One year ago today, I started running again after many years. My resolutions from The Great Burnout last year were to run and change my diet. That was basically it, though each involved massive lifestyle changes. But my what changes they have wrought in my life. If you’ll indulge me a bit, here are some things I learned over the past year. Hopefully at least one of them will mean something to you, too.
As with many attempts to improve one’s life, the part not long after I started was the hardest. If you think about it, just starting something new is perhaps the easiest part. Many of us do it every year with New Year’s resolutions. Often they might last a few days or weeks (or hours) because it’s the next step after you start where it’s usually the hardest. The honeymoon is the easy part. It’s when you have to commit to the day in and day out relationship that the work begins. Often, there’s not as much passion and glamour in this ongoing work as we’d hoped there would be. We have to draw our energy from somewhere else.
For exercise and health-related changes, I tend to call this the ‘Rocky Training Montage Problem’. In the Rocky movies, Rocky Balboa has some life crisis, some period of doubt where he thinks about giving up, something then happens to inspire him, and then cue the epic music and grunting in the gym where Rocky transforms into a perfect physical specimen ready to face and defeat an invincible foe, all in the span of about four minutes. The all-day, everyday devotion to the training and hard work required to get there are left on the editing floor. That’s where the really great stuff happens, but it’s also where most of us give up.
I’ve spent most of my life giving up a lot of things when I get to that work phase. I rationalized that it was no big deal if I didn’t exercise or write or whatever that week. Then that turned into months and on into forever. I’d look around one day and realize that so much of what I’d dreamed of doing had gone nowhere. That’s how it happens to most of us. Sometimes we need some crisis of the utmost urgency to snap us out of it. After all, life doesn’t live itself. That’s your work.
The Great Burnout was that crisis for me. I was in terrible health, physical and emotional pain, and so used up that I felt empty of any ability to do what I wanted or needed to do in my life. Something inside me said, you have a simple decision. Decide to get your crap together, or die. But you have to choose. Right now.
Making the choice wasn’t the hard part. Appreciating the commitment and consequences of what it would take to live out that choice was much more complicated. But this time I knew I couldn’t slide back to that burnout again. It had gotten so bad that I was terrified of going back to that place. In the beginning, I used that fear as fuel. It’s not the ideal way to do it, but at the beginning whatever it takes is fine.
Less than a month into my running, everything in my body hurt like I’d been beaten, particularly my knees. They’d swell up like grapefruits. They hurt all the time, even to the slightest touch, a particular problem when you have rowdy kids. It was a battle not to give in to despair. I believed my body was getting too old, that it was betraying me again, and maybe I never would physically be able to do what I wanted to do. But another part of me refused to buy it. I immersed myself in stories of people who were living out what I wanted to do. I needed their inspiration. I clung to it like water in the desert.
I informed my body of my decision. Seriously, that’s what I did. I looked at my body in the mirror and said, “OK. Until the end of next week, no running. Do whatever it is that bodies do to heal up. Ten days from now, we’re hitting the road again. And no matter how hard you complain or try to get me to stop, I’m going to tell you to get over it and shut the hell up.”
And that’s what I did. Ten days later, I laced up my shoes and went out the door. I sensed some little voice inside me say, “Oh, hell. He was serious.” I smiled.
I resumed my original 5K training plan that first day back on the road: five minutes walking warm up, ten minutes jogging, one minute walking, ten minutes jogging, five minutes walking cool down. This was pretty advanced for me then. Every jogging step sent stabbing pain through my legs. My brain begged the timer to go off so I could walk. But the growing part of me that wanted to overcome all this and live was defiant. They say don’t run with an injury, and probably that is the prudent thing to do. But I was past prudent. I could rationalize anything as prudent. This was a time for desperate measures if every there were any.
When the timer for the second ten-minute segment beeped at 0:00, I almost cried. I limped down the street, but I’d done it. I’d come out the other side and was still on my feet. I looked at my body and said, “Yes, I was serious.” I smiled.
This is the part of the story where you wish you could say the workouts after that got easier and I saw some rainbows or something. Didn’t happen. Of the next several runs, most were just as bad. But I learned that pain is often part of this, whether ‘this’ is running or parenting or life in general. Life is hard, so your best option is to incorporate that into your perspective so you don’t fear it anymore. Better yet, use it to your advantage.
Eventually it did hurt less. I desperately wanted to do the local autism run 5K, which fell about 10 weeks after I started running again. That was my biggest positive motivational goal. I wanted to make a statement to myself as much as anything in an event that means so much to me. It’s a challenging course, as seems fitting to its purpose, and I wanted to bring together my new life as a runner, my long-standing life as a parent of an autistic child, and another occasion to celebrate – the run was on my 37th birthday.
