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Clippings: Fear and the return to running

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Posted on March 3, 2016 |
By Evan Johnson



On the morning of Jan. 31, I was in Marlboro, in southern Vermont, drinking tea with my parents in their living room. Conversation was halting and interspersed with tears and bursts of laughter. On the floor in front of us lay the family dog, wrapped in the blanket that was to be her funeral shroud. She had died early that morning.

It wasn’t rock bottom but it was certainly material for a decent country song. I’m not the type to go all Hank Williams in the moment, so instead of picking up a guitar and a heavy heart, I picked through some photos, wrote a sentimental Facebook post, opened another tab on my Internet browser and registered for my first half marathon.

The decision to sign up for the Middlebury Maple Run wasn’t exactly spur-of-the-moment. I had flirted with seriously picking up running again and what I needed was a reason to pull the trigger. I needed a goal. I wanted to put myself through something and see how I came out on the other side.

I am now staring down two of my oldest and most formidable opponents: the practice of distance running and my own uncertainty at my ability to do so. It’s a two-versus-one, no-holds-barred brawl that’s been tearing me apart.

Training started on a treadmill while the temperatures were well below freezing. I’ve since returned to running outside as the daylight hours have lengthened and the mercury now inches into the 30s and 40s (on some days). I was running sprints up South Main Street in Middlebury recently, past the Kenyon Arena and toward the Ralph Myhre Golf Course, my legs on fire and feeling like something was trying to claw its way out of my chest, when the full scale of the task before me filled me with an overwhelming sense of capital-F Fear, a feeling of My God, what have I signed up for?

It’s a feeling I’m intimately familiar with. While I consider myself to be in good physical health, the bright and brief flash of my athletic career was when I ran track and cross-country in high school, and I can still remember my first races. When a teammate never showed up for the 4x400 relay at a regional meet, I found myself selected to run anchor in his place. My father, who stood cheering at the starting line, still recalls the look on my face as I left the next runner behind me in the dust, wild-eyed and arms pumping hard. In my sub-minute tour through hell under the stadium lights, I found my single greatest motivator is fear — the knowledge that someone or something is moving hard and fast through darkness with the sole objective of overtaking you.

On May 1, I’ll be running from something again, and this time it won’t be a long-legged track star from New Hampshire gunning for me; it’ll be my own doubt at my ability to run 13.1 miles and the fear of not living up to my own expectations.

One of my favorite blogs characterizes this as “commitment remorse,” or the feeling that accompanies committing to a physical test and then realizing you have to train harder than you’ve ever done in the past to meet the challenge.

That fear isn’t debilitating — if anything, it’s got me running harder than I thought possible. My workouts are in the early morning or late in the evening as I’ve been following one of the hundreds of training guides available online. I drink gallons of water and tea and shun most processed foods. My diet consists of mountains of kale, lentils and avocados. At night, I sleep like the dead.

Running hurts. There are workouts where I finish feeling like I could throw up a lung and later fall asleep with a sense of dread that I’ll never cross the finish line.

And despite all of this, I’m making friends with the pain and ignoring the voice in the back of my head that screams at me to quit. Returning to running, as I’ve found this late winter, is a little like falling in love again; it hurts like hell at first and you curse yourself and anyone who said this was a good idea or that you were capable of such a thing. You don’t realize how far gone you are until you’re six miles down the road with the sun on your face and the wind at your back. Slowly, it feels good, then great. Soon, you’d do anything for it.

So here I am, having bitten off possibly more than I can chew and the clock ticking down to the starter’s pistol. My mileage is increasing incrementally and I’m feeling like I’m in the best shape of my life. By the time that gun goes off, I will have already crossed a different kind of finish line. 

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