No mere mortal ever trains for a race as much as they’d like.
When you begin an exercise program, it’s easy to block out the days, fill your calendar with little marks that denote distances to run, or swim or ride a bicycle, but as those days dawn real and filled with obligations, the calendar pages just swim by with unmet goals.
As I’m writing this, the Shelter Island 10K is just two days away. I’m not a runner, as I wrote in my first running column back in March, but for reasons beyond my comprehension I’m going to race on Shelter Island this Saturday, and I’m booked for the Suffolk County half-marathon in September.
I’ve only participated in one organized sporting event in my life. When I was a teenager, I rode my bicycle everywhere, racking up more than 100 miles every week, but always alone. When I registered for my first organized bike ride, a 40-mile tour through the South Fork, I was so excited that I accidentally stuck my hand in the spokes of my bicycle and wound up on the pavement.
An hour later I was in the emergency room with a cast on my hand and road rash running down my cheekbone to my chin. It was so deep it felt like it scraped my bone. I vowed to never exercise in front of another human being again.
So now, in two days, I’ll get to take my place among more than 1,000 runners, including 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi, in the middle of Shelter Island. Human beings were born to run, I’m trying to convince myself. There’s no way I can injure myself to the degree I did way back on that bike ride day.
When you first begin an exercise program, the progress you make just leaps each and every time you take to the road. Muscles that have begged you for months to work them respond with increased vigor. If in March you can’t make it to the dead end of your road, by May that distance breezes by. If you make it through mile two, it seems you might be able to run all day. If you need to take a break to walk, the urge to run will overtake you within a couple minutes, and you’ll be scoping out the next milepost down the road to coax your feet on.
My friend Erin Schultz is a real runner. She’s training for the New York City Marathon in November, and she has all kinds of great cross-training advice for runners looking to step up their game in an article published today on A Triathlete’s Diary. Some day, I hope, I’ll be able to keep up with her.
What I can say, in these baby step early days of what I hope will be a lifelong pursuit, is that the most important thing you can do is not beat yourself up if you have to cut a workout short or if you can’t run on a given day.
Sometimes your children need you. Sometimes your boss needs you. Yesterday I was about to head out for a run when the fire department whistle went off and our entire department jumped up from what we were doing to rush into a burning building. By the time I got home I was so beat that a run was out of the question.
There are plenty of things in this life that are more important than adhering to your running schedule.
But when life takes a bite out of you and you’re feeling blue and the last thing you want to do is lace up those shoes, the best thing you can do is throw out your mind and throw yourself on the mercy of your feet. Your mind is overrated anyway.
Last weekend, we were in the North End of Boston for a family wedding. Everywhere we went, people were running. And the people who weren’t running were wearing running shoes and they looked like they’d rather be running. As we wandered the streets like lost tourists, we were nearly run over by more than one pack of hard-training athletes.
I’m not sure if Boston was like this before the marathon bombing, but it was a great inspiration to see so many ordinary people joined in the solidarity of what is really a personal pursuit: the pursuit of an undeniable inner strength that will carry them through the rest of their lives.
I’d been training hard the entire week before, but I was excited at the idea of sneaking out of the hotel room at dawn and running down to the marathon finish line on Boylston Street to pay my respects.
But after a night out dancing in high heels I realized I’d outdone myself. I don’t dance in high heels. I’ve never danced in high heels. For some reason the running I’d done gave me the confidence to head out on the dance floor. But I was bound to pay for it in the morning. I’ll have to save my trip to the Boston finish line for a time when I can qualify to run the race.
I can’t guarantee I won’t finish the Shelter Island 10K in less than an hour and 20 minutes. But I can guarantee that I’ll be running again next year. I don’t know why I can promise that, but I know that I can.
And that’s the beauty of this sport.