Quarantine Diary Day 55

In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.

Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.

Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them

For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.

I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.

As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.

This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.

A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned,vI was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.

I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.

fourofarrows

fourofswords

I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?

These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.

8 Minute Memoir – Day 7 – Finish

The first time I ran six miles out and back from my house, I knew I would run a marathon. There was no question in my mind. If I could run six miles, I could run 26.2. It didn’t matter that I had no aerobic base. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t run regularly in over seven years. It didn’t matter that I’d only almost but not quite quit the smoking habit I picked up in college. I signed up for the Chicago Marathon a few days later and trained with one goal in mind: to finish. And finish I did, in somewhere around five hours. It didn’t even occur to me to characterize this time, as “slow” or “fast” or even “around what I expected.” I had no expectations at all. It did not occur to me to calculate my pace, not once while training, not while I was running, and not when I finished. I did take pride in the fact that I ran the whole thing, except for a pit stop at Charity Village at mile 15 to eat a cupcake with the kid I was sponsoring as a charity runner. Since then, I’ve run three more marathons, with goals that ranged from “finish” to “finish faster” to “finish faster than that.” Each of my marathons has spit me up and chewed me out. It’s a brutal race. But I keep doing them, because there is nothing–nothing–like the feeling of finishing something that feels impossible.

What A Body’s Good For: Part Two

I never could wrap my head around people who loved being pregnant because that’s when they felt their healthiest. Pregnancy made me feel like shit. Besides the nausea that felt exactly like an endless hangover, I spent most of the first trimester wanting to crawl out of my own skin. I tried to commiserate with others who had been pregnant—“You know that feeling where you desperately need to change the way you feel with a drink or a pill but you just CAN’T? THAT’S the worst part of pregnancy!”—and they just stared back. Years later I would come to recognize that sensation as a symptom of untreated alcoholism, not pregnancy.

Even though I felt like garbage, I treated my pregnant body better than I ever had before. I took special prenatal supplements with some kind of oil for the baby’s brain, I ate piles of fruits and veg, I exercised to the very end, eliciting stares and comments at the gym. I slept, no small miracle for a former insomniac (thanks, drugs) and long-standing night owl. I did take a bunch of Category C medications and drink daily caffeine and eat sushi and deli meat and junk food because I’m no saint, but you guys, I didn’t drink! There was a lot of talk in my circles at that time about how a half a glass of wine on special occasions was *just fine* in the second and third trimesters, but I knew that I could not trust myself with half a glass. Not even with a baby inside.

I gave birth to a healthy baby via Caesarean and loved my body like never before. I was a BEAST. I could grow a human and undergo major abdominal surgery and keep that human alive. I resumed drinking as soon as I got home from the hospital, obviously, but continued, for the most part, to treat my body pretty well. I was exclusively breastfeeding, after all. I was inordinately proud of the fact that I was able to pump massive quantities of milk at work, way more than my baby needed, and nurse her morning and night. It upset me when she weaned at fifteen months. The World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding to age two at the time and I wanted to make it at least that long without needing to rely on a cow for milk. That’s what I was for.

I’d read some studies say the ideal spacing between kids is three years so I decided we should start trying to have another child when the oldest was two. I assumed I would get pregnant easily since that’s what happened the first time. When that didn’t happen, I was pissed. I took my anger and disappointment out my body. I dug up the pills that were miraculously still around from the c-section and took those. I drank. I drank especially in the days leading up to my period because I knew I’d have to stop when I got a positive pregnancy test. When the tests came up negative, I drank more. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I was pregnant. By that point I knew without question I shouldn’t be drinking but I drank anyway. Alone and in secret and in increasing quantities at increasingly inappropriate times.

This is what happens to women steeped in a toxic culture that says (1) a woman’s worth is in her fertility and (2) alcohol is the answer to a woman’s problems. My body failed me by not making a baby on demand, and I tried to drown.

In my unhappiness, I abused my body in other ways, ways that are far more subtle that I only recognize with hindsight. I skipped meals. I refused to replace my baggy suits with ones that fit because I might be pregnant soon. I sacrificed sleep at the alters of work and television.

It literally never occurred to me that I might do anything at all–let alone something fun or healthy or interesting–with a body that wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I never even thought about running that second marathon, the one I’d been wanting to do for years, the one I’d been training for and cancelled when I discovered I was pregnant the first time.

