Saggy psyche

Look at me!

I ran a half-marathon last Saturday. It was thrilling.

Now, four days later, on Wednesday, I am blue. After all that strengthening and tightening over the past three months of pre-marathon training, everything is firmer. Everything but my mood.

My psyche is saggy.

For me, this was a tremendously big deal to run this far, given that up until a year ago, I’d never been a runner. My friend Kim sent me a bouquet of chocolate-covered strawberries to congratulate me, and told me how bad ass I am. My son Sam said he was proud of me. So did my husband and mother and sister and pretty much my entire posse of supportive friends who were willing to exclaim over something that is sort of a big deal.

(Sort of a bid deal. I think of David Sedaris’s essay on how he once saw a woman almost fall to her death from a ferris wheel at an amusement park. If she had really fallen to her death, that would have been a big deal, something great to tell at a cocktail party. Saying I ran a “half marathon” is the same thing. It’s not a full marathon, something truly incredible to boast about at a cocktail party.)

Even still, I was Queen for a Day. At race’s end, I was given chocolate and champagne and energy bars and hugs. During the race, every few miles, a group of enthusiastic kids were cheering us on, enthusiastically waiting with cups of water, anxious to give it to one of the bad ass runners.

Ha. Me a bad ass. It’s such a joke. I was having all sorts of problems with long runs. I learned about muscles I never knew I had, and talked ad nauseum about them in the boring way that athletes will do. God bless my husband Steve for not falling asleep in his soup during one of the dozens of times I launched into a tedious running monologue.

“My It-band hurts so much. My trainer said I should roll on it, although it might be better to . . . ”

“My left lateral hamstring has a strain, so I’m icing it and staying off it for a week before the run. But I’m worried about . . .”

“My right knee is popping. I wonder if I should see a physical therapist or a sports doctor . . .”

Do other runners experience similar aches or am I a big baby who just can’t take it and run through the pain? When my thigh seizes up at, say, mile 9, I can’t seem to do anything but walk for about 30 seconds until the knot is gone. (See, this is boring! I know it is.)

Then I would fill too much of my working day reading Runner’s World and running blogs and talk with my marathon-running neighbors Ethan and Mike, and my running buddies Tita and Beau, about quads, hamstrings, rollers, blisters, race times, good running watches, runner’s nausea, bonking, and the merits of so many sports beans and gels.

Running is the strangest thing. You run. Then you run more. Oh, then you run. And you have to train for a long run, you have to run and run and run and run. Then you talk about running.

See, running is boring, but it’s so exciting. It’s painful, but exhilarating. On long runs, I often felt like keeling over but rarely — except a few times in my life, like when I fell in love with Steve, gave birth to Sam and Molly, hiked in Canyonlands, river rafted on the Colorado river, traveled alone on trains throughout Europe — have I felt so alive.

I’ve been talking with other runners who, like me, fell in love with and began this boring-cum-exhilarating sport during middle age. Why did we fall in love, so madly in love, later in life?

Because running equals youth. Movement. Freedom. If we can run fast and far, we hold out hope of gaining back these prizes.

There’s more. Running offers us a marker, a goal, something tangible and definite, when so much as we age becomes fuzzier, blander, less remarkable and less…felt. With age, the sharp edges of youth — confusion, heartache, existential despair — are finally smoothed over by less pain and more contentment. But there’s a price for the cushy-ness of middle-age. Being ordinary.

We go to Trader Joe’s and get excited about that free little cup of coffee. We look forward to a new season of Mad Men. These very cheap, very ordinary thrills.

Work–that Holy Grail that once promised fame and fortune and inspiration in our twenties–is a disappointment, a reminder of what we haven’t achieved, or of how little we’ve earned for the hard work.

If it weren’t running, maybe I would have found something else during my 46th year help me feel this life acutely, to wake me up and help me see and think more clearly: Buddhism, jewelry making, gardening.

But I stumbled upon running, which feels exceptionally real. It reminds me of my body and my capacity, still, to do something new and well. Even more, there’s always the promise of doing it farther and better: The next race, when I’m even faster and stronger.

So, then, why the saggy psyche today? I don’t know. But I’ll hazard a guess.

My guess is that for all that hard work, and despite the zing of passing through a giant plastic archway that marked the 13.1 mile finish line, a few days later I’ve returned to the land of the bland.

How, now, to feel so alive as that particular moment, when I have to make dinner tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day? I have an invoice to send a client. Clean up the garage and the files in my office. Figure out how to arrange the family photos in an artful way in the hallway. Yawn.

I’m so churlish, not to thrill at these little things, these banal duties of everyday living. I know. I know. I have my two children, my husband, plenty of loved ones and friends.

The true achievement isn’t an actual finish line, but to be present and feel truly alive and grateful for a peaceful, healthy life.

The trick, the truly difficult assignment that I’m failing at so miserably today, is to absolutely feel this, not when you get a cheap medal for a race that–let’s face it–2500 other people also managed to pull off, but to feel alive and to embrace this ordinary day.

Oh, maybe it’s as simple as the fact that my muscles–quads, hamstrings, heart and brain–are strained and exhausted today. Maybe I need to give all of it a rest. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a new spring in my step, and my psyche.

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