Last weekend I ran a 10-mile race, the Mid-Winter Classic in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I realized afterward that it has been exactly three years since I received the call that changed my life. I remembered the race, three years ago. I did not compete, but my husband did. That year the race was a few days earlier, and I didn’t know what was coming.
I had a mammogram and ultrasound, done two days before which were both reassuring. I distinctly remember waiting for my husband to finish and thinking I had nothing to worry about.
I was wrong, and four days later I knew it. Because of the timing, in my mind, this race will always be associated with my cancer diagnosis. I competed this year for the third time. It is a great race. Well organized, good course. Big enough to be fun, but not so big that the logistics become difficult (making it less fun.)
The first time I ran was two years ago. I had just completed my treatment three months before; and, I had a great day. The weather was warm, for February. I ran well, finished strong and felt good. Since I had lost a lot of conditioning during treatment, I had no real expectations about pace or time and was pleased with an 8:39-minute/mile pace. I even ran the last mile, which is mostly uphill in an 8:08-minute pace. I have never been a fast runner, usually in the middle of the pack. The 8:39 put me right where I wanted to be.
I had come full circle. It had been a year. My treatment was behind me. I felt strong, was able to push myself. I had gone from thinking all I would need was a biopsy, to surviving the full monty of breast cancer treatment and now thriving enough to run a 10-mile race in a respectable time. I felt like my old self.
After the race, I kept training and pushing myself to get faster. I did another 10-mile race two months later and ran faster. I did a few sprint triathlons and continued to feel strong, fast and improve with every race.
Until sometime in July, when the wheels came off the bus. I was tired and sore all the time. I did some more races. Instead of feeling strong and getting faster, I felt awful and got slower and slower.
In October, I ran a half marathon that was almost a minute per mile slower than I had run in April. I then realized my clothes didn’t fit, and I had gained ten pounds! I was exercising vigorously every day, and yet I had lost fitness and gained weight.
I am still figuring out what went wrong. So far I have come up with a few theories. I overtrained and did not let myself recover. I needed to back off, give myself some time to rest, both from my workouts as well as the long year of treatment.
I did not do any strength training. We all lose muscle mass with age and all the training I was doing, without any recovery, accelerated that loss.
Or maybe it was just too much for my poor body which had been through so much with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Whatever the cause, I was out of shape and overweight, despite working out all the time. What now? I needed a new plan. More exercise, or, at least, more aerobic exercise, was clearly not the answer. But what was?
Discomfort and soreness during and after a workout can be good. It is part of what helps you to improve. Knowing when you have crossed the line from a challenging workout to an overdoing it workout is hard. I usually think more is better, now I know that it is not. Frequently, although not always, I can tell when I am doing too much. I listen to what my body is telling me because it does tell me.
It also seems that I needed more strength training. Strength used to be an afterthought. I more or less thought it was a waste of time, and it was the first thing to go if I had time constraints or flagging motivation. I make strength and conditioning a priority and schedule, at least, two if not three sessions per week.
And guess what? It worked.
I ran the race this year 10 seconds/mile slower than I had two years ago. I think that’s a win. Pace aside, I felt strong, I finished well and had fun, which of course should always be the primary goal. So often the fun part gets lost, especially when you have a goal time in mind. This race reminded me that pushing yourself to perform is fun, even when it’s hard, and sometimes hurts. But pain does not always mean gain.
The last 12-18 months were frustrating after realizing what I did to myself. I learned that my body has changed, I am sure cancer treatment caused, at least, some of that change, but so does age. The good news is that you can still improve even when you are getting older, and even if you have had to suffer through cancer treatment.
Listen to yourself, you can learn a lot.