Keep blooming

Pansies have been my favorite flower for the longest time. It’s their colors. It’s their sweet little thoughtful faces, their name derived from the French, pensée, “thought.” All the different varieties, from tiny violets to the rich, wide spread of purple or yellow or multicolored blooms.

It never made sense to me that the word “pansy” was used as a synonym for weak. Calling someone a pansy is considered an insult, and yet the flower blooms in adversity. Their colors brighten the early spring and late fall. They bloom through cold snaps and frost and snow. They’re tough little flowers, shaking their leafy fists at threatening skies as if to say, “fuck you, I’m blooming anyway.”

I have been trying to bloom again for two and a half years. If you’re here, if you’re reading this, you know this. You’re probably tired of hearing it and reading it. Of me trying to get my running going again. Starting over, again and again. Through early postpartum, returning to the office, balancing breastfeeding and working out, waiting out illnesses and injuries and sleep deprivation. Beginning to find a rhythm, and getting knocked down, over and over and over again.

In Fall 2021, over a year postpartum, I hired a coach. I had watched friends run AthHalf and felt a jolt of inspiration, ready to pull the trigger and invest in myself and in my running. I started to gain a little foothold through November, even through December.

At the start of 2022, it all fell apart. The job that had been slowly draining me for months, for years, tightened its grip in its final months, sucking out all remaining energy. The little I had left from trying to be a good mom, a good wife, a good friend. I had nothing left. I barely got myself out for runs, slogging through a handful of miles a week, trying to motivate myself to do the lifting workouts. Just build consistency, I told myself. Just keep pushing through. I reminded myself I’d feel better if I ran. That I would feel more energized from it, get through the work days better. Except all running did was take energy. I had too little to give, and got nothing in return.

Even after I quit that job in May – finally, mercifully – I couldn’t manage to get that foothold again. The first weekend after my final day, I fell apart. I descended into one of my darkest holes of depression in recent memory. It was like my body knew that I could finally stop. It had been keeping score all that time, keeping me running on fumes, and when I pulled the plug on that work, the one stressor that was finally out of my life, my body and mind pulled the plug, too. Fall apart, it said. You can fall apart now.

Except I couldn’t, not really. Being a mom doesn’t just stop because I’m burned out and need a break. Summer heat descended, and my running wilted further. Walk breaks grew more frequent, grew longer. I tried to just keep getting out the door. It’s okay if it’s just a walk, I reminded myself. Walking is good.

When autumn came, approaching a year with my coach, more than once I considered throwing in the towel. I almost emailed or texted her to tell her I wanted to pull the plug. That I felt like I was wasting her time. Programming week after week of a pittance of mileage, which I could still barely complete. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t do this? Two years after having a baby, why was I still so far from where I wanted to be? So far from where I was even the year before? Where was that mom strength, that unbroken spirit and drive I had seen from so many other moms I used to run with, the ones I follow on Strava, and social media? What was I doing wrong? Was I just too weak, too past my prime, too unable to push myself anymore? Why did I have nothing else to give?

I hit a breaking point in November. RSV and sinus infections ripped through our house, and I was still barely running. Every illness and setback seemed to put me back at zero. Z went through a spell of separation anxiety at night, the few days leading up to Thanksgiving and the local turkey trot we hoped to run as a family, just for fun, especially since I had almost no base at that point, and I wasn’t sure we would even make it to the starting line. Blessedly, she slept through the night, and we made it to the race, planning on run/walking with the stroller, as slowly and joyfully as possible to get to the finish. And half a mile in, I stepped on a rock and rolled my ankle. I pulled out half a mile later, Shannon finishing the race with Z, and I screamed at the sky. I sat on the curb and wept.

How do I keep going? How do I keep re-starting, over and over? I felt so alone, so isolated. It felt like I had no one to turn to. No one who could understand. I know now that isn’t true, based on conversations I’ve had, but it feels so lonely when you’re in it. When you’re in it for so long.

December came. I had taken a few days off after that ankle roll, and eased back in with a little walking, some strength, and then some run/walking. I had signed up for another race mid-December, an 8K. Z spent the night with her grandparents, while Shannon and I had a date the night before, then went to the race in the morning together, unhampered. The race hurt almost every second of the way, but in the first few minutes, looking out across a field of horses, one of them prancing alongside the fence, clearly enamored of the parade of runners going by, my heart swelled. This was why I was here. This was why I kept trying, over and over again.

