Kristen’s last post got me thinking about my own training “schedule” and how I adapt to meet goals when life intervenes. I’ve been running on and off (mostly on) since I was 10. I started in the fields of Ireland and was quickly drafted into various track and field events and as the anchor on a 4 x 100 relay team, with which I ran for a few years until moving to the States as a thirteen year old. Finding myself lost and muted in the culture shock of that transition, I retreated into family life and didn’t come out until I mustered the courage to join the track team at my middle school. There I found a sort of safety, a familiar circle and structured practices that gave me confidence to navigate the unfamiliar territory everywhere else.
On the track, I was solid. On the track, I felt at home. On the track, I was visible. The first conversation I remember having in the U.S. with someone who was not a relative–other than the comments I got from mean peers who couldn’t understand my accent–was with an older girl on the track as I slowed down on a curve and she jogged more quickly to catch up with me. Her name was Penny. I remember this because she told me others teased her for it and called her “nickel” and “dime.” New to U.S. currency, I didn’t get the joke immediately, and when I did, my nervous “oh” inspired a gentle smile rather than the mocking jeers I was becoming accustomed to elsewhere. This girl was nice to me, and I remember walking the curves of a lap with her, settling in to the comfort of that niceness, hoping it would last.
I continued with track and found enough success to be recruited to cross-country in the 9th grade. I wasn’t convinced it was a good match, but I did it, mostly to stop Jill, the slightly strange girl who insisted on running barefoot and the wrong way on the track, from pestering me in the halls. I hated the competing distance (2 miles in steamy Florida instead of a 5K), but I was drawn in to the challenge and of wanting to do well. I was hooked by being part of a team, and I ran throughout high school, becoming an all-rounder in track who did well in most events (not outstanding in any) and a reliable 3, 4, or 5 in the huddle of the cross-country team lineup.
In college, I did some running on my own at first, mostly with a friend here or there as a way to tackle the freshman fifteen that found their way home. I’d had trouble gaining weight in high school; despite my mainly pasta and M&M diet, running so much led me to graduate weighing in at a lean 105 lbs, so it wasn’t a bad thing that my body found its way to a normal weight, but I had some trouble figuring out how to run on my own. Luckily, a club team developed, and I slipped back into a structure with the cross-country team, one that sent me out on regular runs in Audubon park, through the “fly,” on the streetcar lines and over the levees of New Orleans. These were the years where I first discovered the joy of quiet “long” runs (4-5 miles) where talk was unnecessary between teammates, where breathing rhythms and the plodding strike of our feet against grass were the only sounds to be heard. I learned to enjoy striking out on my own on a Sunday to sweat out the poisons of the week, of lazy daiquiri days or Saturday night adventures.
In graduate school, I continued to run, by now as a matter of habit but also aware of the increasing fitness demands of a changing body. I joined a gym and logged my first treadmill miles as a twenty-something trying to survive the long winters in New England. On and off the treadmill I got, and on and off I ran, sometimes letting it go for a while but always returning, always able to slip back to a 30 minute 5K baseline, even if it had been a very long time since I’d slipped on my running shoes. In high school and college, I had observed friends who stopped having periods or found themselves battling eating disorders or somehow slipped dangerously into obsessive behavior–one friend insisting on running every day on a trip to Nicaragua where the hot weather was intense, the hills were more than rolling, and there literally were no roads or grassy plains to make such a feat possible. I somehow knew that for me, the line to such obsession would be easy to cross, and I took great pains to avoid it. I don’t know when I discovered the possibility of that kind of thing in myself, but at one point or another I recognized its shadows and vowed to steer so far clear of them that they would never stand a chance.
At the same time, I kept up my running over the years because it made me feel good, strong, happy and at peace. It was something I did that didn’t have to involve anyone else, something solitary and strengthening, and it didn’t require anything of me other than openness, time, and the willingness to start and see where it took me. In recent years, as life got busier and made it necessary to form a plan, I struggled with how to do it in a way that would maintain all that I loved and needed from running: a mental break, a physical challenge (but not one so great that I wouldn’t return to do it again), something that enabled me to continue feeling strong and, well, clean somehow. I didn’t want it to turn into something on my list or something that seemed too hard.
I came up with an ingenious plan to manage it one day after my separation from my ex husband. On the bulletin board I had hung in my new kitchen, I placed an index card on which I had listed the dates of all the Sundays in the next six months. Three times a week, I told myself, and I started that day. For every run I did, I scratched a little mark next to the date. When I got to three, I drew a line through the date. Done for the week. Sometimes, it felt so good to scratch the week off early that I did an extra run if my schedule allowed, and I drew an extra line. When, in the cold of winter, I started leaving an occasional week without a line through it, I drew comfort from those extra marks. It appealed to my mathematically inclined mind to see a mostly balanced card after so many months, and I was able let go of minor slips while maintaining motivation to return to the road or the treadmill.
In the past three years, I’ve kept up this plan and followed through. At first, I didn’t set any definite rules on what would “count” as a workout, instead using my judgment and adjusting when necessary. At this stage, I have a general sense of what works well for me as I pay attention to my body–how it feels rather than how it looks–and can easily differentiate a workout from an “extra,” like a long walk or bike-ride, which earn a mark that I make that is perpendicular to the other marks, thereby allowing me the satisfaction of earning “credit” without counting it as a full workout. This system works for me because I don’t cheat, and I have accountability without needing a more detailed log. I don’t time my road runs, but an occasional 5K or treadmill workout lets me check in on pacing.
Today, after taking a week off (unintentionally, but still hitting my three workouts for last week and hoping to hit them this week too), I was reluctant to get on the treadmill, but I told myself “just do two miles” and was willing to let myself off the hook if it wasn’t going well. Instead, I felt comfortable and finished the 5K in 25:15. Not bad considering my break! It made me feel good to know that even though life intervened to keep me away from exercise for a week, I am still strong. I will run a 5K race on Sunday, and I’m excited for the challenge.
I offer up my fabulous index card training program to any gentle joggers out there like me who run for fun or fitness that may just last a lifetime. I’ll try to stick to it until such time that my dream comes true, and a track club for women of a certain age comes to town 🙂