Sunday, February 7, 2010

There comes a time, in an intense workout, when you aren't getting enough air.  Sometimes it's two miles into a 5k, or twenty-four miles into a marathon.  Sometimes it's twenty minutes into a spin class.  Sometimes it's in the third mile of a 21-mile run, and sometimes it's before you even jog out of your apartment complex.

When you run short of air, there are a few things that can happen.  One of them - the one that seems to come naturally to athletic people who don't train for endurance - is to speed up, try to get through the workout faster.  This can succeed, if you're almost done - although I think not for me; just the other day I nearly keeled over in the final quarter-mile of a five-mile run when I decided to try to make the last little bit go by faster.  It can work if you're at mile 2.8 of a 5k; maybe it can work at mile 25.5 of a marathon.  But much sooner, at mile 1.2 of a 5k or at mile 20 of a marathon, it's going to be trouble.  The air that didn't feel like enough at the slower pace is going to feel like even less at the fast pace, and whatever it was you sped up to try and avoid - slowing down too much, or walking, or cutting the run short - is probably going to happen, and probably it's going to be worse than you feared.

Another thing you can do is panic.  This is what seems to come naturally to people who don't exercise at all.  I hear so many people - young, normal-weight people who walk around New York in ridiculous heels all day - say they can't run even a mile because they run out of air, and it seems to me like unless they all have respiratory problems, they just don't know how to deal with being short of breath.  This is not an easy thing to deal with, actually, and running is a pretty stringent test - it's simply harder than many other forms of exercise, and the difficulty is more sustained (in, say, a spin class - even a really really hard spin class - there are rests and breaks, and if you can't handle it you can back off without a qualitative change, whereas for many people (including me, when I haven't been running) maintaining a biomechanical run for more than a few minutes is a challenge, and then only way to make it not a challenge is to walk).  It's very easy, when your body stops having enough air, to get worried, to think about the minutes and miles still ahead of you, to panic that you won't make it, and to let that panic become part of your pain and expand it, and then instead of just running right now you are also trying to run two and ten and twenty minutes from now, and it's too much, and you have to stop.

The third thing you can do - the best thing, and the only way a slow and not very athletic person like me gets through a long run - is to  just, well, deal.  You can't let your mind get away from you.  You can't start borrowing trouble from further along in the run, worrying about how you'll make it through the next mile or the miles after that.  You have to only think about the little bit of the run that you're in.  I count things, sometimes - footfalls, up to the number of mile-hundredths or seconds I have left - or watch the distance shift up every 5 or 6 or 7 seconds.  I listen to the music.  I monitor the goings-on around me out of the corner of my eye or in the mirror.  

I know my tendency is more to panic that I can't do something than to become overconfident and try to go too fast.  I know I tend to get overwhelmed, and that my worry becomes a bigger thing even than what I'm worrying about.  I've been beaten before, by my runs.  On a sixteen-mile training run I sat down on the sidewalk about thirteen miles in and cried, because I had gone so far and it hurt so much and there was still so far to go and I had to go up another hill, a steep one, and even walking up that hill was painful.  I had no idea how I'd make it to the end of the run, but I knew I had to, running or walking or somehow, because that was the only way to get home, and just knowing I had to - that I didn't have the option to hit the stop button and turn off the treadmill and give up - made me sick with fear.  It was hot and my sweat had left salt trails on my legs and I was running out of water, and I sat on the deserted sidewalk and drank half of what I had left and put my head on my knees and cried.  The crying didn't help, though, because I still had to get up - and getting up was hard - and walk up the hill and then jog and walk and jog and walk until I was home.  

I was pleased with myself, getting through my five mile run the other day, not needing to walk at all and going faster than I was expecting.  I was a little embarrassed about being pleased with myself, because I remember a phase in which running five miles seemed trivial, even insulting.  But I also know there have been, and likely will be again, times when running three miles was something to be pleased about, and there are people - people I respect and like - for whom running half a mile is an accomplishment.  It's weird to me, although perhaps it shouldn't be, how different hard things are independent of each other, how I can marvel at a woman who manages to look perfectly turned out - wearing pearls and making them look natural - on a Saturday afternoon, and she can marvel at me training for a half-marathon.  It seems to me that, for a woman so incredibly together, someone with perfect stylish accessorized everything, running five or fifteen or a thousand miles should be a breeze.  But I suppose this is not what she thought, and perhaps she looked at me and thought that a woman who can run a marathon really ought to be able to dress herself.

I have been doing hard things.  One of my enduring concerns, in writing this blog and generally in trying to talk to everyone, is that my life seems trivial.  This business of figuring out who you are - well, isn't that just fodder for the whining, self-indulgent rants of spoiled people?  I know it is, and that virtually everyone I know thinks my life is trivially solvable (although they all seem to have identified different trivial solutions), but it still feels hard.  

