Saturday, August 20, 2011

Going the Distance (but not for speed)

It usually happens some time during mile four.  By then, I've pushed through the first mile, where my body is yelling that this is dumb.  I've kept going through the pain in my side.  My lungs have gotten used to the rhythm of "inhale two steps, exhale two steps", pushing air in and out like a rapid fire bellows.  My legs have settled into a comfortable cadence after going too fast at first, and getting reined in with the knowledge that I've got another seven and a half miles to go.

I've completed my first lap around my route, and I'm on my second trip through the southern cemetery, on the long, straight strip of asphalt at the very back.  On my left are the rows of grave stones, separated by the odd tree, on my right is nothing but the overgrown woods of the park.  It's quiet back here.  Visitors don't usually make it back this far, so it's usually just me and the road.  This is where it happens.

I don't remember when I first noticed it happening.  Instead of watching the ground just in front of my feet, my eyes drift up and focus on the far end of the road.  The blacktop stretches out in front like a charcoal line through the grass, and suddenly I'm not moving any more.  I've become still, and I'm watching the world flow past.  I lose awareness of my legs pumping in rhythm.  Part of me knows they must still be there, pulling me along, but for now, for this moment, all I can see is the world moving past me like I'm caught up in a river that's pushing toward...something.

Then I reach the next turn, lean into it, and I'm suddenly aware of my body again, feeling it respond instinctively, leaning, planting, lifting, pulling; muscles expanding and contracting in a rhythm that I influence, but don't really control.  

The theory goes that the first three miles are physical, the next five are mental, and everything after that is heart.  This is definitely true.  In the three months I've been running, I've somehow managed to work myself up to being able to run eight miles at a clip.  One constant, whether I'm running eight miles straight, or when I was just starting and mixing running with a lot of walking, the first mile is always the worst.  Everything is protesting that this is dumb, and there's nothing to do except push through it.  Your body keeps on complaining for the next few miles, and more if it's really humid. 

After that, you settle into a rhythm where your body is still grumbling, and your legs can feel like mush, but it will keep going as long as you tell it to.  Realizing that, and getting your brain convinced that your legs really can do this, is the next big hurdle, and once you clear it, you're good.  

I was fortunate that the first time I decided to see just how far I could go, it was a rainy morning.  I love being outside in the rain.  Before that morning, I'd gone four miles and felt pretty good at the end, so I was hoping that I'd be able to make five that day.  After about two miles, the skies opened up, and I was running through a downpour.  I spent the next mile and a half with a huge grin on my face, enjoying the feeling of the rain hitting me as I ran.  When I hit the five mile mark, I was feeling pretty good, so I decided I'd make six.  At the six mile mark, still feeling good, so decided to go for seven.  At seven, I was starting to get pretty tired, but felt like I had at least another half mile in me, so kept going.  At seven and a half, since I was still moving, I decided it would be dumb not to go for eight. 

When eight miles hit, I was home.  And utterly shocked.  I was tired, but not collapsing inward like a dying star.  Mostly, I was shocked at myself and what I found out I was capable of.  That's kind of been my story the last eight months: figuring out that what I'm actually capable of.  I'm still not crazy about competing against other people, but I love competing against myself.  I love it when my brain tries to convince itself that it can't do something, and then finds out that it was really wrong.  Then, next time, it has a harder time making the case, and eventually, I just have to do something completely bonkers to find out if I can.  Then I have another argument, and I wind up losing that one too, and doing the bonkers thing.  

So I keep on running, whether it's too hot, or I don't want to, or there are wolves out there.  I run anyway.  I need to prove to myself that I can.  I need to find that rhythm.  I need to lose myself in that river of the world as it flows past, even if it's just for a few minutes.  In those minutes, I fly.

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