It was during one of my final few drunks that I was scrolling through Facebook (because being a drunk is actually really lonely and sad and boring) and saw that my friend M had signed up for a Tough Mudder and was looking for teammates. “Nahhhh, not for me,” I thought about both the invitation and the race. I was running semi-regularly at the time, but I didn’t do team sports or anything that required upper body strength. I scrolled on.

The day after my last drunk, I was supposed to have dinner with M but had to cancel because when 5:00 rolled around I was still too hungover to get out of bed. We rescheduled for the next weekend. Seven days later, exactly one week into shaky sobriety, I sat across from M at a fancy pub with a Diet Cola in one hand and a pork shank in the other and told her I’d run the insane race.

We started training together, meeting at a local playground at seven o’clock on freezy Sunday mornings to do tricep dips and assisted pull-ups on the monkey bars, jump squats onto picnic tables, and crunches in the mud. It was a drag and felt somehow like both way too much effort and ridiculously not enough to be putting into training for a six-mile obstacle race. As the weeks wore on, though, I felt worried that I still couldn’t do a pull-up on my own but proud that I had yet to succumb to the Saturday night impulse to text M and cancel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made a commitment and actually followed through on something that I didn’t have to do. Showing up felt good.

Four months after my last drunk I did the race with M and her friends (a triathlete and a U.S. Marine, natch). Two of us were injured so we had to walk a lot of the course but we completed every obstacle, from army crawling through ice-cold mud inches under barbed wire (Kiss of Mud) to hauling ass up a slick quarter pipe (Everest 2.0) to scaling twelve-foot wooden walls (Berlin Walls). My teammates and I took turns yanking each other up and over barrier after barrier, carrying each other piggyback in the heat, and trudging side-by-side through bacteria-laden swamp water to finish filthy and triumphant. Aside from giving birth, I was never so proud of or in love with my body.

I was also hooked. I started running as often and as long as I could after that. My weekend mileage hit the double digits enough that I figured I should get some credit for it, so I registered for and completed my second marathon (my first in seven years) that fall. I got bored with endless long slow runs added speed work to my routine. When I found myself with overuse injuries, I swam and cycled and tried all kinds of yoga. When I healed, I returned to running reinvigorated, renewed, overjoyed at simply being able to run without pain. I tossed out a few 5Ks to raise money with co-workers and with the family on Thanksgiving. I ran through cold wet Chicago springs, muggy Chicago summers, gorgeous Chicago falls, and brutal Chicago winters. I trained with weights. I finished my third marathon, this time fast.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want a drink or ten. But one of the many things that helps me to go to sleep sober is thinking about how good I’m going to feel on the trail or the treadmill the next morning if I don’t. These days, there is always free beer on the other side of a finish line. I’m not lying when I say that after a race, after I’ve put my body to the test and seen it rise to the challenge, those are the times I want a drink the very least. I’m too happy.

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days when I want another baby. But one of the many things that keeps me from sliding into grief is thinking how good it feels to push my body to do things I want to do.

When I look back on my year of relapse and trying to trying to conceive, the absurdity of what I was doing to myself is almost enough to make me believe in a higher power that saved me from getting pregnant at a time when I wasn’t capable of carrying a child. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I’m not pregnant now, with my 2.5 years of sobriety and a solid recovery program. However, when I look back on the many, many moments over those 2.5 years that I experienced pure joy in moving my body, in getting stronger, faster, freer, well, it’s almost enough to make me believe that my body is a gift for me, not for babies. My body’s worth is in what it can do for me, not you or him or God or future generations. I am meant to enjoy this body for what it can do, not to mourn what it can’t. I can’t get pregnant and I can’t drink but I can and will eat and dance and swim and stretch and fuck and run and run and run.

[You can find my first What A Body’s Good For essay here.]

What A Body’s Good For

I ran a marathon last Sunday: my second-ever in life, my first in over seven years, and my first race longer than a 5k since giving birth 3.5 years ago. I only signed up a few weeks ago, but I’ve been running a steady 3-4 times per week since January, thinking in the back of my mind all along that I was in training for “something.”

