Just today, I knocked off the 7th day of what became the highest mileage week of my life (including weeks that contained a 100 mile race). My previous highest mileage was 136 miles in one week, but today, I pounded out yet another run that would be considered a "long run" by most peoples' standards and got myself up to 141 in a Saturday-to-Friday stretch. Today's run was 21 miles, but the beauty of it was that a 21 mile day no longer feels long.
Allow me to provide a bit of background. One year ago, I was 20-25 pounds heavier than my racing weight and not sure that I'd ever be able to train at a competitive level again. I was a little over a year past a mononucleosis diagnosis and was in a disease state that had significantly worsened as a result of mid-late 2010 when I attempted, and failed, to complete both the Western States 100 and the Badwater 135 several weeks apart, despite an ailing body. I made 85 miles in Western States after an incredibly awful day of running, sat down in a chair, vomited, passed out, woke up a few hours later to cry my eyes out, passed out again for a few more hours, and then generally felt wrecked up and lifeless until Badwater. When Badwater came around, I started vomiting 6 miles into the race and while I'm officially credited with making it 42 miles, I dnf'd somewhere around 35 or 36 after what felt like countless hours of suffering. After that failure, all that I wanted to do was forget about running and, based on the physical condition of my body, this was my only option.
These feelings came and left within a few months, but my body was still crippled. Several months after Badwater, I remember shooting some baskets for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes or so, I felt a wave of nausea, extreme fatigue, and couldn't stand up any longer. For several days afterwards, I was wrecked. A couple months later, I attempted to start training again and my condition once again worsened.
After 4 or 5 months of extremely high doses of experimental antivirals and a 100% commitment to zero physical activity whatsoever, I finally felt that I was able to start running again. I was heavy, aerobically out of shape, and mentally not the same cocky and overly confident person that I was a year before, but at least I had developed some grit and tenacity from making it through all of my health struggles.
I had a very hard time getting back into legitimate training. I had PhD qualifying exams to study for (mind you, these aren't easy exams, these are the types of things that require months of intense study), lots of physical kinks to get past while working myself back into running, weight to lose, and loads of confidence to gain.
Why do I mention all of this? I have never really fully reflected on my time off of running and I believe that, now that I have come full circle, I can finally look at my past trials with complete honesty.
In any case, it took awhile for running to even be all that enjoyable again, but I reached that point and now, I have finally started to retrieve some of my old fitness.
I doubt that I am as fast as I was 2 years ago; that will take track work, tempo runs, etc, but my endurance is likely at an unparalleled high and I have a newfound grit that only a solid year of suffering could give to me.
Just yesterday, I did a 28 mile run on a painful stomach (I guess I ate something bad the night before). I had barely eaten all day before-hand and could only stomach 250 calories of M&Ms during the run, which occurred later in the day. With 7 or 8 miles to go, I was bonking badly, but I was able to conjure up the stick-to-it-ness to continue to push all the way up the final big climb of 1500' in gain and coasted it in from there without ever letting myself resign to the pain.
In the past 4 weeks, I have run more miles than I ever have in any 4 week span of my life and in the past 7 days, I have run more miles than I ever have in any 7 day span of my life. The one thing that has allowed this, beyond my newfound grit, is a sense of longterm sustainability that a year off helped me to develop.
In the past, I would just train as hard as I could day in and day out and never maintained any consistency with high mileage, but lately, I've found a happy medium of running 4 days at a moderate effort, 1-2 days easy, and 1 day hard for a typical week. This has allowed my legs to recover much better and run more mileage, even with vastly greater amounts of vertical gain than I ever did in the past.
If you're still reading, I guess the important point I'm trying to make is that I have developed into a significantly different runner and person than what I was 2 years ago. I finally have the ability to think long-term, the ability to train smartly, and the grit to get done what needs to get done. As I enter the taper for my first race in 2 years that I have put adequate training towards, I have come to realize that I care less about the racing and more about the journey to the racing. Don't get me wrong. I have significant goals for next weekend, but the most important thing for me right now is that I have gotten back to the place in my life and my running that I am actually able to prepare for a 12 hour race without horrendous health-related side effects. If I completely bomb out next Saturday, I will be disappointed, but I will not let one day overrule the success I've had on a day-to-day basis in my recent running.
In today's 21 mile run, my body didn't feel 100%. I was a bit sore from the miles I've put in over the past month, especially after yesterday's grueling 28 miles, but I found that something overruled everything else: pure joy. Coming up to about mile 19, with 2 miles to go, I had a massive wind at my back, some of my favorite music pouring into my ears, and I felt an incredible flood of positive emotion. I raised my arms to my sides and let the wind carry me for a ways, experiencing the purest of happiness I have ever felt in my life. Regardless of how ridiculous that sounds, I have come to realize how much I truly value having running in my life and I am looking forward to a summer full of expressing my passion for it.
Music for this post is Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Poem, Isle of the Dead, as conducted by the master himself. This doesn't convey the same type of emotion that I felt during my run today, but this is one of the few pieces of music in existence that I have found to capture pure emotion as strongly as I felt today.