I urged the numbers upwards as my trip odometer logged the mileage. “C’mon,” I muttered under my breath to no one. My sons, sitting in the car with me, said nothing. Neither questioned the strangeness of driving home from lunch, pulling into the driveway, and then immediately backing out again so that their father could talk to the dashboard. The purpose of this venture was to figure out how far I had run earlier that morning.
Saturday is “long run” day. As I’ve tried to whip my ever-softening body into shape, a basic routine has developed: 3-4 sessions per week; first one is short (1.5 miles) and I run hard, especially up hills, giving me a form of interval training; second and (sometimes) third are longer (3 miles) at a more moderate pace; last run of the week is The Long Run, 4.5 miles or more.
The Long Run only officially came into existence two weeks ago. My cardiovascular capacity and speed had finally built to a point where taking a weekly shot at a distance outside my regular comfort zone was possible.
But its origins rest on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. This is the tale of The Long Run’s origins and its broader significance.
In early August, my family and I trekked to Atlantic City to spend a few days with friends. I had been to there once before and it wasn’t high on my list of places to revisit. If you don’t drink, don’t gamble, and dislike the beach, it would seemingly have nothing to offer. Nevertheless, I found myself checking into the Trump Plaza Hotel on the Boardwalk and cramming myself into an overcrowded room.
Each day in AC had three separate and distinct components. Early morning was mine. While my family slept, I could either exercise or get work done. During the day, my family did whatever you do in the summer in Atlantic City – beach, amusement park, Boardwalk – while I stayed behind and worked, either in our room or the hotel Starbucks. (Where, in addition to the excitement of seeing an AC crowd in all its mind-bending variety, I witnessed a 20-something woman keel over while standing in line for her latte, apparently as a result of crashing blood sugar.) At night, I reconvened with everyone, grabbed dinner, and enjoyed AC’s non-alcohol and non-gambling-related offerings (i.e, the opportunity to buy crappy tee shirts for lots of money).
I had brought my running leg with me on the trip, which was an accomplishment in and of itself. Hint to amputee runners: if you want to get into shape and you travel a lot, you have to actually bring the running prosthesis with you. I failed to appreciate this for the first 14 years of my life as an amputee, with predictable results.
My youngest son insisted on carrying the long blue limb bag holding the device into the hotel. Resting on his shoulder, with the knee and foot leaning against his chest and the socket lying flat against his back, he proudly announced that it looked like he was carrying a small body. The couple we met on the elevator confirmed it, and his face lit up with a smile that led me to question what he might be thinking of as a future line of work.
I spent 15 minutes our first night there dropping virtual pins on the Boardwalk from my phone’s “Maps” app, trying to find a landmark to run towards. At that point, 3 miles was my self-defined limit, so I needed a destination half that far from the hotel lobby. By trial and error, one of the pins crashed through the roof of a Boardwalk jewelry shop that met my criteria. So early the next morning, armed with the shop’s name, I ventured into the sea-salt-laden air and started toward my diamond-encrusted halfway point.
For those of you who run or drive in unfamiliar locales, you may have experienced the following phenomenon: distance traveled in new territory seems much farther than the same distance covered in your own neighborhood. Because there are no landmarks, no reminders of your location relative to where you’re supposed to be, the new landscape unfolds before you dramatically and relentlessly, tricking your mind into thinking you’ve covered more ground than you actually have.
I experience this all the time because I tend to get lost when I travel. So, as I jogged down the Boardwalk looking for my jewelry shop, I reminded myself not to fall prey to the phenomenon. Stores and casinos flashed by on my right. No jewelry shop. Apartments and homes dropped behind me. No jewelry shop. “Haven’t gone that far,” I told myself, protecting against the distance illusion I’m so familiar with.
As I continued forward, I felt the rising sun baking my back and neck while my breath became ever more ragged. Still no jewelry shop. Faced with (1) a destination that apparently moved away from me at exactly the same speed that I was running, and (2) the rapidly rising temperature, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In the distance ahead, I saw a giant American flag on a pole. “Screw it. That’s my new endpoint.” And I plodded on.
No jewelry shop. No jewelry shop. No jewelry shop. I reached the flagpole, which sat next to an apartment building at the Boardwalk’s intersection with Oakland Avenue. “Damn it!” I shouted silently to myself. I felt like crap and had fallen short of the 1.5 mile halfway point. I burned the name Oakland Avenue into my brain so that I could calculate the shortfall when I returned to my room and resignedly turned back towards my starting point.
I was now running directly into the sun. I could see our huge hotel from the turnaround point, but it approached with agonizing slowness. The Boardwalk was filled with cyclists, police cars, and garbage trucks, all of which moved faster than my legs could carry me. I tried to locate landmarks I had passed on the way out and soon gave up, instead simply aiming to make it to the next person, the next light post, the next set of benches up ahead. I felt like I was running in wet cement.
Finally (and blessedly), I finished. I stumbled through the lobby and up to our room where my wife and kids still lay in bed, asleep. I sank into a beach chair that I unfolded between the two sagging double beds and opened the Maps app so I could confirm that all the pain I had just experienced had been visited upon me in less than 3 miles. I knew that I had given up on the jewelry shop too soon, that it lay just beyond the flagpole if only I had possessed the fortitude to continue.
