On Goals, Persistence And The Exhilarating Pain Of Running

    I never thought of myself as a runner — until I was. But getting there has been harder than I ever thought it would be.

    I used to think there were people who were runners and people who weren't; you were either one or the other, and what you were was immutable. I had brown hair and I was not a runner. I liked mango and I was not a runner. In high school, I was on the swim team in the fall, and in the spring I joined the lacrosse team because my friends were on it and I liked the plaid skirts we got to wear, but I was not a runner and so I played goalie. I went on long bike rides but never went for a run, and eventually not being a runner was both something unchangeable and something I took a perverse pride in. Until a couple of years ago, when I became a runner.

    It wasn't something I'd been planning on doing, but my then-boyfriend Sam decided he was going to get in shape — he'd run cross-country in high school, but by the time we were dating he'd had a few too many nights of beer drinking and chicken wing eating — and joined my gym. He told me that running wasn't really that hard, you just had to build up to it, and so I hopped on the treadmill and started trying to run. First I could barely run a mile, then I could run two miles, then — this was a momentous day — I ran three miles. Three miles! It seemed like a marathon.

    My sister was another cheerleader: she'd been a runner for awhile, and she told me I should sign up for a race, so I signed up for a 10K in Central Park that was happening that April. And then I discovered that one of the great things about running is that it's so easy to set tangible, achievable goals for yourself: I was going to run a 10K, and so I looked up a training program online, and printed out a spreadsheet with all the runs I was supposed to do on each day, and did them all. And I ran the 10K.

    It felt satisfying in a way that almost nothing else did, or does. So I continued. At the time I was freelancing, which was incredibly stressful, but I had a schedule of runs that I was obsessive about following, and that calmed me. I think many writers are often a near-crippling combination of insecurity and narcissism, and part of the problem with being a writer is that it feeds both: You're only as good as your next assignment. And sometimes it feels like those assignments are in so many ways out of your control: A source won't talk to you, or a meeting doesn't go as planned, or your editor doesn't like your argument, or it's just not coming together; there are a million ways writing an article can go wrong. But running is, often, the total opposite. When you set specific goals for yourself as a runner, there's a tangible, realistic way of fulfilling them, step by step.

    But my relationship was also in the process of falling apart, and three months after I ran the 10K, Sam and I broke up, and I moved out, into a sublet two blocks from Fort Greene Park. Almost every morning that summer, I'd walk my dog and have some coffee, and then go for a run in the park. I didn't need to, but I started losing weight — first five pounds, then 10. I wasn't eating carbs, or really much of anything at all, and in August I started feeling a dull pain in my right calf, but I chalked it up to not stretching enough. And I kept running. By September I had lost almost 15 pounds, and one day when I was in the park with my friend and her boyfriend, I realized I could barely walk.

    I went to a doctor who had me go for X-rays and an MRI, and then when I went back a few days later he told me I had a stress fracture in my fibula, the bone on the back of my calf. A stress fracture is a microscopic crack in a bone that's caused by repetitive overuse, particularly by doing too much too soon — and I suspect mine was caused by a combination of over-training and under-eating, and a hereditary disposition to osteoporosis, which my mom has. (According to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, female athletes are more susceptible to stress fractures than males because of the so-called "female athletic triad" of eating disorders, irregular menstrual cycle and osteoporosis.) My doctor told me I couldn't run, or bike, or really do any strenuous exercise at all besides swimming for at least three months.

    I don't know exactly what diagnosis I was expecting, but this was not a diagnosis I was expecting. Three months! It seemed like an impossibly long time to stay off my leg. "Are you sure you're not feeling pain when you're walking?" my doctor asked. I lied and said no, I wasn't feeling pain while walking, and he said, "Well, if you do, I'm going to tell you to get crutches. In fact, what I'd really like is for you to be wearing a boot."

    "That is not happening," I said. It didn't seem fair: Just when I felt like I was making actual progress, I was completely sidelined. But in another way, it also seemed like a weirdly concrete physical manifestation of all the stress I was under, a way of my body telling me what, perhaps, my mind was refusing to confront.

    At first I thought I would find those months when I couldn't run to be incredibly frustrating, but they weirdly weren't. I got back into swimming, which I hadn't done regularly since high school, and started taking calcium supplements to try and stave off additional bone deterioration. There was never any question about whether I would start running again; the question was simply when. I missed the excitement of reaching another goal, the "runner's high" (which is a real thing), the time alone with my thoughts, the structure of having something I was working towards. Starting up again was terrifying, though, and slow: first I was doing run-walks, then runs for longer, then finally, by January, I was back up to doing three miles straight through. I signed up for a four-mile race at the end of February, and it was fine, and then I decided I was going to try to do the New York City Marathon the following year.

    New York Road Runners, which produces the marathon, has a program called 9+1 where if you run nine of their races in a year and volunteer at one of their events, you automatically qualify for the marathon the following year. It required a lot of weekend mornings waking up at 6:30 and heading in to Central Park, half-asleep, to run a few miles, but at the end of 2011, I had done it: nine races and one afternoon volunteering at the NYC Half Marathon Expo, handing out bib numbers. So now I'm signed up for the Marathon on November 4th.

    Running the marathon is the biggest, most long-term goal I've ever set for myself. So far this year, I've run three half-marathons, most recently the Brooklyn Half a couple weeks ago. I try to do two short runs and one long run a week, and I keep track of my runs with the Runkeeper app, which uses GPS to calculate your time, speed and distance as you run. After months of bruised toenails, I just got a new pair of running shoes that are a full two and a half sizes larger than my normal shoe size (your feet swell when you run, particularly long distances). I have a foam roller that stretches my leg muscles. I've also started doing a strength-training workout a couple times a week to strengthen them, and now that it's less than six months away, I'm about to start a real running training program (probably this one). And maybe most, if not at least as, important, I eat carbs again (and have put back all the weight I lost when I wasn't).

    But there's never a straight line when it comes to running. I haven't gotten another stress fracture (knock on wood, thank god, etc.), but I've had a bunch of other less serious injuries: tendinitis in my ankle, bursitis in my hip, IT band syndrome. Over the last couple of years, though, I've started learning about the kind of pain you can run through, and the kind of pain you can't. There are times when all you can do is rest, so that eventually you can keep going.