by Natalie Ziemba
Although I enjoy the company of others on a run, running has always been primarily a solitary pursuit. I need the meditation that comes with the repetition of step after step for mile after mile, focusing only on how my body is functioning in the moment, and as my running has improved, I have also begun to enjoy the physical challenge of running. Occasionally I even find myself in awe of what my body can achieve. At best, running unites physical, mental, and emotional functioning at the pinnacle of strength and ability. At worst, it pits the systems against each other, emphasizing discrepancies and weaknesses. The slightest difference may be the determining factor between the two.
One day, I encountered that difference in a spectacular manner as I contemplated a fairly straightforward choice. Either I could attend my regular Sunday morning workout, which combined challenging exercise with supportive, encouraging friends, or I could go on a long training run with two people from my running group, one of whom was my very recent ex. Every fiber of my being strained toward the right decision, but I ignored heartache, routine, and common sense, and opted for the long run instead. I justified this decision as necessary for training. I was running faster, stronger, and better than I ever had before, demolishing my personal records in my two most recent races. I was on fire, and my feet were itching for more. I wanted to test my endurance to see how soon I could plan to do another marathon, and a 15-mile training run would be a good way to start. After all, it was exercise one way or the other. How could either choice really be a bad choice?
I knew better, of course, because I was coming off some sort of breakup. Due to some combination of miscommunication and misinterpretation, Dave and I had never clearly defined what was happening between us. When we had “the conversation,” which happened on Friday, I wasn’t happy with the answer. On Saturday, in keeping with my previous plan, I ran a race with his pace group. Although he helped me finish within my goal time, the race felt awful. My mental and emotional states were out of sync with my physical abilities, so I never got in the zone. Rather than learn from my race experience, today I decided to run with Dave yet again because I wanted to be the kind of ex who could still be friends.
The run started off well enough. I was running with Dave and Rick, both of whom had been more or less in winter hibernation and were starting to train for their upcoming summer races. Rick led the run, and we were only a few miles in when he took his first walking break. After standing around for a few seconds, I noticed myself feeling light headed and dizzy. This was unusual, and somewhat concerning. Generally, I had only ever experienced this at the end of a race, and certainly not so early in a training run. Keeping up appearances was the priority, though, so I ignored it and continued the run without saying anything.
Eventually, the breaks grew longer and more frequent until we ended up consistently walking with about three miles left in our planned route. Dave shared stories from some of his other grueling training runs that had resulted in complete physical breakdown in an effort to keep the misadventure from turning into defeat. Although I understood his reason for sharing, Dave’s stories seemed condescending and I felt both resentful and humiliated as I struggled against my own degeneration. I could barely keep up with Rick and Dave, now fighting nausea in addition to feeling light headed and dizzy. To prevent myself from succumbing to total deterioration, I focused on maintaining control of one problem at a time with the hope that enough intentional ignorance would make the others cease to exist. This plan helped me walk for almost two miles, but when my vision became spotty, I gave in. I sagged into a somewhat seated position in the shade of a tree, telling Rick and Dave that I just needed a minute. I sat long enough for my head to stop swimming, and when I felt capable of stumbling some more, we continued on to Rick’s house. While they finished the route to pick up their cars, I curled up on my side and willed my body to resume normal functioning.
The full extent of my body’s refusal to cooperate didn’t hit me until later that day and continued for the next two days. I was completely incapacitated by monstrous acid reflux, which destroyed my ability to eat but not my appetite. My hips, quads, and various other body parts that had been previously unknown throbbed with unrelenting aches and soreness. I could barely sleep that night and spent the next day nursing myself with dangerously high doses of Tums and ibuprofen washed down with equally obscene amounts of ginger ale and mint tea. I didn’t run again until Friday, and then it was only three safe miles around a track.
When I refuse to acknowledge emotional strain, my body has a way of nudging me into recognition, and as my physical recovery progressed, heartache set in. I sought out friends to reassure me that I was both capable and deserving of intimate relationships, and Dave was just a jerk who didn’t recognize what an amazing person I was. These words had accompanied previous breakups, and they echoed hollowly in the gaping cavern that suddenly filled my chest. Validation never seemed to carry enough weight when coming from friends familiar with my weaknesses instead of whatever male du jour happened to fit my vague notion of a loving partner (that I swore I never needed, yet always found myself seeking.) The only option was to plod on with my life as I waited for enough time to pass to begin to feel functional again, and maybe eventually start to rebuild some semblance of independence.
The next Sunday morning, my alarm went off at an unreasonably early hour. My feet were still itching and I wasn’t ready to postpone a marathon just because one training run didn’t go as planned. I headed out by myself to run almost 16 miles starting in the stillness of dawn. After such a disastrous run the week before, I felt wary and took extra precautions by carrying snacks and a water bottle just in case I encountered another breakdown. Initially, I held back, testing myself to be certain of my strength. Soon, I settled in to my regular stride, steadily conquering hills and even pushing myself when I would rather take it easy. I finished the route just in time to join my Sunday morning workout group, and even though my long run was followed by countless squats and lunges, I never once felt nauseous or sore. As I reveled in my physical abilities, the gaping cavern in my chest felt a fraction smaller. Acknowledging my limits, all of them, helped me define my starting point, and now I would work to push past that. Recovery had begun, though the process would take time.