I have to pick a career soon, for instance, and it is practically all I think about.  Running and icing my sore muscles and worrying about whether I have seriously injured the outside of my left calf is a fun break from thinking about what I am going to do for a career.  And it sounds very silly because I am thirty years old and don't I already have a career?  Except not really, and I have to pick one, and I have to make it pick me too, and I have no idea how.  This entails not only pursuing jobs in two very different lines of work, preparing for two kinds of interviews, and reading two sets of literature, but also making a decision, which is so difficult for me that I have postponed the matter up to, and quite possibly beyond, the point of no return.  The decision will affect where I live and who I spend time with, how I'm treated at work and how the world regards me, the level of freedom and supervision I have at work, what I'm expected to put into my job and what I can expect to get out.  It will also affect what I do all day at work, although not, I think, as drastically.  So it is a Big Life Decision, and probably an irreversible one, and the way I've coped with such decisions up until now is just not to make them, which is actually a series of really big (but sneaky) decisions in itself, and that's not working out as well as I'd like.

So life right now is kind of like a really hard run, with a lot of hills, and I don't know exactly how I'm going to get to the end of it (not of life, obviously, but of this bit of it).  It could be that a series of miraculous events and lucky breaks will lead to an easy decision in two weeks; it could be - it almost certainly is - that a long and steep path is waiting, and that two or three or four months will pass before I know where I'm at.  I could fail at this; I could make a decision that is not good for me and that I know is not good for me, just because I'm scared to find a path to something better or because the path is hard.  There are obstacles; I have to read a lot of things and convince a lot of people that I'm smarter than I'm entirely certain I am, and then - no matter what I decide - I'm going to have to disappoint and upset people, and some of those people will be people I care about.  At the end of the run, things will be better, or at least easer, but I can't rush all the way to the end - I'm simply not close enough; there's too much work still to do.  I could panic, and that would be easy; I could say this run wasn't really what I wanted to do, that I only meant to run two miles after all, and stop the treadmill and call it a day.  But I can't go try again tomorrow; if I stop this time, I've made the choice not to do the run. So I just have to deal.  I can slow down when things get a little rough, I can list the tasks ahead of me and take them one at a time, I can map out which worries are for now and which worries are for the future.  I can't escape those tasks, and I will have to do them all if I am going to get through this.  But if I think about them all at once - if I think about all the books I need to read and all the people I need to talk to, the interviews and the interview questions and the interview suits, the different talks I need to give, the different ways I need to sell myself, all the people I have to impress and all the people I have to disappoint, all the expectations I'll have to create for myself and all the expectations I'll have to give up - if I think about all of that at once for too long, I won't be able to do it.  So I just have to do it bit by bit and hope that when I get to the hard parts they won't be hard anymore.


  1. So it is a Big Life Decision, and probably an irreversible one

    I'm not sure of this. This might be true if there were one optimized solution. But I suspect there are many very good solutions, and when you live in one of them, you'll think nice things about it.

    We're so privileged, smart people in our social class. Opportunities keep coming, just because we are connected to people who have opportunities to offer. There will be more chances for you ahead. Or, you might decide to have three or four ten-year careers, of which this is only the second.

    We have it pretty good, and one of the luxuries is that things aren't make-or-break for us, like they are for poorer people who fall through the cracks. Might as well sense and appreciate some of the luxury.

  2. Also, you have been en fuego recently. Love that you're back to blogging, and writing such great posts.

  3. Hrm. Well. I capitalized Big Life Decision in part to parody it. It is not like it is a vast difference in the space of Possible Life Outcomes, and no matter what happens I'm sure there are a lot of people who would consider my fortunate. But. It is still true that if I leave my current trajectory it would be very hard - I am told impossible - to go back. This is the primary argument for remaining on it, although it is not actually a very good argument. I cannot go back and redo any of my life; time itself is irreversible. I think, probably, that if this was the best or even a very good choice for me that I would not be quite so miserable about it. But I could be wrong; intelligent people have argued that I am by nature a miserable person and always will be. I do not like this argument, but that does not mean it is necessarily wrong.

    But I'm trying not to think of it as a Big Life Decision. The reality is that, while every minute I am ruling things out, there are more possible paths than I will ever explore, and I can make lots of decisions throughout my life. Framing this as the Great Decision that will Define my Life does not elicit rational, unfearful analysis. It is better to think of it as one of many decisions that, along with other people's actions and a great deal of happenstance, have shaped and continue to shape my life.

    But it's hard to be detached when I know perfectly well that most of the people with whom I have any kind of close professional or personal relationship view this as a life-defining decision. And when I know perfectly well that, actually, one path means I am making a commitment for at the very least several years that will control my entire life, and the other path means that I'm giving up everything I've always thought - maybe not been happy about the idea of, but still thought - would define me.

    Nobody who knows me well seems to think this is a hard choice. They all think it is trivially obvious and that, in fact, I am only capable of one of the alternatives. (Frustratingly, they do not agree on which alternative this is.) So, basically, everyone whose opinion I care about thinks I am acting like a crazy person and is constantly annoyed with me for wondering about this. I have noticed, recently, that the dismissive annoyance of people who supposedly care about me is a frequent consequence of trying to take charge of my own life.

  4. Also, you have been en fuego recently.

    Aww... thanks. :)

  5. Yeah, good posts. I hear you on the irreversibility angst; academia is weird like that.