Especially when I feel the dull burning of my knees and legs beneath me as I glance at my Strava for the first time in a while, only to notice how long my joints have been enduring the steady pounding of pavement. Especially after crossing back across the Schuykill once more on the return trip to campus to see the sight of familiar landscapes once again, only to feel incredible exhaustion and the urge to take a
"I've already come this far; it couldn't possibly hurt to take a break, could it?"
Of course, that would defeat the purpose. Yes, that break will probably feel incredible, but slowly and surely, won't that break turn longer and longer each following run? Will any progress be made if you continue to give yourself breaks during the times that running hurts the most? When you're most tempted to just throw in the towel before you've reached the end point just to feel the slightest, momentary feeling of relief?
I've found myself asking these questions a lot these past few months in my quest for continual improvement in running, an activity which, 4 or so months ago, I never would have fathomed myself doing, much less on a regular basis. I had always imagined that such activities were reserved for those who were already "fit", and I felt that the occassional pick-up basketball game at Pottruck or spontaneous football throwing session could justify eating whatever I wanted (hint: it didn't lol). Yet, with seemingly all the time in the world and a wide open schedule besides online class, I figured that a global pandemic wouldn't be the worst time to try out some life changes. Hence, with a new Strava account, a Reddit wiki on how to go from "couch to a 5k" within a month or so, two pairs of running shoes I had merely worn for comfort a few months prior, and a newfound hope for self-improvement, I embarked upon my running journey.
What did I find at its behest? A discovery of how much I truly lacked, especially in the realm of mental endurance. I simply was so prone to giving up when things got hard; when my knees complained, I deferred to its cries for walk breaks. When I felt the slightest of burning within my lungs, I would endure for maybe a minute more before I finally slowed down to breathe greedily for air. In a sense, you could say I lacked discipline. 19 years, and I had still never really grasped this fact until now.
Yet, in no sense did this enlightening serve as a kind of discouragement; religiously following the r/c25k program I mentioned earlier, I continued to try my best to optimize not for speed, but instead time. The argument being that, with the same 25 minutes, both a marathon runner and your average Joe could exert the same amount of energy running 25 minutes – setting aside body build as well as genes – what truly contrasts them, however, is how much distance they cover in that time. Hence, for the sake of improvement, speed was not a priority, but rather sheer dedication and endurance. The willpower and the training to indeed run continuously, with no breaks, for a given interval of time. It was that to which I set my mind to, and embarked upon the journey in wholehearted pursuit of.
"What did I find at its behest? A discovery of how much I truly lacked..."
To call it "life-changing" would be quite the overstatement, as I realize that there are far more things in life that can impact you in many ways and, in fact, more beneficial ways, than just learning how to keep pushing your legs back and forth for a specified amount of time. Nonetheless, I must say: it still taught me what it means to endure. Beyond just the sometimes trite conotations the word holds, endurance is actually so necessary in every day life; beyond just being necessary however, it is far from a passive process, but instead an extremely active one. To endure pain, and to resist the dull aching and voice in the back of your head that insists it's ok to stop running, that it's ok to stale your progress, despite how far you've come already. That all doesn't just come from passively laying around somewhere and letting life come at you. No, to endure and to continue running requires active focus, active concentration on the task at hand and repeating to yourself that you must carry on, despite how painful it may be. Such a refusal to succumb reminds me of a passage from "When Breathe Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi, a beautifully posthumously-published memoir in which he states during the toughest parts of his cancer treatment that had interrupted his neurosurgery residency at Stanford:
"And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day—no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Endurance is visceral; its importance shines when we're faced with some of the toughest moments within our lives, when we face incredibly hardship, disappointment, pain, or all the above. And especially during quarantine, when the days just blend together and life seems to lose its taste at times, endurance – and if we reach even deeper, the hope that underlies it – is what carries you forth. It’s what allows you to walk without growing faint; to run and not grow weary, as the book of Isaiah so aptly put it.
So, here's to the runners; may we continue to endure in face of adversary, and push ourselves to our limits not for the sake of mere exhaustion, but in pursuit of continual improvement. Hopefully I can keep this up, lolol
(update, 11/3/2020: it's come to my attention that there's a book quite like this post called "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" by Haruki Murakami that's apparently pretty good, so I might give it a read. If anyone's ever read it or has strong thoughts on it, shoot me an email ~ would love to talk about it)