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The Roller Coaster of Running: Setbacks and Surges

Recently, I experienced something that every runner dreads almost as much as shin splints or icy sidewalks. Seemingly out of nowhere, a promising training block took a turn for the worst, with energizing workouts and blissful long runs quickly becoming miserable slogs. Overwhelming fatigue began to be the common denominator for my miles; empty legs, ragged breathing, and a sky-high heart rate felt like the new normal.

     I had no idea what was going on. Just weeks ago, I had been feeling energized for a new year of training, but now I dreaded the very thought of lacing up and getting out the door. Even beyond the physical fatigue, my mental state suffered. Aided by the grey skies, short days, and cold temperatures of winter, pessimism and lack of motivation began to seep into my daily life. “You’ll never be ready to run Boston next month,” whispered that voice that lives in the dark corners of all of our minds. “You might as well just give up now. What good is running anyway? Why try in anything?”

     Knowing that I couldn’t go on in that state, and worried that it was affecting the other facets of my life, I decided to visit my doctor. Immediately upon hearing my symptoms, he ordered a battery blood tests, and the sobering results came in just a day later. My iron level and red blood cell levels were half, ferritin levels a quarter, and haptoglobin levels only a sixth of the bare minimum levels for a regular individual, let alone a runner. According to the doctor, I was severely anemic, thanks in large part to over-training on a wholly inadequate diet. He instructed me to take a week off from running, and to begin a regimen of iron supplementation and dietary improvement.

     Like any runner, I resented having to stop training for any length of time, but deep down I knew that this was a great opportunity to make a positive change. I had long known that I had to improve my level of nutrition, and needed a break to step back and take stock of my relationship with running. I used the anemia recovery time to do just that, and just yesterday finally enjoyed the first sunny, invigorating, and positive-minded speed workout in almost two months. I once again had that fabled runners’ high, and more importantly, again felt excited to have the privilege of pounding pavement.

     It’s a common maxim in the distance running world that running is an excellent metaphor for life itself, and although it may sound trite, I think there’s a lot of value in that. Like training cycles and even individual runs, our day-to-day lives see a  roller coaster of emotions. We feel a sense of hollow disappointment when we get that canned rejection email from a dream employer, or start a run only to feel out of breath and out of shape. However, as my ever-wise high school cross-country coach said with regards to both the running course and life, “every uphill has a downhill.” Eventually, we get a call back for that job, or a sudden peak of the sun turns a slog of a run into a transcendent personal experience.

     Every single day is never going to be perfect, and neither will our runs. The real value in these things, then, is how we respond to setbacks and surge forward – both on the road ahead and on the road of life.