I zoomed down the beach, found Oakland Avenue, dropped a giant pin on it, wishing that this was more than a virtual exercise, and hit “route”. And stared at the screen. Dumbfounded.
“4.6? 4.6!?! What the [obscenity deleted]?”
That meant I had run 2.3 miles one way. I had underestimated my targeted distance by close to a mile.
This taught me two things: (1) I absolutely suck at calculating distance when running in foreign lands (yes, Atlantic City is a foreign land); and (2) I was capable of running much farther than I had ever thought, even at this relatively early stage of my rejuvenated running life. My sense of accomplishment at covering that much ground was severely undercut by my disbelief that my internal odometer could be so badly broken.
But as my reflexive tendency towards self-excoriation faded, the lasting lesson from my Atlantic City experience reduced itself to a simple fact: what I thought I could do physically and what I could actually do were two different things. If I tricked my mind into one reality my body could operate in another.
With this epiphany, I set about integrating the accidental discovery into my normal workout regimen. First, however, I needed to make appropriate adjustments. Importantly, 4.6 miles in Atlantic City and 4.6 miles on the roads around my house are two entirely different animals.
The Boardwalk is relentlessly, mind-numbingly flat. It’s like running on a treadmill, only outside. And like a human hamster wheel, the central challenge is boredom. (If I had run at night, dodging the countless pedestrians and watching people get handcuffed by police, it would have been a different story. However, at 6:45 AM, it’s a ghost town.)
In my neighborhood, on the other hand, my normal three-mile loop has probably no more than half a mile of level terrain. It’s hard to zone out when every four minutes you’re dealing with another climb or descent. However, the physical toll is much worse than traversing flat ground. So, in summary, step one consisted of acknowledging that 3 miles at home was probably physically closer to 4-4.5 miles in AC.
Step two required me to tack on mileage to my weekend runs. I needed enough extra distance to make them decidedly longer than my regular sessions. At the same time, the added length couldn’t be so extreme as to preclude success or risk physical injury. I decided to balance these competing interests by running just far enough beyond my original route that it made me nauseous to think about. Not a scientific approach, but one that made sense for me.
The first time I tried this, I altered my normal route radically. I eliminated all major hills save for a long and steep downhill in the first mile that became a long and steep uphill on the return. After completing The Long Run #1, I found it unsatisfying for two reasons.
First, the huge deviation from my traditional route left me constantly guessing at mileage again, not unlike what had occurred in AC. Second, taking the multiple uphills and downhills out of play made the run an exercise in monotony, rather than a more interesting strategic challenge.
Upon finishing The Long Run #1, I thought I had hit the 5-mile mark. Unfortunately, after clocking the route in my car, I was left with only a 4.6 mile total. I comforted myself with the thought that I had just matched my longest run of the year and successfully (barely) dealt with a monster hill just before the 4-mile mark. But the experience as a whole left me wanting.
So this past Saturday I reverted to my normal 3-mile loop, but instead of stopping at the bottom of my driveway as I normally do to complete mile 3, I continued onward up the long, gradual hill that normally marks the beginning of my run. With a reasonably good idea of the mileage every step of the way, I then added a new piece to my oft-traveled loop that (a) was mostly flat, but (b) also forced me to reconnect with my normal route at the base of a short but steep hill. The combo of new distance and another hill made this a particularly distasteful addition.
The first 3 miles felt reasonably good. The early morning coolness – I left my house by 6:30 AM – prevented me from getting too hot too early. I attacked the hills aggressively, knowing in the back of my head that I still would have to grapple with four additional ascents with my new route.
As I reached my driveway at mile 3, I eased up a little bit, expecting to suddenly hit a wall. I started the new ascent and noted a surprising absence of pain. I wasn’t comfortable but I wasn’t in agony either. After tackling the final uphill, I forced myself to finish things out at a pace that was faster than what my body wanted but slower than the vomit-inducing runs that characterized my brief and unspectacular high school track career.
Which led me, several hours and a welcome shower later, to where I began this post: in the driver’s seat of my car calculating the distance I had covered and talking to my trip odometer.
My effort to log 5 miles again fell short. Agonizingly short. The Long Run #2 checked in at 4.9 miles. But the larger experiment is proving successful.
Two weeks ago, I wasn’t running farther than 3 miles. But thanks to my Atlantic City experience, I learned that what I previously considered the endpoint was entirely a construction of my mind. The Long Run is an achievement that I can own and celebrate. It’s an experiment in avoiding failure with a catch: the only failure is refusing to try.
And in that respect, it correlates directly with my post-amputation rehabilitation program. After my accident, the satisfaction I took from completing basic tasks – for example, walking unassisted – arose simply out of the fact that I was doing things that I hadn’t been sure days, hours, or minutes earlier that I could do. While I remember that experience intellectually, it has been years since I felt it physically. It seems much more precious in some ways now at 41 than it did at 26.
Next weekend, I’ll blast past the 5-mile mark. It will hurt, and I will dread it during the 24 hours before I walk out my front door and down my driveway, but I know the payoff will be worth it.
What’s your Long Run? And what are you doing to complete it?