I had a physical experience unlike many of my peers. I’m getting stronger and healthier as I get older – so far. Growing up with chronic, debilitating asthma meant I had almost no physical fitness or ability as a child. When I first became interested in hiking as a teenager, I had both literally and figuratively mountains to climb. I have continued to work on my fitness since then, in the spirit of being capable – and comfortable – in new outdoor experiences.

This is why it is new for me, at this phase of my life, to realize that I have lost a certain level of fitness. If I want it back, I’ll have to work on it, and yet it may never be exactly the same. Many of you reading this say “Welcome to the club”.

The fun thing about losing fitness is that it doesn’t happen overnight. Here I identify myself, for example, as a long-distance runner. But in reality, I haven’t gone for what I consider a long term in months. My watch, given to me for Christmas, tells me I’ve done a handful of 5-mile runs, one 6-mile run in January, but mostly a healthy, consistent streak of 3-mile runs.

For what?

Well, it started in December when we were selling our house. My standard 5-mile run around our neighborhood was thwarted by the task of shoveling our driveway most days as the skies dumped snow on us, and other routine chores — and more. It was good exercise, but not a luxurious long run.

Why the hell do I refer to a long term as luxurious, you ask? Think about it – it really is a privilege to have the time to prepare, finish and recover from the race itself. The whole effort takes planning, commitment, good execution, then a long, hot shower quickly followed by a very comfortable sofa and fluffy bathrobe. It’s much harder and less fun when you’re cramped, hence my twisted definition of “luxury”.

Then I decided to take on the “Ranuary” challenge, which is to run every day in January. I finished most of my days, and when I didn’t, I had an alternative activity that overshadowed the day – hiking, biking. But to avoid injury, I kept my usual running distance of around 3 miles.

I realized I was enjoying the 3 mile short run standard. I got to play around with speedwork, something I was shocked to find I love over the past year. I didn’t feel as hungry throughout the day compared to high volume runs. And, of course, a run of around 30 minutes is much easier to run than longer distances when carefully planned in an otherwise busy life.

I have continued to run short 3 mile runs throughout the past two months.

This Saturday, when I accompanied my husband on a once-routine 7-mile loop, something at the back of my mind tickled me. I wonder, I barely allow myself to consciously think, what this is going to look like.

During the peak lockdown phase of the pandemic I ran this loop – the Bodenburg loop in the Butte de Palmer neighborhood – usually on weekends. It was sanity for me, as long as I could scrounge from that during that time, combined with maintaining a physical ‘baseline’ – yes, 7 miles for me at that time was the baseline . I have been fully trained for half marathons, a level of fitness that I enjoy when I have it.

However, when I got into it last week, I first noticed that my legs felt stiff and cold. Was I going slow? I checked my aforementioned watch, which was still new to me, and saw that no, I was running at my fairly normal pace. I just took a while to warm up.

At mile 3, I felt pretty good! Good enough to quit, actually.

But I continued.

Mile 4 flew by without incident, but by the time I hit five I realized I could feel the muscles on my inner thighs. It’s a feeling that, for me, is specific to running. After long distance runs, my awareness of these working muscles is a signal that I am working hard; they are still sore the next day.

At mile 6, I practiced continuing to run on the bike path – now snowy and uneven – for at least another half mile and then checking how I felt. I gave myself permission in advance to walk if I wanted to.

In this half-mile, everything came back to me: the feeling of increasing my distance, weekend after weekend, on a long race; on the mental trick of imagining that my previous distance threshold was actually the start of a whole new race – knowing that the difference between what I had already completed and what I would accomplish today was my advantage of training. All the usefulness of the practice run fell into this part, the one that was the hardest to complete but also pushed me to the next level; that the following weekend, unless marked as rest/recovery, would push even further until I reached my ultimate goal of any race.

It made me think that this is a good time in my life, full of so many moving parts, to experience this “advantage” and to tell myself about it.

At mile 6.5 I slowed down until I was walking. I wondered if I was doing the right thing at first – I almost pressed “start” on my watch several times, thinking of mile 7 just 0.5 miles ahead of me.

But then I thought I could always come back and do that next week.

And then I thought maybe it would be good to start running longer distances again.

The good thing about losing fitness after I’ve already earned it is that I know the path to getting it back, and I’m confident that not only can I – I’ll enjoy the steps that will get me there.

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