I read an article in last month’s Runner’s World by a lifelong runner who’d been plagued by injuries but had successfully returned to running after changing his form. I didn’t save the piece, because I didn’t consider the possibility that it wouldn’t be posted online in the year 2012, but the basic point I remember was this: While the author was thrilled to be running again, he found that the constant string of mental cues he used to maintain his new form killed the joy that used to kick in around the 18th minute of every run. Before, when the 18th minute rolled around, he could shut off his brain and relax; now, that minute, and every other minute, came and went and he was just as keyed up as ever, thinking about running, not letting go.
I related. Related is a weak word; I wanted to pull out a highlighter and bracket key phrases and maybe hang the thing on my wall to remind me that I am not the only person who’s ever felt like a stranger in his or her own body while running. (And I’m not the only person: Lauren at Health on the Run recently wrote about running feeling mechanical, not peaceful, after an injury. Clearly, this is common.)
But honestly? I was never a runner whose mind switched off when her feet hit the ground. I started running when I was 25, after approximately 24 years of avoiding it, and it never felt easy or natural. I always felt awkward, lumbering down the sidewalk, feeling like I was taking up more space and making more noise than anyone around me. It was a lesser evil than the gym, so I kept doing it, but running didn’t click for me until I ran more than five miles and realized that my own joy came more from covering distance and being outside (and, frankly, getting caught up in entertaining podcasts) than from any particular freedom in the movement itself.
My “18th minute” is something a little different. I miss being an ignorant runner — in the ignorance-is-bliss sense of the word.
When I started running, I ran in some crap shoes from DSW. I … might have stretched — I was doing a lot of yoga at the time, so maybe I just got by with that — but I certainly didn’t know what a foam roller was. (A trainer at my gym tried to explain it once; I didn’t understand why sitting on the black hurty thing would be good for my workouts.) I didn’t think about how many miles per week I was running, or whether I was running too fast or too slowly, or whether I’d run too many days or not enough. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was awesome.
Sometime in that first spring of regular running, someone told me about Shoe Dog, a service at the local RoadRunner that would look at my gait and get me in proper running shoes. I got injured for the first time that summer, and saw a podiatrist, and got told my shoes were all wrong and my feet were a mess, and got orthotics, and got other shoes, and got injured, and got told my shoes were all wrong, and got injured, and I really don’t need to write the rest because if you just repeat that cycle about six times, you’ll get to today.
I also always got better, and I ran a bunch of 10Ks and half-marathons and learned to love longer and longer distances and had the confidence to sign up for a marathon. It shouldn’t sound like it was all dire, because it wasn’t all dire, or I would have ditched running for something else long ago.
But somewhere in the mess of shoes and insoles and resistance bands and PT exercises and spreadsheets calculating exactly what 10% weekly mileage increases look like, running became high-maintenance. Or rather, I became high-maintenance. I didn’t lose the sense of freedom and clarity and peace that came from running, because that was never my relationship with running. But I did lose the freedom and clarity and peace that came with knowing I could go for a damn run — when I wanted to, where I wanted to, for how long I wanted to, without worrying about whether I was going to have enough time to stretch and ice and MYRTL after and whether my glutes felt sufficiently activated.
Is that a breakable cycle?
Once you’ve been introduced to the things you are doing wrong (or “doing wrong,” or at the very least could be doing differently) in the world of running, is it possible to go back to running stupid?
I don’t know; I don’t even know if I would want to, because I look back and think about that 25-year-old who basically decided one day that she could run three miles in her DSW shoes because why not, and I think: Well, duh, you introduced your body to a whole new activity without any prep or care; of course you were going to get injured. But maybe that’s my high-maintenance brain stomping all over my young, silly, carefree brain, still stuck in its blissful but unsustainable 18th minute.
Now I’m picturing brains with feet and if I were Shelby I’d MS Paint the shit out of that, but I’m not, so I’ll shut up and end with a question: If you’ve gone through a similar ignorant-runner-(or -athlete-of-whatever-persuasion)-to-high-maintenance-runner/athlete transition, what do you miss about your old self? And what would you not want back?