WHY I STOPPED
I was completing a 3 mile run in my neighborhood one Wednesday afternoon in early March 2006 when I was struck by a shocking thought. My run had been another difficult effort. It was becoming increasingly difficult to hold my running pace. My lung capacity and the strength in my legs seemed to be contracting. Many days, I would only be into mile one of my session and I found myself breathing harder than I wanted to and wishing to stop and walk. I would have to fight fatigue and negative thoughts and argue with myself almost every session. The Wednesday afternoon runs after work were becoming noticeably more difficult. My job seemed to be taking more and more out of me, leaving less and less to give to my runs. (In fact, my job was no harder than it had ever been, my strength seemed to be diminishing.) Seldom did I feel the joy and mental release of my previous sessions. Now I seemed to spend all my mental effort wondering if I could finish the current session.
Discomfort was not new to me. There were always little twinges of pain and discomfort that presented themselves during many of my runs. Some sharp, like a well-placed ice pick next to a knee-cap or hip joint. Others were dull aches that hid, submerged in hip, calf or thigh. Most of them went away after just a few dozen steps. A few required more aggressive resistance for a tenth of a mile or more. Fewer still joined me during a session and stayed to the finish – and beyond. Still others, made their presence known the day after a run to remind me of the level of effort I had given to the cause. I had gotten used to all of them. They were part of the price I paid for the sublime pleasure and strength running gave to me. And I paid it gladly.
But lately, new aches and pains began to join me on my practice sessions. Strange new sharp pains in the top of my left foot one day made me wonder if I was going to have to stop. It felt like two of the bones in my foot were trying to occupy the same place under my skin. And there was that ice pick in there, too. The pain went away after a few hundred feet of limping strides. Another time my right knee almost collapsed under my weight and for several steps, I thought I would have to stop to keep from falling down in the street. For a few moments, I thought I was having a stroke. This passed, too, only to return a few days later. It was un-nerving. This had happened a couple of times before on the Cotton Row course, but never so persistently. I was beginning to feel constantly tired – a sure sign of overtraining. But I was only running six miles a week, in two sessions. That is a very easy program. I did not like what I was feeling. And the trend was not good.
I shocked myself as I approached my house that Wednesday afternoon and the thought surfaced in my mind, I may have to stop running. I could not believe that I entertained such heresy. I loved to run. I wanted to keep running into my 80’s. I had a reputation among those who knew me as a runner. How could I explain this to them? My ego was at stake. Suddenly, I was seriously considering stopping. I could hardly believe I was thinking such thoughts, but my growing discomfort made the idea easier to rationalize.
I had been lifting weights for five years before I started running. That activity had been productive before. If I were to go back to a more vigorous weight lifting program perhaps it could be as productive again. I ran that following Sunday morning knowing it could be my last time. I put the thought out of my mind and tried to enjoy the run. The session was reasonably enjoyable with a pretty strong finish, but did not have the magic of my past sessions on the Cotton Row course. The thought kept dogging me, is this the last time? I did not want to stop, but running was no longer fun like it had been. I finished my run that morning still wondering if I would ever run again. I did not want to think about it.
The next Wednesday, I consciously came home from work, knowing it was my “running day”. I had thought about it all week and during that day, as I usually did. In days past, I looked forward to it. Today, I was dreading it. At home, I thought about going out as I had done almost every Wednesday afternoon for the last five years. But something had changed in me. The joy of running had left. It was becoming too difficult to be fun any more. Just the thought of not running depressed me. Did I really want to do this? No. I wanted to run. But it was becoming so difficult that it was no longer enjoyable. My mind rebelled at the prospect of not having its twice-weekly endorphin fix. But the decision had been made. I was going to stop running and today was the day.
In reality, difficulty in running was not the reason I had to stop. It was my job. It was/is a somewhat demanding position, physically. I am the oldest person doing this kind of work in the company. If I had had a desk job pressing computer buttons all day, I would probably still be running. But such was not my lot. Basically, my job took more out of me than I could recover from. And the load of work, running, and weight lifting combined to be too much for my body to take. Even though I was constantly cutting back on both my running and my weight lifting sessions, it was sill not enough to offset the effort required by my job.