These last eleven month have been a harsh reminder that long distance running is an exercise in wrecking your body to make it stronger. Because I am a runner, I will never sport a pair of strappy sandals to a dressy event. My soles are completely calloused over. On any given day, I have a few blisters in various states of healing on the backs of my heels or the sides of my toes. Some of my toenails have fallen off and grown in so many times that they are thick and leathery and impossible to disguise with a coat of glossy Essie nail polish. On runs over eight miles, my sports bra chafes against my chest, leaving raw marks that scab over and last for at least a week. When I run outside in the afternoon, sweat drips from the tip of my ponytail onto my skin, inviting a rash of angry red pimples across my shoulders. In July, I crashed into the asphalt after stepping sideways into a pothole and it looked like I took a cheese grater to my knees, forcing me to wear long pants to work for two weeks in the middle of summer. I wrestled with a foam roller off and on all year, trying to tame my IT band into submission.

I ran along the lake in the pre-dawn, I ran through the city after dark, I ran north to Winnetka past mansions that will never not blow my mind, I ran south to Uptown past the parks and beaches that remind me of being newlywed, and then a new mom in Chicago, I ran through neighborhoods where I would not feel comfortable slowing to a walk, I ran in the pounding rain, I ran in the snow, I ran off hangovers and anxiety and period cramps and rage, I ran until my lungs burned and I fell into the dirt sobbing when Brock Turner was sentenced three months in prison, I ran to the grocery store, I ran awkwardly through what looked and sounded like a bumping block party, I ran 18 miles on a treadmill at the gym, I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

Last weekend, on a calm, warm day in between the Cubs win and the Democratic loss, I put my training to the test with the marathon put on by the Milwaukee Running Festival that I’d signed up for just four weeks earlier. I’d been wanting to run another one since I crossed the finish line at the Chicago Marathon back in 2009, and even made it halfway through training for one back in 2012, but things kept coming up (pregnancy, 60 hour work weeks, a two week trial in Delaware, parenting, life) that stopped me from committing until last month, when I realized that I had the weekend of November 6th free and that I’d put in enough miles that I could probably survive 26.2.

I drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago on Saturday, swung by the race expo to pick up my packet and some 30% off workout gear, hit up our favorite pizza joint for some carbs, and hit the hay early in a hotel that was even dirtier and scarier than I expected it to be based on the discounted rate. In the morning, I woke up early and ran.

The first half was exhilarating. I went out fast and hard and was thrilled to be speeding down the middle of the road through a beautiful Rust Belt city on a Sunday so gorgeous you’d never guess it was November. I was moderately surprised by a series of hills, as Chicago is pancake-flat, but delighted that they sloped down as often as they climbed up. I hadn’t been certain that I would be able to finish the race without injury, but now it looked like I was going to knock an hour off my first marathon PR!

I couldn’t keep up that pace forever, though, and the second half became exhilarating in its brutality. The day turned hot, my legs burned, and my feet turned to lead. Somewhere between miles 18 and 20 everybody around me started walking and the goal shifted from keep running at a 9:30 pace to keep running period. The hills doubled in length and grade. The course took a turn through Milwaukee’s more industrial neighborhoods and I pounded pavement past brewing complexes and broken glass. I repeatedly jammed my rubber earbud into my ear canal because it kept slipping out. I dutifully choked down energy goo and shot blocks every 20 minutes, as well as a fibrous chia bar around mile 23 that I immediately regretted on account of how quickly it went through me. I managed to pick it up in the last two miles, which ran along Lake Michigan, and I crossed the finish line one minute under my 4:10 goal.

Every part of my body was sore and shaky and sick and soaked through with sweat and I was ecstatic that I’d not only accomplished something I’ve been wanting to do for years but that I’d left every ounce of energy on the road behind me. My husband and daughter were waiting for me the finish line, and I lurched over to them, grinning and gasping for air. After a desperate pit stop at the port-a-potty, I laid in the grass and split a chocolate milk and a giant cookie with my three-year-old. We stayed there until my legs started to seize up, and then we got up and wandered around, slow, woozy, stomach roiling, happy as I’ve been in recent memory.