I had a terrible recovery run a couple days later, my legs filled with lead, and I reminded myself to savor it. This is what hard work feels like, I told myself. This is that post-race feeling. It’s a privilege.

We traveled to Arizona over Christmas for my Grandpa’s birthday, and I got some running in (not all, giving myself grace with travel and lack of childcare and imperfect sleep) and lifted. On Christmas morning, I ran 30 minutes with one of my cousins in the cool dark, the flat of Arizona, and we chatted endlessly and I didn’t walk once. Finally, I thought. Here it is. Finally.

It came crashing down again a few days later. Testing for COVID after travel, knowing one of my relatives at the reunion had tested positive on the final day, I came down with COVID three days after exposure. Shannon was three days after me. I had set a modest (and admittedly numerically strange and random) annual running goal on Strava, knowing I could make it. Except I couldn’t. Except I couldn’t get one more run in before the close of 2022, just a couple miles shy in the end.

We rested. We masked and washed hands and used HEPA filters. We were blessed with food and other comfort items from friends and family to get through the period of isolation (all while keeping Z healthy, Baruch Hashem). When I was negative again, with Z back in daycare, I eased back in with walking and lifting, testing my post-COVID legs and lungs out on run/walks. My joints ached. Old injuries flared from inflammation. Insomnia destroyed my sleep. This will pass, I had to believe. I have to keep trying. I had seen in December what was possible. I couldn’t let it all slip through my fingers like sand.

A week or two of agonizing runs, counting down every minute, every second of the prescribed runs, I kept getting out there. Lifting felt good, and I banked on the strength I was getting back. My wrist that had sent me to PT the previous summer flared again thanks to COVID, but I knew what to do, doing my stretches and wearing my wrist band while lifting. Keep trying. Keep fighting.

In mid-February, we signed up for a local 5K, one that had always been described to me as fast. I struggled throughout, especially on hills I hadn’t expected. Then came the screaming downhill finish. I ran the race slower than the 5K I did last April, but here I was, still trying. Still fighting.

My first run after the race felt like shit. This is normal, I told myself again. This is how it’s supposed to be. My coach began prescribing workouts, short intervals at threshold effort, reminding me not to stress about exact paces. Tuning back into effort has been hard, when every run for so long has felt like a workout, something to get through. But I was finding myself starting to zone out on runs. Thinking about my day, my to-do list, my daughter, my writing. Thinking about the beautiful weather, or the flowers blooming alongside me. After spending so many months counting down on every run, to disappear into my own thoughts was a gift I never thought I’d find again.

This past weekend, we ran another 5K. I ran it much slower, and it was a much harder course. But on my recovery run, I only felt crummy for a minute. Just a minute, and everything smoothed back out. I soaked in the morning air, the scent of flowering trees all around (even as I cursed the pollen I could see floating mid-air, visible in the beam of my head lamp).

This morning, I ran a workout. Last week’s had felt like death – 10 x 1:00 at threshold effort, with 1:00 recoveries – so this week’s – 5 x 2:00 at threshold, with equal rest – was almost certain to feel bad or worse. I told myself to reign in my pace, my expectations. I felt good on the warmup, even as I was inhaling pollen, nervous for the intervals to start.

As the first one, then two intervals clicked off smoothly, more controlled than I could have imagined, I let go. My heart rate and breathing recovered within a minute or so after each interval. My heart rate wasn’t sky high. When the last interval started, I threw in a little extra surge of effort. I didn’t walk a single step the entire workout.

I have a long way to go. I’ll have more setbacks, I’m sure. I’ll have sleepless nights, sickness, injuries, life stresses that tax my system more than my running can bear on a given day or week. But I look at the sky, whatever cold or storm may come, and I keep going. I keep coming back. I keep blooming anyway.

Maybe I won’t ever be the runner I was. Maybe I won’t shatter old PRs, just set new ones as a mom. Maybe I’ll never have that mom strength I always heard about, becoming unbreakable and faster than ever. But if stubbornness is strength, I will keep that in spades.

I’ll keep trying. Whatever the universe keeps sending my way: fuck you, I’ll bloom again anyway.

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I'm a 35-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

One thought on “Keep blooming

  1. It’s never easy to feel like we’re failing at our goals. It looks like your burn out recovery is helping you find a balance that works for you. Running has a lot of setbacks. Hopefully, it helps to know you’re not alone in that.

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