I happened upon a post by Ragen Chastain, a writer and activist on size acceptance. She’s also a dancer and an athlete, and I mention her because a recent post on training resonates with my experience, without quite matching it.

She’s training for an IRONMAN race, and the post in question compares the difference between training skills versus training fitness. In training, for example, dancing, you’re learning stuff. It may be really hard, but once you learn a move, you’ve learned it: For a long time it’s hard and you suck, and then you get it and then it doesn’t suck any more. Running (and swimming and bicycling, but especially running) is very different:

One of the things that is interesting about training for the IRONMAN is that it is a process of constantly increasing distance and time (sometimes alternately, sometimes at the same time.) such that “progress” doesn’t necessarily mean that my workouts feel better, but that my general feeling of suckiness remains constant at an increased time and/or distance.

Case in point – Wednesdays are speedwork which means intervals at the highest speed I can manage.  The interval time has increased four minutes, and the speed has increased 5 minutes per mile since I started training.  I still feel like I’m going to die at the end of each workout but I’ve gone farther, faster, for a longer time period.  It’s the stasis of suck.

I totally get where she’s coming from: running as fast as you can (or as far as you can, or as long as you can) is hard. But my experience is different.

Especially when I’ve gotten out of shape, I absolutely feel the massive suckage of starting to get into shape again. Many times I’ve gone trudging around my old 1.5-mile loop near Kaufman Lake, gasping for air, thinking “I’m going to die.”

But after three, four, five runs—such a short time that I can’t possibly have made more than a tiny improvement in my fitness—my perspective is completely different. I’m still trudging around the same loop. I’m still gasping for air. But now I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m getting a great workout!”

Perhaps this is because I don’t have a coach. Maybe if I had someone carefully measuring my performance and matching it to a model of my theoretical maximum performance, that person could arrange for my experience of suckage to remain constant.

But I don’t really think so. A lot of the experience of suckage is in your head. With one mindset I experience the physical sensations of slowly running as far as I can as miserable, because it’s so hard. With a different mindset I experience the exact same physical sensations as wonderful, because I’m doing what I want to do, accomplishing something that’s difficult and yet rewarding.

That doesn’t suck, even if it’s hard and painful.

Jackie and I decided to celebrate the snow with a walk around Kaufman Lake park—a walk that yielded more wildlife than usual. (There are larger versions of all these pictures except the one of the coyote, which is already full-size.)
Snowy scene

This spot is just 5 minutes walk from our apartment, part of the Greenbelt Bikeway, but on the other side of the Copper Slough from Kaufman Lake.

From there, we crossed the bridge to the ring road around Kaufman Lake.crossing the snowy bridge

After crossing, we turned right and did a circuit of the lake. The only picture I didn’t take and regretted was one right there. The road around the lake is not really narrow—there’s room for 8 or 10 people to walk side-by-side—but in that spot, with the brush that lines the sides of the path in the summer having been cut back, exposing the steep slopes down to the lake on the left and the slough on the right, it looked really narrow.

We saw a lot of wildlife on this walk. There was a great blue heron on the lake that I spotted from a distance, and then saw take off as we approached. A kingfisher landed on a tree just across the slough, then took off and flew down the length of the slough, giving its distinctive chattering call.

Best of all, though, we saw a coyote! The first one I’ve seen since we moved from Philo. (Not that they were common around Philo either.)Jackie looks at coyote

You can just see the coyote there where Jackie is looking, above and just to the left of the center of the frame. It was really too far away to photograph with my little camera, but here’s the best shot of the coyote that I got:coyote

That was probably the peak of the walk, but we were only halfway around the lake at that point. We proceeded around.

I got a couple of pictures looking back across the lake. Here’s one with Jackie:Jackie looks across the frozen lake

And here’s one taken later, looking back toward the bridge through some snowy branches:bridge from across the lake

At the point where the ring road reaches the south end of the park and curves east and then back north, there’s a little picnic area. I thought it was funny to see it buried in snow:snowy picnic spot

Just before we got back to the bridge and headed home, we passed the two fishing piers near the boathouse, and I got this picture of the sign which, if I remember correct, has the daily fish catch limits:fish catch limit sign

Again, I thought it was funny covered with snow.

As we approached home, I let Jackie walk in front of me, so I could throw a snowball at her. She seemed quite outraged that I’d do something so nefarious. And I can see that it would be a surprise. I’m not sure I’ve ever thrown a snowball at her before. If I did, it was probably 20 years ago. In any case, far too long.

She retaliated, as is only appropriate.

My run on Monday included two laps around Kaufman Lake. Among the people that I encountered more than once was a pair of young black men. I don’t know how old they were—in their twenties, I suppose.

As I passed them the second time, one of them asked how old I was. I told him I was 52. He said, “Wow! You’re in great shape!” I thanked him and ran on.

That brief conversation has stuck with me.

First of all, I don’t think of myself as being in great shape, although I’m getting fitter. That particular run went on to be 2.4 miles at an 11:27 pace. That matches the distance of my longest previous run this year, and was actually the best pace I’d managed at any distance in a very long time. (When I’m estimating time or distance, I generally assume a 12-minute pace.)

Jackie pointed out that, if I was right about the men’s ages, their fathers would probably be just about my age. That might well mean that they have a very specific referent for the default fitness level of a man in his 50s.

There are certainly a lot of men in their 50s that are in pretty poor shape, but that doesn’t mean that I’m in good shape, let alone great shape. I’m still quite overweight (although as of a couple of weeks ago, no longer obese, according to the National Institutes of Health). I’m not in nearly as good shape as I was in 2004, when I was routinely running 6 and 7 miles for my long runs, nor the summer of 2005 when I was working my way up to riding a 100-mile bike ride.

Today’s run was 1.5 miles at an 11:22 pace. I’ve been recording my 1.5 mile runs as “easy” runs in my training log, but this was really the first one this year that qualified. The previous ones, if judged objectively (by heart rate, etc.) would rightly have been classified as “hard” runs. But I’m past that stage. I can run along at a comfortable lope and not be maxing out my aerobic capacity.

This is when running gets fun. And maybe that is the same thing as being in great shape.

Jackie and I went for our first bike ride of the year. We followed our traditional first-ride route, around Kaufman Lake, past the Olympic Monument, around Parkland College, and then back. This year we went 6.27 miles.

I’d been hearing cardinals for several days, but out on this ride we got definitive expressions of bird spring. The robins are back, as are the red-winged blackbirds. I saw a crow fly up out of Copper Slough with a huge wad of nesting material in its beak.

The ride itself went fine as well. No mechanical problems. No problems with Jackie’s wrist. There had been a couple of previous days when it would have been warm enough to ride, but those days were very windy. It was nice to just wait for today and not have to deal with the headwinds.

I think we’re all set now, to be able to ride whenever we want. In particular, if there’s a day when it’s nice enough to ride first thing in the morning, we could ride to the Fitness Center and then to taiji. (That’s a bit long and complex of a ride to try to combine it with our first “shakedown” ride of the year.)

Copper Slough, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Most of Central Illinois would be wet prairie if it weren’t for a network of drainage ditches, such as the Copper Slough. It runs past Kaufman Lake and then on south and west. It merges up with similar ditches and, somewhere around Sadorus starts being called the Kaskaskia Ditch, after which it, presumably, flows into the Kaskaskia.

I liked the mirror-flat surface of the water. I also liked all the drain tiles emptying into the ditch.

The picture was taken from the bridge on O’Malley’s Alley, looking north towards Kaufman Lake.

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Copper Slough by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.