When I lost the will to continue propelling myself forward, we headed back to the car. I’d packed fresh, soft clothes to change into for the drive back to Chicago, and could not wait to get them on. I dug the extra-large concert tee and american apparel sweatshirt and clean mesh shorts out of the duffel in the trunk and ripped my disgusting race shirt off my aching body. There were a fair number of people milling about between their cars and the race course, other runners, beat up, with medals hanging around their necks, and their families, helping them along. Amid the noise, people shouting, music from the post-race party pounding in the background, I heard a voice above the rest:

Check it out! Over there! Taking off her shirt!

Before I’d even registered that it could be directed at me, half obscured by cars behind and in front of me, in my sports bra and shorts, I had the clean shirt on, and I heard the voice again:

I feel cheated!

I turned and saw that the voice belonged to a middle-aged man, and I considered throwing him the finger, until I saw he was accompanied by his two young daughters, so instead I just turned away. I’d planned on changing completely behind the car, because who cares, but decided to finish up in the front seat instead.

To recap: I trained for eleven months and accomplished a physical feat of Lifetime Achievement-level proportions, one that makes men bleed from the nipples and women shit themselves, and this idiot thinks my body is something to look at. He tried to take my body–in that moment, an apotheosis of strength and stubborn persistence–and turn it the butt of a truly lazy joke premised on the assumption that women are sexual objects.

Of course, as a woman, I experience things like this, and much worse, all the time, but the unusual circumstances of this encounter threw the disconnect between our ideas of what a woman’s body is good for into relief and revealed societal obsession with female form over human function for what it is–completely and utterly absurd.

Growing up Mormon, I was taught that my body was a temple. Temples are sacred, inviolate, literal houses of God. They are also magnificent to behold. In the early days of the church, pioneer women donated their best china, which was dusted into fine powder and mixed into concrete so that the walls of the temple might shimmer like the walls of heaven itself. The first time I went into an LDS temple, I was 14 years old, on a youth trip to Washington DC. I spent the entire worship session trying to catch the eye of a cute boy from Chillicothe, Ohio. There was a dance at the church later that night and I dusted glitter powder from Bath and Body Works on my face, arms, and bony adolescent chest. The temple in DC is a many-spired architectural marvel meant to draw the eye and so did I.

An LDS temple is far more than just a pretty (or ostentatious, depending on your take) building, though. It is an edifice in every sense of the word. A building, yes, but also the pinnacle of achievement in Mormon theology, the solid center around which everything else grows. Permission to enter the temple, granted by a bishop following a formal interview, proves you are worthy. Getting married in the temple qualifies you for salvation. Going back to the temple, to participate in rites and ordinances on behalf of your ancestors, to receive direction, to commune with God, means you belong. The temple is a symbol, a stand-in for everything Mormons believe, and my body was too. As a teenager, keeping it covered, refusing permission to enter or even touch, meant I was worthy. Attracting attention from men meant that I had value. Later, giving birth and nursing a child meant that I was fulfilling my most elemental role, the one that would get me into heaven. Looking, acting, and talking the part of the believing Mormon wife and mom–covering my shoulders with sleeves even though I’d never qualified to wear the sacred LDS undergarment, turning down a cup of coffee even though I was secretly locked in an exhausting battle with booze, offered a chance at being saved and the illusion of belonging.

The only trouble with being a symbol is that I hated it. Or rather, when my body was a symbol, I hated my body. I poisoned it with drugs and alcohol. I starved it and stuffed my finger down my throat, not often, but enough to do damage. Men pawed at it and I blamed myself. I lifted my shirt in the mirror and grabbed the fat around my stomach every day for more than a decade, only stopping when my daughter became old enough to follow me into the bathroom.

Until I’d had enough. This year, the year of running, the year of recovery from fear and lack and shame, this is the year I started fighting for my body. I forgave it for being female. I forgave it for not making babies on demand. I forgave it for going haywire upon ingesting so much as a drop of alcohol.

I forgave my body, and then I started to defend it. My body is not something to look at. It is not a symbol. It is not a temple because it is not God’s house. It is my house. I’m the one who has to live here. If I take off my shirt or even (gasp) my bra, it could be for any one of a million reasons. Maybe I am hot, or sweaty, or there is a tag worrying at the back of my neck. Maybe I just finished a longass race and want to change my clothes. Maybe I am running in the sunshine along Lake Michigan and I feel so goddamn happy to be alive and moving that I just want to feel the wind on my bare skin. Whatever it is, you better believe it has nothing to do with you or any other person, thank God (and it has nothing to do with Him either).