Friday, June 11, 2010

Runner's heart

"Would you still run and compete like you did in college if you could?"

One of the sales associates at my store asked me that as he was leaving today. Like me, he used to run. I ran track and cross country throughout all of high school and for one semester in college. That last semester was incredible. I had just started running again after taking about 3 years off to let my body recover from numerous injuries. I was faster than I ever was in high school, my body felt stronger and I enjoyed it more. This last time around, I had a wonderful coach who was happy with any sort of improvement--be it a better time or simply having built the strength it takes to carry a consistent pace. I also had a better mentality. It's kind of funny: getting to run races with people who were so phenomenally out of my league actually made the experience more enjoyable by taking out the competition with other people. I had no hope of ever being close to running at their pace; so it became more just about improving myself against my own standards (rather than comparing my efforts to other people's). I was also a better coach to myself. Due to schedule conflicts, I had to do the majority of the practices on my own early in the morning. My coach would email or text me my workouts, I'd do them and then tell her the results. It really became my own practice. I warmed up the way I felt was best, took as long as I needed to when I stretched and gave myself more recovery time between sets than I would normally get or allow myself to have in a regular team practice. I would even do extra sets of whatever I was doing simply because it felt so good and I wanted to push myself beyond what I thought I could do. That was definitely some of my best running.

However, the same thing happened to my body that always did when I ran track: we went to war. Ibuprofen became a daily vitamin and my shins were always wrapped in Ace wrap and athletic tape after the shin splints returned to both of my legs. After the season ended, my body won and I stopped running because the pain in my right foot had become unbearable. After seeing 3 doctors, it was discovered that I had been running on a stress fracture. I cracked a bone directly where the foot bends. Three months in a cast boot (2 on crutches), over 14 total weeks of physical therapy, at least 4 cortisone injections and almost 2 years later, my foot is still hurting. I haven't run with any sort of consistency in months--just a handful of sporadic attempts.

Do I miss running? Of course I do. It was a huge part of my life for a long time and eventually became a part of who I am--a part of my identity. I miss the simplicity of running. Just throw on a pair of shoes and off you go. I almost never ran with headphones because I liked being able to hear what was going on around me. And, as someone who developed asthma when I was young, I liked being able to hear myself breathe. Running is where I first learned how to control my breathing. I miss running early in the morning when the city is still sleeping and quiet but nature is awake and coming back to life. I miss feeling the sun and the breeze on my face and I even miss running into the wind. It always felt like I got an extra boost of air, like it was a reminder to take a breath. Some people run as an escape or a way to tune things out--but for me, it was almost like getting to connect with and be a part of the world around me. Not to mention the simple act of running felt good--like my legs were set free and were able to really move. I miss the endurance base that running gave me for every other activity that I did. Of course, there was the slim runner's body with legs of steel. Lately, my legs feel anything but strong.

But there were things I didn't like as well. My muscles were perpetually tight and sore, even if I stretched. I usually developed a persistent hacking "runner's cough" that hurt my chest, lungs and back. Oh, and I was always battling some injury (did I mention the shin splints, lol). And I tended to be a bundle of nerves because I was always worrying about an upcoming race and about reaching my goal times. So would I still compete if I could? Probably not. Too much competition tended to suck the joy out of the activity. Would I still run if I could? I don't know yet. I find great joy in it, but it obviously takes a toll on my body.

Thankfully, now I've found a way to move and strengthen my body without destroying it, through yoga :-) Today was a Vinyasa type class that highlighted so many things that I love about the practice. I love that it is an exercise that uses your entire body. That you can often achieve more by relaxing and easing into a pose that by tensing up and muscling into it. To get the breath so deep that you can literally feel it in places where you don't actually have lungs! And it feels soo good to stretch and open up parts of your body that you didn't even realize were accessible. We did a pose that has become one of my new favorites: Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana--otherwise known as "compass pose." It had been a long time since I had done that pose and now my body is so open that it feels absolutely amazing because of the deeper stretch along the side of the body and in the back of the extended leg. And then there's the fun of "gravity surfing," when you're able to find that balance between muscle strength and the power of breathing to flow between different arm balances! We did one of my favorite sequences that is getting easier every time I do it :-) Asta Vakrasana to Eka Pada Koundinyasana II with a jumpback to chatarunga. It's really quite incredible when all the elements fall into place and you are able to move through challenging sequences with grace. And then you are rewarded further by getting to drift off into a blissful savasana at the end of class...

I think that I will always be a runner in my heart and I hope that one day I will be able to run again. But, for now, yoga is what seems to be serving my body and mind the most; like this is just the next step in whatever I'm "supposed" to be doing :-)

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