…and then he could run again, not like he used to, as much or as fast, but still, he thought to himself, finally! It was approaching one year since his surgery and there’d been times he’d thought he was done, but he was doing it, 2, 3 times a week, and his knee was holding up. He couldn’t do the type of runs he had done before, but it felt like running again. Except it was harder. Even when he told himself to go 30 minutes easily, with no concern for pace, he could feel gravity and inertia fighting him every step of the way. He always knew the hardest thing about running was simply keeping going, holding pace. But in the past, that was something he only had to deal with on his bad days, or race days. Now every run was hard. Why, he thought. Why? And when he was hurting he asked himself, what’s the point of all this? And then he thought, wait, is this why I like it? Because it’s so hard?
When I used to run, he thought, I could just let my mind wander. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Have I lost access to some part of myself because I can’t do that anymore, because now it’s all thoughts like: I’m running again. Am I really running again? Should I be running again? Was microfracture the best thing for me? Is every workout taking me a step to recovery, or a step closer to the end? That pain I feel afterwards, when I walk up steps, is that me getting stronger, or am I wearing away the surgeon’s good work? He asks himself, if I can run but my knee will always hurt other times of the day, will I do it? He knows the answer to that one: yes! Still, he doesn’t know why, and then he starts to feel so tired, so heavy and goes back to thinking: why is this so damn hard? And what’s it all about?
He is still swimming but has decided to stop timing himself. His miles in the pool have improved his stroke, made him stronger, faster, but now that he’s running again, he doesn’t have the same zip in the water. When he’d first started running again, his swim workouts had gone well. He’d felt more buoyant somehow, knowing that his laps were just cross-training, not the start of his new athletic life as a perpetually slow swimmer. But as the fall progressed, he rarely got his goal times for his workouts and when he’d look up at the clock after each repetition, gasping for breath, he began to wish he was someone else, someone faster. He had time he wanted to achieve, for 500 yards, for 1,000, but he was getting further away from them. He didn’t care anymore that he was much faster than he’d been a year ago. No, he’d be angry with himself. Being goal-oriented had helped him improve, but now every workout was a failure. He knew this is not the way to spend an hour—feeling disappointed. And I’m no swimmer, so why does it matter? No more times, he told himself. Just swim. Use the kickboard more. Strengthen those legs. This will be better for your running, and is a healthy change in your philosophy, not surrender, right? And after all, you’re a runner, aren’t you?
A runner he was, and he was still running on the track to regain his speed. He’d always liked these workouts, the concentration needed to get through them, the fact that when he was on the track, nothing else in the world ever occurred to him except time, distance, form. And breathing, of course. Breathing, then catching his breath. Breathing, then catching his breath. His favorite workout was 400 meter repeats. One lap at a time. So simple, so hard, so good for his body. But now sometimes as he’d get around for the final straight for the finish, he’d say to himself, I can’t believe I’m giving it my all, my all, to finish this 400 in 80 seconds. He knows if he can keep running, his goal will be to run under 5 minutes for a mile, 75 seconds per lap. That kind of fitness seems like a dream, an impossibility to him. Digging in to make it over the last 50 meters without slowing down, a 5 minute mile seems about as likely as buying his own tropical island. Impossible, right? Maybe I’m better without goals, he thinks. Just running. That doesn’t appeal to him, but he doesn’t know why.
And his son is on the swim team and he’s gone to the meets and sat on the metal bleachers with the other parents and is amazed, not only at his son swimming, taking it up junior year and doing well, but by all the kids and their fast times. He feels something else too, it’s not jealousy exactly, but he watches the races with a peculiar swirling of joy and loss. He’s happy for the kids, some he’s known since they were 4 years old, these kids he used to drive to Little League games, who used to play tag in the backyard. They amaze him. Simply growing like kids do is amazing enough to those who have stopped, but having swum as much as he has in the past year, he also knows how hard they’ve worked to get as fast as they have. He almost feels a strange sense of pride in their accomplishments, then stops himself. He’s done nothing to make them faster. Still, he understands it, and is proud for them–that’s what he’s feeling.
He also knows they don’t appreciate what they’re doing, that they won’t until they can’t do it any longer. He wants to run down from the stands and tell them this: APPRECIATE WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW! But maybe that’s not how it’s supposed to happen. Maybe that would take some of their own dumb pure joy out of it, wipe away their laughs and smiles between races. Every meet his mind wanders to his own swimming, his struggles. Does this make me a narcissist? he wonders. Yes, he chides himself, yes, it does. But at least I know I am, right? That makes it a little better. And I’m not hurting anyone, only myself. I’m not hurting these kids. I want them all to go even faster, perform more miracles.
His semester of teaching has come to a close and he looks forward to the break, all that extra time for training! But as his students walk out of the classroom on the last day, he wonders, did I teach them anything? Are they better off? He thinks the answer is yes, but also asks, could I have done more, could I have done better? The answer to that is definitely yes. He suddenly wants to call them all back for another semester, to build on what they’ve done. He can’t believe the fifteen weeks are over already. He’s heard older people say that once they reached a certain age, they couldn’t believe how fast life went by. He finds himself thinking the same thing. But I’m not old yet, am I? I’m not ready for that, he thinks. I’ve still got more to do. I’ve still got time, right?
It’s a Saturday morning and he wakes up early even though he doesn’t have to. The house is cold. It’s 3 degrees outside. His lovely perfect wife is flying back from Miami that afternoon. He wishes she were there with him already. He puts his legs over the side of the bed and, like every day, as he stands up, waits to feel if there’s pain in his knee. As usual, it’s a little stiff, but there’s no real pain. This makes sense, of course. He can’t re-injure it while sleeping. Still, he’s glad. He’s volunteered to work the concession stand at the swim meet that day. But before that, he’s got some time. He cleans the house, he wants it all in order so when his lovely perfect wife rolls in they can relax, catch up, watch football, eat soup. He’s got a run planned too, his first run on the treadmill. He’s nervous about it, but excited. He just bought a new pair of running shoes. He sits and eats his raisin toast and decides he should write a bit before his run. But what will I write about? he wonders. All I’ve got right now is a bunch of unanswered questions, unfinished thoughts, unfolding stories. I guess I could write about that, he thinks. And so that’s what he did.