Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Running Total

 Three years ago, I was in the middle of a stressful school-year, realizing that what I'd assumed were seasonal allergies were in fact year-round allergies.  To keep a step ahead of the stress and to feel healthier in the face of a constantly scratchy throat and stuffy nose, I started running regularly.

This wasn't the first time I'd tried to make a habit of running: I had run Cross Country and Track back in school.  

I ran track half-heartedly from 7th grade to 12th grade, with a year off in 11th grade.  I enjoyed (and still enjoy) watching track meets, but I had never much cared for competing as a long-distance trackster.  The 1600m (4 laps around the track) and the 3200m (8 laps around the track) were repetitive and not terribly exciting.

I'd enjoyed Cross Country more due to the changes in scenery within each course, and from week to week as we tried different courses.  Not that I'd been a particularly disciplined runner--as an 8th grader and freshman on a relatively big Cross Country team, I'd been able to fade into the background somewhat, and a few friends and I would routinely run to the nearby convenience store when we were supposed to be doing a long, slow distance run and buy junk-food, which I suspect was pretty much the polar opposite of what our coach wanted us to be doing.  

Then, my sophomore year, a growth spurt had made me naturally fast enough for the coach to take notice.  Suddenly, I was under more scrutiny during practice, and it turned out that when I actually did the workout that I was supposed to do, I improved quickly.  Another friend and I, both unable to fly under the coach's radar any longer, spent each meet vying for the coveted 5th place spot on the team--the last runner who could qualify for varsity.  My 5k time dropped from 23 minutes down to 20 minutes flat, and I suspect I could've hit the low 19s, if I'd been on the right course.  My season ended with two back-to-back meets on the same course, a week apart.  The first week was my best performance yet, and qualified me to join the varsity team for the finals on that same course the following week.  But the minute the pistol went off a week later, I knew something was different.  

I felt sluggish, like I was running through molasses.  I couldn't catch my breath, and I came through the first mile checkpoint a minute behind the previous week.  The cheers of my coach, my dad, and the spectators from my school who'd come to watch felt like daggers: "Come on, Nate, you can pick up the pace!  Try to catch the Mt. Baker runner just ahead of you!"  Except I couldn't--I physically couldn't.  My final time was nearly two minutes slower than the week before.  It was the most physically and psychologically punishing run I'd ever been on.  The next day, I found out that I had strep throat.  I then resolved to quit Cross Country, and quit I did.  I regret my choice now, but I still have some recollection of how defeated I felt.  

When I moved to Japan, I must have tried to start running regularly again six or seven times over the years, making some headway while coaching cross country, but never sustaining the habit for more than two or three months. 

So when I started running regularly again in February of 2019, my expectations for myself were fairly low.  I just knew that I needed a way to de-stress and try and feel above-the-weather.  These motivations, as well the help of a few key technologies, turned out to make all the difference in the world.  

The first bit of technology was a Garmin watch, a birthday gift from my wife several weeks after I started running.  I suppose part of me felt compelled to keep running, given that I'd received a watch specifically for the purpose of tracking my runs.  Regardless, I don't believe I've ever received a gift that I've gotten so much active use out of.  

The second bit of technology was my discovery of podcasts.  I don't consider myself a good multitasker, but I discovered that I can run and listen to a podcast at the same time, and since I often have more podcasts than time each week, I look forward to my runs as an opportunity to keep up--or more often, catch up--with my favorite podcasts. (As a side-note, this is the same reason why I look forward to washing the dishes every evening after dinner).

I started with daily two-mile runs, and it didn't take long for me to pick up the pace.  However, I was frustrated that I couldn't seem to crack under a 17-minute two-mile, and the harder I tried, the more I experienced pulled muscles or dry-heaves.  

I'd been thinking of two miles as a long-distance run--it feels long while running it on the track.  But on a hunch, I upped my regular runs to three miles in May.  Then four miles in July.  Then five miles in August.  I tried a six, then a seven-mile run in September, but those often took more time than I had.  So, my sweet-spot became four or five-mile runs.  I was still running five or six days a week without significant breaks, and I started to pay for it with pulled muscles that necessitated week-long breaks from running.

So, I eased back to three runs a week, with a day or two of rest between each, and learned to dedicate more time to stretching before and after running, and giving myself at least ten minutes of walking to cool down after my run.

Although 2020 brought a nasty six-month bout with plantar fasciitis from spending so much time at home, barefoot, due to COVID isolation, I managed to run at least once or twice a month and resume regular running in September 2020 after returning to in-person school--that had never happened before.  In the past, when I'd had to take more than two or three weeks off from running, I had fallen out of the routine.

This week marks three years of regular running.  In that time, I have run 1400 miles (2253km) .  I haven't kept track of how much I have walked during that time, but I can conservatively estimate that I'm walking 8 miles a week (not counting day-to-day walking around school, to the store, to the coffee-shop, etc).  That's more than 2600 miles (4184km)!

My best run by the metrics of both distance and speed was an April 2021 5 mile run which I completed in 39:56, averaging under 8 minutes per mile.  I'm not sure I could've done that even at the peak of my conditioning as a high school sophomore!  And frankly, I'm not sure I can do it again.

My longest run was 10 miles in 97 minutes in December '21.  I paid for this run with about five days of stiff, sore knee joints.  I need to figure out how to better prepare myself for really long runs.  

It's amazing how quickly running went from being a chore to being a habit, and more than that, a routine that I truly depend upon.  My allergies haven't eased up--if anything, they've gotten worse--but regular running keeps me feeling healthy and keeps me a step ahead of the stress.  I am grateful that I've been able to keep this up for three years, and grateful for freedom from injuries over the past six months.  I hope I can keep up this routine for many more years to come!

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