Being out of shape prompts a gut check (and I mean that literally and figuratively). Mine came at mile twelve of a twenty-mile long run.
Now, I know. “Out of shape” and “twenty-mile long run” generally aren’t used in the same sentence; however, like so many things in life, our sense of personal fitness is relative, and any runner knows the difference between simply completing the miles and straight-up hammering them.
Last week, I wasn’t even able to do the former.
I had the privilege of running the aforementioned long run with Mr. Speedy Pants and one of our mutual running buddies, whom we shall call Eichelberger. (Actually, Eichelberger joined us for the first six miles, after which he sped off to work—but not before indulging in a reminiscent conversation about IHOP, a server named Betty, and an omelet so large that Eichelberger could not finish it in one sitting, at which point—rather famously—“Betty boxed his omelet.”)
The first few miles were rough, but a slow start is par for the long run course, and I figured my legs would eventually catch up. But ten miles in, I was feeling more sluggish, not less so.
“Geez,” I said as I doubled over with fatigue at an intersection just past SLU’s campus. “I hope I get a second wind or something, otherwise this could get really ugly.”
Sadly, it did get really ugly.
The stink of it was that Mr. Speedy Pants and I were running our favorite “Arch Run”—around Forest Park to the Arch and back—and it felt like such a shame to waste a preferred route on a junker of a run. Instead of flitting down the streets of downtown St. Louis, reveling in such sights as the Arch, the Mississippi River, the City Garden, the Peabody Opera House, the Old Courthouse, and an eclectic group of gentlemen sitting on a bench drinking Colt 45s, I was oblivious to the city around me and instead was focused solely on not passing out.
And this was at mile fourteen.
“Hey… Coach…” I gasped shortly before we reached Kingshighway on our return trip from the riverfront. “I think I need to stop again at this intersection up here and catch my breath.”
We had already stopped. Three times. We had already walked. Twice.
“For what?” Mr. Speedy Pants asked as I slowed to a halt. “For walking?”
“Yeah. I mean, for making you walk.”
He shrugged. “Eh, don’t be sorry. It happens.”
What happened to me? I wondered as I crouched down on the sidewalk, my hands on the ground in front of me as I gasped for air. I was utterly exhausted. I felt thoroughly drained. The PR-setting long runs of last fall seemed decades away. Sure, I was logging crazy mileage and workouts then, but it’s not like I had stopped running completely. I mean, I was still getting my long runs in, wasn’t I? And the carryover fitness counted for something, didn’t it?
“I don’t think I’m gonna make twenty, Coach. I’m dying.”
“Okay. Eighteen is good enough for me. Especially since this is the longest I’ve run in…” he paused “…well, since 2011.”
“Why don’t you go on ahead?”
Mr. Speedy Pants looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Yes, after you’ve told me you’re dizzy and feel like you could pass out… like I’m gonna leave you on the city streets to die.”
After another minute, we started running (I use the term loosely) once more. Fittingly, our conversation centered on the different states of fitness, namely being in top form—and not being so. It was a particularly hot morning, and Mr. Speedy Pants had deemed a shirt superfluous. I mentioned that the question of shirt or no shirt is largely determined by whether I am in “racing shape” or “I like birthday cake!” shape.
“That’s dumb,” Mr. Speedy Pants said as we reentered Forest Park. “You shouldn’t worry about stuff like that. I don’t. See?”
At this point, we happened to be running across a footbridge over Forest Park Parkway, which was a delightful logjam of rush hour traffic. Turning his body to the crowded thoroughfare, he raised his hands in the air and yelled at the top of his lungs, “You’re welcome, world!”
In shape. Out of shape. Mr. Speedy Pants has no shortage of confidence.
Eventually, our slogfest came to an end. Far from feeling satisfied with an eighteen-mile run completed, I felt discouraged, as though I had somehow let myself down.
Seriously… How out of shape am I? I thought despondently as I lay on the beach towel next to my car, still trying to catch my breath. The long pace runs of last October and November may as well never have happened. Past track workouts seemed like literal impossibilities. This whole idea of taking a break from “serious” running, of letting my body heal, had seemed like such a good idea after my last marathon. But several months into my semi-sabbatical, I didn’t feel refreshed. Instead, I felt slow. And out of shape. And like a stranger in my own Mizunos.
Fitness—at least, running fitness—is a funny thing. Far from being constant, it ebbs and flows with our races, injuries, health, schedules, and life. We can have a general progression one way or the other, but fitness is rarely a line drive.
As runners, we know this. Heck, our training is contingent on alternating periods of strain and recovery, both in the midst of training and between training cycles. We know that being in shape to PR is a rare privilege. We know how difficult it is to get there. The time it takes. The dedication. We know that once we do, our time at the top won’t last forever. Yes, we may run faster the next time around. Yes, we may have new PRs on the horizon. But, occasionally, we have to take a few steps back before we can continue to push forward.
But instead of being discouraged by the times when we are a few steps behind our fitter selves, we should appreciate the chance to recover. Instead of feeling burdened by past PRs, we should be encouraged by our potential. As the saying goes, to everything there is a season. A time to be fast and a time to be slow. A time to keep splits and a time to ditch the watch. A time for pain and a time to heal. A time to set PRs and a time to run just for the fun of it. The key is wholeheartedly embracing each season for what it is. Like a shirtless Mr. Speedy Pants. Running across Forest Park Parkway.
You’re welcome, world.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.