Fluke Fitness

By December 29, 2009Running Times Magazine

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the December 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

A few days ago, coming into the cafe where I log a couple of hours writing each morning, I ran into another regular. I asked how his cycling was going. Ben said that he was experiencing a period of fluke fitness.

I knew exactly what he meant.

For years I’ve felt that being a runner has given me a different, intimate relationship with my body. After 17 years of running, I have the illusion that I know it well, how it works, what works for it.

Any teenage boy can tell you, though, that the body has a mind of its own. It has its own rhythms and cycles, its own tides. One of the things that happens when you become serious about running is you know that sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how well and how smart you train, your body is not always going to perform the way you want it to. You will not only have bad days, you will have bad weeks and sometimes, months.

Because we are animals ruled by reason, we look for explanations; we seek to link correlation with causation. We think: Hmm. Since I stopped eating meat I haven’t been running as well. Or, Oh, maybe those five shots of tequila each night are not helping with my fitness. Sometimes we can make reasonable assumptions about cause and effect. But other times, if you’ve been at it for long enough, you know that it’s just a bad spell. There is, of course, a psychological component. If you tell yourself you’re in a slump, you will fulfill your own prophecy.

Perhaps one of the things that separates the truly outstanding from those of us who are merely mediocre is the ability to keep going during these bleak periods, to tell ourselves that we will feel good again, to continue training, and be patient until things change.

Me, I just give up.

Last winter I pretty much stopped running. Every time I went out for a trot, I felt worse. So I quit going. The less I ran, the worse I felt. You know, the whole negative feedback loop thing.

My mother died. My beloved companion died. I stopped eating, sleeping, and washing my hair. I stopped retuning phone calls. I didn’t even look at my email. My house became an external manifestation of my psyche: a mess.

When the weather got warmer, I ventured out again. I embraced hurting. I thought about how much pain my mother had endured — the assaults from needles, chemicals, her disease — and understood my suffering to be trivial. I didn’t deserve to feel good. I didn’t.

Then something happened. I did a marathon because I was asked to be the pre-race speaker and couldn’t resist a free entry. I hadn’t run longer than 12 miles in six months. I felt great. A week later I did another one, and felt better.

Right now, like Ben, I am enjoying a period of fluke fitness. As with the unaccountable lows, the untraceable bad periods, my body has reached a point of impossible, unexpected strength, mostly independent of what I’d planned, done, or hoped for.

Just as you have to learn to accept the slow spells, I have tried to think of this time as a gift. How fortunate I am to be able to lead a pace group at a marathon (not fast, mind you, but well enough to get women younger than me qualified for Boston) with about as much effort as it takes to wash my hair. I recover quickly these days. I feel like I can run forever.

A fast runner friend of mine once said that of the three important things in his life — running, relationships and work — it was never the case that all were good at the same time. At the time I thought that was a bad attitude. Now I think maybe he’s right.

I don’t know how long this fluke fitness will last. My guess is that by the time this column is published, it will be a hazy memory. Did I ever really feel that good? Was running a marathon really as easy as brushing my teeth?

The body has its own schedule. Grief, sadness, travel, work stresses, personal upheaval, create an incomprehensible matrix. Sometimes it’s better not to try to puzzle it out and just enjoy the good times when they finally come.