Lost and Found

Riding a bicycle is, for me, a subtle and pervasive addiction. The more I ride, the more I need to ride. Four nights out of seven, when I am falling asleep, my legs give a hard involuntary twitch on invisible pedals.

Running, however, has been full-on central-lined dopamine and delicious neuro-peptidical bliss. Until, that is, this spring and summer.

I was running plenty as I moved into multisport season. Lots of four and five mile road runs in the mornings and hot, evening trail runs of whatever length I could get between thunderstorms and the demands of other brick workout legs.

But as the weeks went by, and though I was getting incrementally stronger, it felt less and less like I'd actually been running. My runs were slower, most likely because of the heat and accumulating fatigue from racing. The slower pace never concerned me much; what troubled me was dulled endorphins, missing exhilaration, and a growing expectation that runs would end without the amazing sense of purification and pleasure.

Running, especially on trails, was tinged with vacancy and disappointment for the same amount of work, and I couldn't figure out what I'd lost.

I might have found it now.

One morning last week I stepped out into the darkness. Fall is coming early here. The air was cool and smelled like damp earth. I didn't make up my mind where I was running until I got to the corner of my street. I wanted hills. I didn't know how far I was running. Somewhere between five and six miles. I didn't know how fast I would be running. As fast as felt great, keeping legs easy, not pushing into pain but well into work. The finished route was five and a half miles with 175 feet of climbing... 9:45 pace, a minute faster than the last time I ran these rolling hills. My head felt clear, my heartbeat strong, my breath deep and rich. I still didn't know why this run felt so much better.

One evening last week I was more than halfway through a 5.25 mile trail run and realized how conservatively I was running. I was holding back. I was steady and workmanlike and on track to finish my run at a reliable cadence and pace. But I had time to hear the voices in my head. I was picking my way through rocks. As though I was afraid to fall. This is not the way I learned to run trails.

WHAT THE HELL, said a voice in my head quite clearly. I was surprised that it wasn't my Inner Ass-Kicker's voice. Among all the voices up there, it was simply mine. It — I — went on: This is not the way I ran when I first loved running trails. I ran fearlessly, holding nothing back. And I ran Violet in 21 minutes, far weaker than I am now. When did I start conserving myself on the trail? When did I start concerning myself with pace and consistency to the exclusion of hammering the trail, flying over it, ripping into it? And I'm surprised there's something missing when I run?

I stopped running for a minute. A voice of reason said, "If you run hard like that you'll blow up and have to walk. You'll finish in better time if you keep your heart rate from skyrocketing and your pace steady."

Here is what I say. Every minute doing what you love is precious and not to be taken for granted. You have to know what you want and put those minutes to work to get the most of what you want. Past a warmup, I don't really want to run a mile of trail conserving myself for some later mile. I don't even want to do it in the trail half-marathon in October, though I will to get a better overall race time. There is no guarantee of any mile in the future. I want to hammer and fly and rip.

My brain wants me to do this, too... as soon as I started running faster, it began to process rocks and send my feet flying into friendly gaps and onto flat springboards.

And no, my legs and lungs can't keep up easily with my brain's preferred pace. If I run hard I may have to stop or walk. It's worth it. My legs and lungs will keep catching up to my brain; they responded beautifully last winter to trail intervals; I don't know why they wouldn't now.

Even if they don't, so be it. Running at high cadences, stripping preconceived ceilings of pace and expectations of time, I'm flooded with endorphins, my mind is clear, and I am running. Animal. Simple. Worked. And it feels GOOD again.

My God, does it feel good.