I went for my first outdoor run in ages yesterday, and it was a complex experience.
As I've discussed here, I've had some challenges with completing the C25K this time around. While I've been improving my fitness, I have not lost any weight; I've struggled with getting the necessary dietary changes as part of my habits, and honestly have been more concerned with keeping up the exercise than worrying about avoiding french fries.
In fact, I never finished the C25K. I couldn't do it. I transitioned to a modified training plan, doing run/walk sets in a 4:1 ratio. So, to "run" half an hour, I would do six sets of four-minute runs and one-minute walks. I've been increasing the overall time spent doing this, from four sets to six, but am still topping out at a slow half-hour of this. I'm not really at the necessary endurance to complete a 5K.
It's been frustrating, but I also know the point of this journey is the journey, not the destination. Every minute I spend active is a minute well spent. It's just sometimes hard to remember this when your legs are cramping, you're out of breath, and you've only covered two miles, and you distinctly remember running more than five with less perceived discomfort.
With temperatures in the mid-70s, I decided I wasn't going to confine myself to the treadmill but rather hit the road. I laced up, no watch, no phone, no expectations, and walked to the end of my street and then began a slow run down the roads I used to run back when I was doing this more regularly. It felt good at first, and the weather was really rewarding me for my effort. The air was warm but dry, and the breeze carried the smells of the wild grapes, fallen leaves, and the last mowing of the season. Some of the trees were fully blazing, but most remained green. It was an odd but entirely pleasant combination of late summer and early fall.
That beautiful part of the run lasted less than five minutes, though. The pain started up in my shins (as opposed to my calves, where it tends to be on the treadmill) and got more and more severe. I finally transitioned to a walk, and hobbled down the road a bit until the pain subsided. I felt really awful, mentally, even as the pain disappeared. I was frustrated and angry with myself, annoyed with where I've let myself get physically, doubting my mental strength -- the whole nine.
But I refused to give in, and began another slow jog. I continued this unmeasured interval effort for about two and a half miles. Somewhere in the middle of this, I stopped feeling frustrated and started enjoying the time for what it was. I paused a moment and looked out at the pond. I took deep breaths of the odd warm fall air. I remembered runs from years gone by. I let my mind wander, wondering what was up a path that led into the woods.
Something about the experience forced the issue in my mind. I don't honestly care if I'm a runner or not. But I know what makes me feel complete, physically. I need to feel that I have range. There's a mix of endurance and confidence that I need in my life. I need to be able to look at a spot and know that I can get there under my own power and not be a wreck when I arrive.
I also need the outdoors. This has never been about how long I can sweat on a treadmill. It's about the roads, the hills, the pines, the wildlife, the pond. It's about solitude, about feeling a part of something big and wondrous. It's about the same things that drive me now to the hobbies I fled from as a young man -- fishing and hunting.
It's not about running. Running is how I've gotten there in the past, and maybe it's how I'll get there again. But if I figure out a way to maintain my fitness and all I can be is a long-distance walker and hiker, I will still know I've succeeded if I can stand outside, look at a distant point and say, "I wonder what I can see from over there," and go find out.