Often times when I am running in the dark, especially on snow, I seem to lose my sense of reality. I can no longer tell how fast I am moving and I often cease to be able to tell if I’m going uphill or downhill. It’s just me taking one small step after another with my headlamp pointing down onto the snow-covered path I follow. It feels so effortless and simple, and I seem to zone out into another realm of consciousness. In these moments, I feel like I could run forever. Nothing has ever felt easier, and the only reason I’m not going to run for days on end is because I’m going to choose not to, not because I couldn’t. At least this is how things feel in these moments. More often than not, though, my brain snaps back to reality and I realize that this ‘forever’ which was once 100 or more miles is often less than 20 or 30 nowadays. It’s not pleasant to be reminded of the fact that I am a fraction of the runner I once was, but it’s a reality that I have no option to avoid, so I do not shy away from thinking about it.
I have brief moments within runs when my body feels ‘normal,’ and I feel like maybe it would be possible, with dedicated training, to coax my body into performing at a level close to what it once could. It never lasts, though. The quads go back to burning in a way that would have been completely alien to me four years ago, and I realize that my body is still not fully recovered from a seemingly mellow run that I did four days ago.
This is my current life as a runner. I take what I can get, and I enjoy every run I go on, but I am always challenged by a reality that I never feel ‘normal’ for more than a day or two at a time. Nonetheless, I have learned how to modify my running to fit around my physical limitations, which are very different than they once were.
I sometimes miss being the runner I once was, but I will be 40 next year, and I am certainly never going to be that runner again. Sometimes I think that maybe I have even been ‘lucky’ to have been forced through this transition so abruptly so as to avoid a gradual decline that I deny and ignore until I wake up one day and realize I’m completely out of touch with what my real physical ability is. For me there is no possibility of ignoring or denying how much weaker my body is than it was four or five years ago. If anything it is probably the opposite for me. I am probably stronger than I believe I am, but I have some days where my body feels so weak and ‘ill’ that it’s impossible to have too much faith in it, even on the days when it seems to feel ‘normal.’
There are also a lot of things which haven’t really changed all that much. These are the things I try to embrace and use to define my life as a runner.
I have always looked forward to running in the first snow of the year. This doesn’t change no matter how strong or weak I feel as a runner.
The snow here in Juneau, Alaska has been creeping lower down toward sea level the last couple weeks, and I have been creeping higher up to meet the snow. When I get to the snow, it has the same appeal to me no matter how I feel as I’m climbing up the trail to meet it.
Today it finally snowed down in town, and all day I was excited knowing that I would be running in this snow later in the day. When I finally got out the door, I found the snow even more stimulating than I expected. It was getting dark as I started out at 3:45 p.m. (mid-November in Alaska!), and almost immediately I fell into that place of not really knowing how fast I was going. I only knew I was going uphill because I was on a trail that I have run more than 100 times, not because I could feel the gravity working against me. It’s amazing how much of our sense of gravity relies on our eyes being able to see what’s going on around us. Much the way that taste is so tied to sight, smell, and sound.
I ran for about 15 minutes and then stopped and turned off my light. The clouds had thinned a bit, and for the first time in more than a week I could see a few stars. I could also see the lights of downtown Juneau illuminating the snow-covered mountains which rose up around me in every direction. It was a magical scene that made me want to simply walk off into the mountains and spend the rest of my life wandering the wilderness. I settled instead for another hour of roaming the landscape, but not before I stood in place with my light off, soaking everything in for another 10 minutes.
I came home satisfied, tired, and emotionally raw and excited. Excited about the coming of winter; excited about my life as a runner; and excited about life in general. Perhaps some of this excitement was quieted a bit by the fact that I have been battling compromised health for more than three years, but on this particular day I’m not so sure it was. No matter how much my running has been affected by this frustrating and elusive ill health, there are some things which are beyond the influence of my physical ability. Standing alone in the darkness surrounded by snow-covered mountains is definitely one of these things.
Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to come to better understand and deeply appreciate these moments as a runner when my physical ability and physical health don’t really make any difference on my larger experience. Gradually over time, I have become able to create these moments on such a regular basis that they have started to become my new ‘normal.’ Normal is no longer a concept tied as much to my past as it is a concept tied almost exclusively to the present moment. Normal has become simply how I feel on a given day, and the experiences that are the most ‘normal’ to me are the ones that are just as satisfying when I feel weak, tired, or sick as they do when I feel strong and healthy. Luckily once you are forced to really look for these types of experiences, they are everywhere around you just waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
How has your running ‘normal’ evolved throughout the years, through changing seasons, as you age, have become injured and healthy again, taken new approaches to running, and more?