. Even at my level (a million miles away from professionals and pre-professionals), training took up lots of mental and physical energy that was no longer available for other things. It was fun, and it became part of my identity. But it also came at a cost. 

Part of my identity – I’m strong! I love going fast and hard and working out several times a day! – has been challenged by my injuries. Am I not that strong? Do I really want to work out that often and that hard? Is competition important to me? If it is, why? What do I get out of training? What do I get out of the medal around my neck after a race?

At first, the idea of not training and competing hit me hard – a loss. Not only that – fear. Would I completely fall apart physically if I’m not pushing myself that hard? Will I become ordinary? Will I become unable to push fast and hard anymore? I don’t want to lose that ability to go turbo. 

I love running. I love training, too, though sometimes training is not about the joy of movement. I don’t know how I feel about that. Most athletes just take it — sure, sometimes it’s painful but you just suck it up and do it. There is a great sense of accomplishment in pushing hard, especially on a day when maybe we didn’t think we wanted to work out at all. 

Last year I ran 1200 miles. I know because I logged almost all of my miles on Strava (a miles counting app for cycling and running). In November when I saw how close I was to 1200, I pushed to make that number. But you know what? Nobody cares. It’s just a number. It doesn’t define me. This year will be far fewer miles, and I didn’t stop being Beth or stop having worth. 

Here’s the other thing. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember if it was 1000 or 1100 or 1200. I think it was 1200. (I could check; all my numbers are waiting for me on Strava.) 

I’ve worked hard to run personal best times (PRs) in races but I don’t remember those numbers either. I trained for months, ran my best, earned a PR, and, yeah, I do not remember my time or how I placed. Nobody will ask me; nobody will care. 

The value in training to compete is whatever we learn and experience as we train. Race day is just one day. Somehow I have been defining myself by this training and those numbers, but I don’t exactly know what are those numbers. 

This spring, I gave up my scale. I decided it did not actually matter what I weighed. Seeing the number wasn’t helpful and sometimes was harmful. I felt happy or less happy depending on the number, which is seriously messed up.  

And how different was that from running? From being happy or not with a run depending on how far or fast I went? 

After giving up the scale, I gave up my running watch. Man, I loved that watch. I loved those numbers. Yet I also was valuing my run at least in part on distance and speed. The joy of movement isn’t quantifiable. If I’m not training, I do not need to know how far or fast I’m going. 

 A decision about whether I define myself as an athlete or not and whether I will continue to compete or not is not a permanent decision. It’s also not separate from my self-identity and lifestyle. What will I make room for in my life when I’m not training to race? Where will all that energy go when it’s not going toward training?

 I’m enjoying myself in ways I have not in long while. I jump into that pool with no expectations beyond feeling better when I get out. I sit outside for hours in the evening, reading mostly but also watching the sun go down and the stars come out. 

No one will give me a medal for being in the moment. It’s how I will remember this summer, at least in part. Being in the water. Being in the sun. Being in that chair with my feet up and a book in my hands.