A short history of me and running

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I'm tired of feeling unfit.

That's a funny thing to say, given that I've gone on a surprisingly robust health and fitness kick and seen great results, by any measure, over the last four months.  I have lost two stone, shedding the new-mother weight and then some--this is the lightest I've been since my first year at university or so. I did it on a diet that hasn't left me hungry and tired, and to illustrate the point I got it into my head to start swimming and running. (I think of myself as "really" a cyclist, or as having been one before I got pregnant, but I'm no fan of frozen fingers and toes so my bike remains on sabbatical until it warms up.)

What surprised me most in all that was that I was willing to give running a try. I've always hated it. There was a time in middle school when someone said to me that he thought I would be good at track & field, and I found this inexplicable for a long time. (In retrospect it probably had to do with me being small and skinny.) But I was never comfortable running and never learned to like it. Getting an Air Force ROTC scholarship for university didn't help--I was constantly failing (or only barely scraping by on) the physical fitness tests, they felt horrible, and I was completely clueless about how this might ever change. The Air Force's version of a conditioning program was to send me to 8am physical fitness classes that I could barely wake up in time for. 40 minutes busting my ass twice a week, with no clear road map to how I would actually get fitter, quite frankly did nothing to help. Where push-ups and the flexed arm hang showed me how nonexistent my upper body strength was compared to everyone else, the running showed me how little aerobic fitness I had. All I could do was kill myself and try to be fast enough. When I left AFROTC one of the nicest things was the thought that I'd never have to go running again.

As I approached my thirties I saw more and more of my friends take up running (or even triathlon) for their health and fitness. I always thought they, including my husband, were crazy. Still, in 2007 or so I bought my first pair of running shoes for years, while we were on a trip to California (where the constantly perfect sunny weather just seems to bring out the fitness nut in a person.) I ran a few times, but it still felt miserable and once we were back home in Oxford I started getting shin pain almost instantly. So I gave up the whole idea and went back to cycling.

After my daughter was born at the end of 2010 I put on a lot of weight, I suppose from the stress of a difficult infancy. In May 2011 I tried to do something about it by starting Couch to 5K. I got to the end of week seven before travel intruded; not coincidentally that was also about the time when I was supposed to be running nonstop. The thing that made C25K bearable for me was the intervals, and once I no longer had a walk break to look forward to it became a nonstop slog. Add to that the chronic heel pain (plantar fasciitis) that made a reappearance in the last couple of weeks and, well, I packed it in.

Last October (2012) my husband and I agreed that we both needed to do something about our weight. Cutting calories worked for him immediately, of course; for me, not so much. But in November I switched to an LCHF ("low carb high fat") diet, and around the same time I finally worked up the nerve to investigate the public swimming pool we pass every day on the way to/from my daughter's nursery. Between these two things, well, the kilos FINALLY started shifting and I was starting to feel pretty good about myself (ignoring the time it takes me to swim 50m and the time spent huffing and puffing catching back up on my breath when I'm done...)

Swimming, cycling...how could I not try running one more time? In December, optimistic that the weight loss would solve my chronic heel problem, I returned to C25K. This time I went all the way to the finish and ran my nonstop 30 minutes in the first half of January. And shortly after that I ran my first nonstop 5K, which took a little more than 30 minutes. Meanwhile, to prod my husband back into running (which he wanted/needed but kept finding excuses) I entered him on New Year's Eve into the Z├╝rich Marathon in April. So it seemed only fair that I enter the associated 10K myself. Happy New Year's resolutions! It gave me a goal far enough out to be reasonable, but near enough that I had better not get out of the habit.

And now here I am. I appreciate running, I go voluntarily to do it and I've been amazingly (for me) consistent about it since I started in December. And I certainly like the feeling of getting to stop at the end of a run. But I still don't even know why I keep doing it, because I almost never enjoy the feeling. (Runner's high? Never had such a thing.) It was a landmark the first time I managed, on a run, to think of something other than my pace my cadence my shortness of breath when do I get to stop etc.; now I can do that sometimes but most of my time running is spent noticing how much effort it is to run. If I go by heart rate (range for me is 50ish to 200+), a slow jog has me in the 150s and a medium pace has me around 180. Even climbing stairs or a hill at walking pace will send me zooming up to the 140s. If I'm trying for a 'tempo' pace I'll be averaging in the 190s for more than half the time. I mention these numbers to the runners in my life and they look at me like I'm an alien.

What I am good at, it turns out, is endurance. It's kind of crazy given how unfit I constantly feel, but suffering? I am great at suffering and can do it for hours. (Seriously, hours; ask me about the time I cycled 200 miles/300+km in a day from Oxford to the Cheddar Gorge and back. Or the three days cycling...most of...600km from London to Paris via the Portsmouth ferry. And you know, even then I felt unfit.) I don't think I have ever 'hit the wall' metabolically, and these days I wouldn't much expect to since I've been adapted to very little carbohydrate for months.  But how do I make myself enjoy this?

I think part of the problem lies in my own expectations for how fast I 'ought' to be able to run. The charts in your typical running handbooks, meant primarily for men who are fitter than I am, have me right at the bottom. (But at least I'm on the chart! Progress.) It leaves me with very little idea of how good I can expect to get or how to go about doing it--basically I'm right back in the bad old Air Force ROTC days knowing that I'm supposed to be doing better, and knowing that my capacity for sheer endurance will allow me to keep pushing at it, but not having any idea how to make what I am doing feel like less effort and misery. I made it to 10K a month earlier than anticipated, and started wondering "well where do I go from here?" I still want to be fit, and I want running to work for me, but I don't think I'm going to get there on my own.

A few weeks ago I ran across an organization called Up & Running (no relation to the chain of running shoe stores), which runs online training courses specifically for women. It is a little unlike me to retreat from a mainstream male-dominated environment into what is essentially a safe space, but in this case it might be just what I need. I've just signed up for their self-paced half-marathon training, which I'll start in mid-March. I'm going to be measuring my success not by whether I finish a half marathon (I know I can if I try), or by how fast I go (though obviously I want to do well), but by how fit I can feel at the end of these 12 weeks and whether I can learn to enjoy my time spent running.

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This page contains a single entry by Tara published on March 5, 2013 10:44 PM.

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