I got to the start line undertrained but at least not in that much pain. I finished the race in 28:52 even with walking a few times. Several hundred runners finished ahead of me. I wasn’t even a line on the results sheet, but I felt like an Olympic champion. I’d set a goal and achieved it. I’d overcome setbacks and doubt. And at the finish line my family was there to greet me. It was a very, very good day.
I liked this new me. I’d lost about 13 pounds by that point. I had more energy. Yeah my knees were still hurting most of the time, but I could deal with that I decided. I wanted to go again. I wanted to keep climbing the mountain even if I wasn’t at all sure where it was leading. I wanted to keep training and race again.
I ran a couple more 5Ks and did a 10K a month after the autism run as part of my Operation Orange fundraiser. That 10K was a dour battle between my willpower and my crumbling body. I crossed the finish line in 57:44, a time almost 12 minutes slower than my PR of my generation-ago self. Mary noticed that my knees had swollen to about three times normal size. My body ached from top to bottom, and I was exhausted. I hobbled to the car, got in, collected myself, and on the way home realized I’d rarely in my life felt more satisfied in my soul than I did in that moment. I set a goal, I showed up, I saw it through, and my best friend and partner was right there beside me. That’s a heckuva lot right there.
I was already dreaming of goals way beyond what I could accomplish without serious commitment and a steady stream of delusion, but I didn’t know what I really wanted to do yet. On a whim, I signed up for another 5K. It actually snowed that day, a rarity in early December here. I wore all the warm clothes I had. I finished happy with my effort but physically spent. My 5K time had already improved by four-and-a-half minutes since the autism run two months earlier. After I’d downed a few cups of hot chocolate, I looked at the results sheet. I’d won my age group. My time wasn’t comparatively that great, so I didn’t believe it. I checked it four times, and each time it had a 1 by my name.
Then I understood an important lesson. I won my age group because hardly anyone in my age group showed up to the race. It was cold and snowing and miserable out. Other people had listened to whatever voice inside them that said, stay in bed where it’s warm. Go downstairs, put on some coffee, and curl up on the couch. It’s too nasty out today. Who wants to run in this weather? It really came down to this – I won that medal because I showed up.
Before becoming a parent and having autism as part of my life, I wouldn’t have done that I don’t think. Some days a lot of things, or maybe everything, is unpleasant, to put it mildly. Some days everything in our lives is cold, wet, and miserable. But you show up, go for it, and very unexpected good things can happen. I love that medal. It reminds me that to show up and do your best is really what it takes to win your day.
Running had finally gotten easier. The pain was receding. I felt more alive than I’d felt in a long time. One weekday I just took off and ran. I really didn’t know where all I was going. I ran to the J-Man’s school, ran through the neighborhoods across the street, got kinda lost, and realized I probably should think about coming home. The only way home was to run back there, which proved to be a good strategy. It’s hard to give up when the only way back is up to you.
When I finally got home 90 minutes later, I’d completed eight miles. It was the longest I’d run in over 10 years. I was very tired and very happy. The following weekend I decided to go even longer. I took it slow and steady, and the miles ticked by. I originally planned on going nine miles, but I thought, ten is a better number. Ten is a major accomplishment. Go for it. So I did. It took me one hour and fifty-six minutes, but I did it. I felt like I’d run to Mars, but I was enjoying this new feeling. My feet and legs were dead tired, but my soul was as rested as it’d been in a long time. I’d found the path I needed to follow to become the dad and husband I wanted to be.
I had started thinking of a spring half-marathon. After all, it was only three miles longer than what I’d just run. But I picked up a book about marathoning, looked at a first-time marathon training schedule, and realized that the run I’d just finished put me on schedule to run an actual marathon in three more months. Well, as long as I ignored the part that said, “You should have been running consistently for about a year before starting this training plan.”
It was a razor-tight schedule. Nothing could go wrong or I wouldn’t be trained. I’d tried this plan a dozen years earlier and ended up so injured I couldn’t do more than walk for months. I had to fully commit to it and bring all the wisdom I had developed over the years to this goal, or I’d fail. I sat down with Mary, and we talked it over. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. There was no guarantee at all that I’d pull it off. And that’s why I decided to do it. I made myself sign up for the marathon before I changed my mind or rationalized myself out of it. I was in.
Parenting has taught me that I’m stronger than I think I am. It’s taught me that there are no guarantees of anything. Life can change on a minute’s notice. I’ve learned that challenges are everywhere, and if you wait until you have things figured out, you’ll never get anywhere. In fact, it’s impossible to do that anyway. You just have to commit, believe, and act bringing to bear the best of who you are, even if you think that doesn’t amount to much. Somehow, it works.
