Running never got me high. The two years I spent gearing up to and running marathons were fun and rewarding, but I never got the fabled “runner’s high” that everyone seemed to be talking about. Around mile 11 things got easier, strangely, but I’d never call it “high”. More like, “less sucky”. Miles 18+ were interesting from a detached pride perspective, just knowing that I could run that far without dying. But after a number of those runs watching my friends with giddy, euphoric faces and me with my tight groin and salty shirt there was clearly something missing. Then I discovered triathlon, rediscovered cycling, and learned how to swim.
Today was the ocean swim, which I always brick with a 4 mile run afterwards. I get high from the ocean swim and the giddy feeling lasts far through the run and well into my day. It definitely affects my overall disposition. I can sit in traffic on the 5 heading to Burbank without feeling angry at the trucks and crazy drivers. I can listen to music and leave NPR off for a while, just enjoy the blissful state of having moved my body through the ocean, gone swimming with dolphins, and noticing very small improvements in my stroke and speed. I didn’t get lapped by the speed demons until my third lap, noticing with some pride that few of my fellow swimmers did more than two laps. I considered doing a fourth lap, having done my three in about 25 minutes, but since there was a low turnout and I didn’t see anyone going back in I didn’t want to swim alone.
I fly to D.C. tomorrow to visit family and drop my wife off for her two week residency at grad school in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to seeing my parents, albeit briefly, and my grandmother in Philadelphia. My grandmother is almost 90 and she is still totally sharp, even if her body has recently limited her mobility. She didn’t learn how to drive a car until she was a widow in her early sixties. In fact, she had to completely transform when my grandfather died, learning how to take care of herself and meet new people. She puts on a front that appears stoic, “what else was I supposed to do?” she says, diminishing the size of change that she underwent. Perhaps she’s right, if she thought about what she was doing she may never have tried. If she thought there was a choice, she wouldn’t have done it. But giving up was never an option, so she changed. I’ve never been one to consider giving up. It’s what makes me an endurance athlete. I don’t know how to stop. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion before, but yesterday my nutritionist asked if I’d ever actually bonked before. A full-on glycogen, calorie, carbohydrate, crash. Nope. A few years ago I did a 23 mile run solo without preparing for it with enough sleep, hydration, or planning and at mile 21 I completely ran out of gas. But I recovered in about five or ten minutes, enough to jog/walk the rest of the way home. It was probably heat exhaustion as much as ill preparation. A few months ago I experienced an electrolyte crash, with cramping, nausea, and headache, but once I got electrolytes back into my system I recovered pretty well. Those are the closest I’ve come to a bonk, so I doubt I’ve experienced the absolute limits of my endurance.
This is something that has dogged me for years. I don’t know if I’m actually giving 100% effort – in any field. I know that I back off when things get too painful, or feel like I’m going into a dangerous zone. I have a self-protective streak that has made my radical changes feel safe. The things I’ve done that people consider risky or daring rarely feel that way to me because I feel like I’ve got safeguards in place. Sure, I went to college at 15. But I could always leave if it didn’t work out. I moved across the country at 19, but I could always move back and try something else. In my writing, there’s always another draft that can be written. There’s always another agent to reach, another producer to meet, another avenue of attack. It never ends. In the exercise there’s always another level of exhaustion to be found. In fact, during my High Intensity Interval Training sessions I push as hard as I can for the minute sprint, and when the time is up I wonder if I really gave it everything, even if my legs are sore and I’m panting like a dog.
So no, I’ve never bonked. I’ve never gone so hard I’ve thrown up. I’ve never pushed myself into a dangerous place because if one of my three goals is to complete races without permanent injury I don’t want to destroy my knees, or break a leg in an uncontrolled bike crash, or tear a muscle group, or any of the horrible things that can happen in training and racing. This caution is one reason I think that doing VO2 max testing, where an athlete is lab tested for how well they oxygenate their blood, how many calories they burn during exercise, and how many watts they output until they drop from exhaustion, will be wasted on me. Can I actually go until I drop? I don’t know. That answer lies somewhere in the back of my pain cave and I’m still spelunking my way into the darker sections. There is a large part of me that thinks I am not improving my speed because I’m both impatient and unwilling to break myself in order to grow.
In two weeks hopefully I’ll go out on a brick bike/run with D. and Brian, in order to leech as much knowledge as I can from them to help in my training. I think proper coaching is what will give me a sense of safety so I can push myself into dangerous places. I’m reaching the point in my training where I need to adopt a formal training plan that I research and devise myself, or work directly with a coach who will observe my ability and create a custom plan. I think it’s possible to achieve growth without self destruction, but there is also a place just short of implosion where limits are pushed and boundaries exceeded.
Once I know what my real limitations are, I can push harder. What will seem like risk will actually be safe, positive change. I figure there’s some good endorphins in store no matter what. (Spoken like a junkie.)