Don't let that photo fool you. I didn't exactly pop out of the womb and onto a racetrack. I was just your average active suburban kid. But my dad was a runner, and I was easily encouraged. Hence the smattering of faded photographic evidence of my mini-Prefontaine years.
Besides a fleeting stint on my middle school track team, I stuck to the sports with balls and points. In college, I even played a few seasons of soccer and lacrosse at my Division III college before settling on club rugby. Sure, I ran, but only in short spurts and with the motivation of a 200-pound, mud-slicked woman named Poppy growling behind me.
It wasn't until I moved to New York in 2002 that I began running on my own. And even then, the exercise was just an inexpensive way to keep my physique in the less-puffy category while surviving on jugs of Carlo Rossi and peanut butter. Back then I lived close to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and since I had the luxury of a 10 a.m. start at work, I had time for leisurely morning jogs. By 2004, I had completed my first half marathon in 1:42 — a time I can now recognize as annoyingly good, considering I didn't think twice about pacing, stretching, sneakers, fuel, or how, say, muscles worked in general. Ah, youth.
And so I continued. It wasn't a big deal. I ran most mornings and signed up for a race every couple of months. I wasn't winning anything or even caring about my time. I just flat out enjoyed it. I'd strap on my sneakers, skip the earphones, and let my feet turn over and my head clear. I felt fantastic, sharp, refreshed. And my God, the ideas I could come up with while sweating! I swear I could have cracked that whole Mideast peace thing and rattled off poems that Emily Dickinson would have envied.
A couple years into my streak, right around the time I hit age 26 or so, my body began to show signs of distress. First it was a bizarre "stomach thing" that no gastro doctor could identify. I'd go off on a long run, maybe six or eight miles, return home, shower, and then, usually mid-rinse, violently double over in intense pain that left me, hair still dripping wet, lying in the fetal position for the next seven hours. It was not fun.
Then it was the good old Iliotibial band (or IT band) syndrome — one of the most common and frustrating of running injuries, because it's basically incurable. It starts out as a burning/pinching sensation at the outside of your knee joint and if you don't lay off, as I didn't, the pain will only worsen to the point where you're walking with a limp and taking the stairs one gimpy leg at a time. The pain eventually sent me to a doctor who diagnosed the syndrome and prescribed three months of physical therapy. If you've never stretched in your running life and are then forced to lie helpless on a table while an extremely fit woman throws all of her weight behind her pointy knuckles that dig ever deeper into the sides of your legs, well, let me tell you, it's no party.
Then it was my calf. Where the IT band afflicts my left leg, my right calf is the one that flares up. It starts off as this gnawing tightness, like someone inflated the lower half of my leg with air and then grabbed hold of the muscle and squeezed. When running, that grip becomes a vise that turns ever tighter with each step.
Considering these mounting ailments, my morning runs are now a little more, uh, tense. Instead of a clear head, my mind mulls over concerns about this sensation or that feeling. Was that good pain or bad pain? Is that ligament about to go? I hope my knee can handle that hill! And so on.
And yet... I keep running. Sometimes my body cooperates and I can hit a smooth stride and enjoy the view, my thoughts, my music. Sometimes I can even delude myself into thinking I'm not injury prone, that those hobbled stretches of time were just flukes. Sometimes I even think I can run a marathon.
In 2010, encouraged by a good friend who's a seasoned marathoner, I signed up for the Chicago marathon. I dived into the training, becoming diligent about stretching before and after my runs. And each week my mileage clocked up and I was running distances that never seemed possible before — 14, 15, 16 miles. Besides a few hiccups, including a nasty fall that left little pebbles embedded in my palm, I was feeling awesome, and ready.
And then, one weekday morning a month and a half before the race, I looked outside to find that it was pouring rain. "Eh, forget it," I thought. "I'll just go to the treadmill." And that's how I got my first calf tear. When I went to a sports massage therapist a few days later, she scolded me. "What, did you think you would melt in the rain?" I had to sit out two weeks of training. When I got back into it, the calf seemed to manage and I was able to squeeze in a 19-mile run before the race.
When the big day finally came, the weather was hot but clear, and the screaming crowds that line the streets pushed me happily forward. But around mile 12, my IT band decided to make an appearance. The pain was immediate and intense but there was no way I was bowing out. With each passing mile the burning pinch would get a few degrees higher and the imaginary hand would dig a few inches further until part of my leg just went numb. But as long as I didn't stop, I could almost ignore it. Running lopsided and bent over nearly 90 degrees, I crossed that finish line, weeping openly as I did, more from the exhaustion than the pain, but who knows. It took me 4:37, which wasn't bad considering I ran half of it through piercing pain. But I paid for that relative success. I hobbled for two weeks and couldn't run for six months.
This is me around mile 20. I'm smiling, it's true, but if you look closely I might also be crying. Oh, and this guy in green? He's my running spirit animal.
I'll never do it again, I said.
But here I am, three years later, training to run another marathon.
I've lived in New York for a decade and have cheered for this marathon nearly each November. I had to be a part of this city-wide spectacle while I still could.
And so I embark upon my first week of my 16-week training program. Looking down the barrel of 800 training miles, I'm not daunted. In fact, I'm really looking forward to it. When you come so close to not being able to run, and are finally back on the road, you appreciate all this crazy sport does for you. Running is a personal thing (says the girl who is writing a blog post about it). I've never joined a running group and rarely run with a buddy. I wake up early whether I'm in the city, on vacation, or traveling, and hit the streets to clear my head.
So this second time around, I aim to do this right. I've been doing my research over the past couple of months and I've made some adjustments. I'm running differently now, as I understand it might stave off the IT band pain. And I'm thinking about switching shoe brands — really edge-of-your-seat decisions here. Also, in anticipation of the next four months, I've set out a few goals:
1) Train without injury so that I can run the race in November
2) Run the race without injury, or, at least, without permanently damaging something
3) Finish the race in under 4 hours
It doesn't seem so hard, right?
Except that, I should tell you something. Are you sitting down?
I'm already injured.
I know, it's like you just get into a movie and I kill off the main character! It's my calf again. But I've done the sports massage, I've laid off of it, stretched, and iced it for two weeks now, so I should be able to get back on the horse, so to speak, any day now. So while I am running all of 0 miles of the necessary 35 miles of this first week, I have full confidence that I'll have better news to report next time. And, as luck would have it, I'm going on vacation to Maine — one of the most gorgeous places I've ever had the pleasure to run. My body has to cooperate. It would be cruel otherwise.