The miles began adding up into numbers I couldn’t fathom. My long runs got longer and longer into distances incomprehensible to me even the day before I ran them let alone from where I’d started months earlier. My training went off with few hitches. My last long run before the race went horribly, though. I despaired for a while, but I thought through it and realized what I’d done wrong. Bad preparation and really bad food choices that day and the day before had ruined it. I learned from all my mistakes along the way and became wiser for them.
Finally I arrived at the start line, the place where all my paths had led. Looking down through the runners’ corral and beyond the start banner was to stare into a tunnel leading to some great unknown. My longest run had been 19 miles. I had to somehow run 7.2 miles further than I’d ever run before. But parenting taught me how to do this, too. It’s impossible to take an entire journey all at once. It’s impossible to get to the destination you want your kids to reach without doing something important – together taking all the steps in between first. You take it one step at a time. It sounds cliche, but how else can we get anywhere?
The J-Man has taught me that many steps are hard-won. Many are small, hesitant, awkward steps. But if you string all of them together, over time amazing things happen. And so it did on that day in that marathon. It took me four hours and forty-three minutes, and there were times in those last six miles that I questioned everything, including why I could no longer feel my own feet, but I remembered everything I’d learned in the 37 1/2 years that led me to that marathon. All I needed to do was focus on that next step, and I was strong enough to get where I dreamed of going.
I crossed the finish line, found Mary, and cried in her arms. I’m not even sure exactly what I was crying about, but in that moment I knew how much I loved her and our kids. I realized how much I’d grown as a father, husband, and person in all our years together. I was painfully aware of how much I missed my grandmother, how much she’d inspired me to finish what I started, and how proud she’d have been of me. She taught me that the best way to deal with fear is to run hard straight at it, so that’s what I did. As I rounded the last corner before the finish line, I blew her a kiss and spoke the words “Thank you” to the sky. And I understood the joy of setting a goal that seemed so ridiculous and finding a way to make it happen. It was a perfect day.
There’s been the inevitable ‘now what?’ in the post-marathon era. I ran another 5K in April where I won my age group again – also not terribly hard to do in a race held at a university where most of the runners are half your age and, therefore, not remotely in your age group – but finishing 15th overall and ahead of 100 other mostly college-aged runners was a nice feeling. That day my fear of my body being too old to do what I wanted it to do fell away. I knew then that it is precisely because I am older that I am able to do what I could not do before. As a matter of fact, I’m just getting started.
Over this past year in addition to running, I’ve made a number of diet changes that have significantly improved all my health stats. I could certainly stand to make more – and my tendency to comfort eat and self-medicate with food still roars back during high stress – but I’m getting there. I care a lot more about what goes into my body than I used to, and that’s a big part of the battle right there. Really I just feel better about myself and my life. Mary has done amazing things with her diet as well. I feel like a total slacker around her. Hopefully she doesn’t mind me bragging on her, but she’s lost about 85 pounds in the last 12 months! Her gains in physical strength are obvious, too. Both certainly made the difference in her getting through her recent health scare and surgery and helping her present recovery.
So, now what? The main thing is that I’m still running. I’ve consistently run for an entire year now. I’ve seen it through a whole lot of emotional and physical ups and downs. I haven’t quit, but that’s isn’t as laudable as it sounds. Months ago I realized I not only had no desire to quit, running had become one of the most essential things in my life.
My dreams of impossible-sounding goals keeps on. No one said you can’t run more than 26.2 miles! Whatever is next, I run first so I can be a better father and husband and to make sure that I’m around for at least a few more decades to see how awesome this story turns out. But I also run and try to achieve big goals for another reason – I want to prove a point.
So many people look at us and our kids, see tragedy and brokenness, and feel pity and a strong desire to never be us. I know we’re all tired and giving everything we have to overcome a lot of challenges and do what’s best for our kids. My fear is that as parents we buy into the story, at least sometimes, that our lives are and will always be pitiable, that we’re doomed to something far short of our hopes and dreams, that only through sacrificing ourselves can we save our children.
This was the root of the crisis that led to my decision a year ago. I was falling apart. I wanted to believe there was another way. I wanted to show that our lives aren’t broken and tragic, and for damn sure our children aren’t. I had no interest in being pitied anymore. I want people to know that I have a strong desire to be no one else but me, and the best me I can be on top of that.
And instead of assuming the challenges and obstacles in our lives are all a daily misery, I wanted everyone to know that while these challenges are very hard and can wear us all down, they are also the source of our greatest inspiration. They strengthen us and make us into something greater than we were before. It is precisely because of these challenges and my experiences that I was able to run that marathon. It is precisely because of this journey and particularly those I journey with that I am who I am right now. And it is why I will keep running and aim for the next dream that at this moment seems impossible.
There are plenty of people who will never have any desire to have a life like mine. They will go on pitying us, and that’s their choice, even though I admit pitying them instead. I want my life to say, I have everything I could ever ask for. And here’s some shoes for you. Let’s go see where this road takes us next.