When I was sick earlier this summer, I had to take 6 weeks off from running–the longest break I’ve taken in years. I was concerned about how soon I could get back into shape, but happily, within two weeks I was back to running 60-70 minutes comfortably.
Runners often talk about building a base. By running a minimum distance every week, your body makes adaptations and the long distances eventually feel less long. When you take time off, it’s easier to get back to running long distances again than it would be for a new runner because you’ve already taught your body some important things about running. Things like: no, we’re not stopping, so quit grumbling and get on with it and yes, you can make it up that hill because you have before.
Each run makes the base a little stronger, a little deeper. Over the years, all those miles create a sort of long-term physical memory. Aerobic conditioning is a big part of being able to run for an hour or two or four, but the act of having done it before is the difference between this will be hard and this is impossible.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
I used to think this meant that surviving difficult things makes you tougher. Which it does. But tougher is not the only way to be stronger.
Surviving difficult things makes you fear less.
Not fearless, but less fearful.
Fears that loomed on the horizon, dark and ominous in those early years of adulthood, have lost their power over me. Because the possibility of them happening has passed me by. Because I’ve experienced them and survived. Because my priorities have changed.
Every experience that I have adds to my base. Slowly, steadily, I’ve learned important things about life. Things like: no, we’re not stopping so quit grumbling and get on with it and yes, you can make it up that hill because you have before.
Being on the other side of forty feels like a luxury. It feels like a place of strength. My base is broad and deep in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was younger.
Most of my twenties were spent in survival mode. Self-awareness was a foreign concept. Staving off self-destruction was a more realistic goal.
When I see people in their twenties who know that they’re autistic, I’m a little jealous. What could I have done with that knowledge? Then again, maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe it was too soon.
I was fragile back then. Easily wounded in spite of a tough exterior.
When I started running, I alternated between running three minutes and walking one minute. I’d read that it was an easy way to build up to longer running times.
What I didn’t know back then is that the first ten minutes of running are hard. My body resists. It seems certain that if it resists strenuously enough, I’ll give up and go home. But somewhere around the twelve-minute mark, it surrenders. After that, thirty minutes, fifty, seventy . . . it’s all the same.
So I ignore my body in those first ten minutes. I know it’s going to be hard and uncomfortable, but I also know what comes next.
I know that there will be good runs and bad runs, that some days I’ll run three miles with a stitch in my side and others I’ll feel like I could run forever. I know that I’ll trip and fall and I’ll get up and keep running.
I know that some days it will rain and there is a good kind of rain for running in and a bad kind. I know that the seasons will steadily, relentlessly change, year after year; there will be sleet and snow and eighty-percent humidity. I also know that there will be days so perfect–days that smell like spring, days where every leaf and pine needle glistens with a coating of ice, days that are as crisp and bright as fall itself–the kind of days that will make me forget all the hard miles I’ve run to reach them.
The more you run, the more confident you become in your ability to run. Last spring, I got lost on a new trail. What I thought was going to be a six-mile loop turned into a ten-mile out-and-back run. I hadn’t run ten miles in a long time, but I knew that I could because I’d done it before. My body remembered.
And I think life is like that, as you get older. The hard stuff feels a little less hard because you’ve done it before and you know how it turned out.
Maybe your base is bigger. Maybe you just have the benefit of taking the long view.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but looking back, you realize that everything makes you stronger. The hard times, yes, but the good times too. The times you got lost and the times you thought you knew exactly what you were doing but it turned out you had no idea and even the moments that were so small and insignificant that they’re forever lost.
Memories are tricky bastards. A few win out, silencing the rest, and spinning themselves into that patchwork that becomes your past. But your base is deeper and wider and broader than your past. Your base is about where you’ve been, not the snapshots you took along the way.