I looked at my running bag with sadness. It had accompanied me to every non-neighborhood practice session and every race for the last five years. Every time I ran the Cotton Row course, it had waited patiently for my return in the car. It still held my Boy Scout assortment of items that might be needed after a race in a distant location. Things like an extra pair of socks, underwear, a towel, sunscreen, rubbing alcohol, and a small plastic container of safety pins to attach racing numbers to my singlet. Now it sat in its usual spot on the floor looking forlorn, deflated. It seemed to beckon me like a faithful dog wanting to go for a walk. If my bag had a tail, it would be wagging. It had become just another reminder of my loss.
In the closet in my gym room I saw the array of special clothes that had become my companions to keep me comfortable during races and training sessions for the last five years. Nylon running shorts, short sleeve Cool-Max tops, nylon singlets, terry-cloth sweat bands for summer, Cool-max long-sleeve tops for winter running, fleece ear warmers, nylon pants with zippered cuffs so they can be removed over running shoes, and Cool-max socks. I looked at all of them with sadness. I felt like I had abandoned old trusted friends. And in a way, I had. I was a traitor.
My running shoes sat in their usual place by the door, looking eager to go again, as always. But I had nothing to give them. My body was spent; broken. My faithful soul mates were to be retired with little warning, fanfare or recognition for their steadfast support. I wondered many times in those first days of retirement, was I sure I wanted to do this?
The answer was no. I do not want to do this. I loved to run. I still love to run. Part of me is ready even now to climb into my running gear and hit the street. To feel the wind in my face, on my arms and legs. To hear the pat – pat – pat of my feet on the pavement, the quiet roar of the wind in my ears, and to feel the blood charging through my veins. To feel the sweat run off of me as a symbol for the physical and emotional cleansing running provided. To feel my rapid breathing, just short of discomfort. I never felt so alive as when I was running. That part of me still wants to run. I still encourage anyone who can (and more can than think they can) to begin a regular running program.
I will always want to run. And I will always love running. But the reality is I cannot anymore. My mind is still ready; still wanting to go. But my body, always limited by deficient genetics and now by advancing age, had signaled its surrender. Or maybe it’s rebellion. It no longer matters what my mind wants. My body does not like to run anymore. And it was increasingly signaling its refusal to participate.
It was disappointing to feel how good it felt to not run that first week of retirement. My body really was tired. I was overtrained. Or overworked. But I felt like a traitor. I hated myself. And I missed the post-session endorphin buzz. That made my depression feel even stronger.
It has been suggested by some that I just run less; like a mile or so, to accommodate my decreasing endurance, and I have considered just such a possibility. But a mile run would only last about nine or ten minutes for me. A two mile run, less than twenty. Somehow running less than three miles seems pointless. The cardiovascular and fat-burning benefits of such a session would be almost nil. It would be an endeavor hardly worth getting dressed for. A run duration of less than twenty-five or thirty minutes seems not worth the preparation. It would be a distance reminiscent of my pre-racing days. When I first started running, a mile was a big deal; and it still is to my non-runner friends. Now it is merely a convenient marker on a larger measure of distance and enjoyment. No, cutting back to less than three miles is not really useful.
And I could walk, as some have suggested. Walking is a worthy endeavor and many people do it. I have considered this also. I may yet do some form of walking program. But for now, I cannot do it. Going out and covering the same path that I used to run on would be painful. And if I were to walk those same roads, I am sure I would hear my friend whimpering like a faithful dog, and asking, “why are you doing that? We used to have such fun together.” And it would be true. We had a wonderful time together.
Running was like a friend. A dear, faithful friend. It taught me some surprising things about myself, both physically and mentally. We had some wonderful times together. It seldom let me down. Next to knowing God, running was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. I hate to let it go. I will miss running for the rest of my life.
Update October 2006
I have started walking a two-mile course around my neighborhood. I do this almost every day. The circuit takes about 35 minutes. I do not get the same buzz I used to receive from my runs but it is invigorating. And I am tempted nearly every time I go out to run. Some day perhaps I will.