In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.
Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.
Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them
For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.
I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.
As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.
This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.
A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned, I was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.
Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.
I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.
I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?
These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.