Monday, March 26, 2012

...And then what?

In Portland for the weekend, we embarked on a long harborside walk after lunch on Saturday: almost four miles, from Commercial Street onto the Eastern Promenade bike path all the way to the entrance to the Back Cove, and up the steep stone staircase onto Munjoy Hill, and from there past the old Victorian homes back into town.

It was brisk and refreshing and great for conversation and a really good workout besides, but when we arrived back in town, I noticed how much my foot hurt.

This had never happened before. I’ve been a runner since I was nineteen years old and I’ve never had a running injury, other than two days of back pain a few years ago that inexplicably arrived and left with no apparent reason.

I left my friends to their shopping and made my way to a gelato shop, where I sat down and had a cup of gelato and thought about my newfound injury. I was fairly sure it was the result of the long walk – though why this particular hour-long walk rather than any other, I didn’t know, since I do walks of this length nearly every weekend. And I was fairly sure that sharp foot pain after a long walk indicated a stress injury, and not one that was about to fix itself.

So for the first time in my four-and-a-half-year-long running streak – at 1,787 days – I contemplated the possibility that I might not be able to go running the next day.

This might be it, I thought to myself. The end of my daily running streak.

And then what?

It wasn’t something I’d thought much about – how it would feel to stop running. But that wasn’t even what I found myself thinking about. More complicated in my mind was what would happen when I eventually got better. Would I start another running streak? That’s what plenty of other runners on the U.S. Running Streak Association registry have done – ended a streak for any number of reasons and then begun another one eventually. When Ronald Kmiec, from whom I first learned about streak running, had a heart attack, he ended a 32-year streak, took five weeks off, and began another one. And what intrigued me about that was that he was in his 60s at the time. He had to know he didn’t have another 32-year streak ahead. But he started at Day One and began again anyway.

It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to start counting consecutive running days all over again, from the single digits, into the double digits, past Day 100, up to one year, and so on. I’m not sure if I’d do it or not. On the one hand, ending the streak would be a way out of the compulsion of never taking a day off – a compulsion that is definitely not a deep-seated psychological issue for me but merely a mental and physical challenge. On the other hand, I’ve said so many times that being a streak runner means never waking up and having to decide whether it’s a good day for a run, and I sometimes feel like the worst part about not being committed to the streak would be having to decide when to go running.

But as I sat there with my gelato, I thought more about what it means to acknowledge that someday my running streak will end, and it’s a good idea to be able to project some kind of game plan for when that happens, or at least have some kind of idea of what it will feel like. “So you’ve stopped running,” I imagined telling myself. “And then what?”

It made me think about other things that could end. The lease on our house, which we love, lasts another sixteen months; being able to live there is something I’m grateful for daily, but at some point I need to focus more seriously on what comes next. I write for a regional section of the Globe, and my editor assigns me plenty of work, but my editor could be transferred and I might no longer be wanted there. And then what? What would it mean to my professional identity to no longer be a weekly Globe contributor? Right now my kids are young and need me daily, to do everything from make their breakfast to help them work out friendship issues, but they’ll eventually be at an age where they won’t necessarily want to share so much, and not long after that they might even move away from home. And then what?

To my surprise and relief, my foot felt a little bit better when I was done with the gelato; apparently just a half-hour of rest was enough to help. And when I woke up Sunday morning, I felt fine, without a trace of pain. I ran four miles.

So my streak is intact and I’m now up to Day 1,789. But someday, my last day of streak running will come, and unless it’s also the last day of my life, I’ll still have that question to answer. And then what?

With running, with the house, with the kids, with other family members. Live in the present, but have some kind of game plan for what comes next. Even if you’re on a streak – of running, of health, of parenting, of anything – that you’d rather not see end.

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