Over the course of my 22 years running, I’ve had several extended breaks due to injury. Six months off for a titanium screw here; three months off for a bursa removal there; the odd 4-6 weeks on crutches or in a boot; the mandatory time off immediately surrounding labor and the delivery of my first child. But never for a moment during those breaks did I consider myself sedentary. Part of me was always still attached mentally to my athletic identity and my goals, and there was a lot of suffering and mental gymnastics involved in passing the time away from them.
This time was different. I gave up. Gave in. Let go. However you want to spin it.
Early on in my second pregnancy in 2017 it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to be active. And not for any easy to explain medical reason. Just that getting my heart rate up above 100 felt freaking terrible. Think light leaded, heart racing, zero enjoyment, and requiring a 2 hour minimum nap afterwards terrible. I’d take it easy for a week, and then test a mild form of exercise to see if anything had improved. Narcoleptic incapacitation ensued. This was way outside of my norm, and a huge departure from my experience being pregnant the first time. I was sure something was very wrong, but the doctor insisted my experience was “normal” (side note: the range of weird things considered normal when it comes to pregnancy is the stuff of sci-fi). So around 18 weeks pregnant, I stopped trying.
The timing was unfortunate, really. After 12 years being a pro runner and counseling runners of all abilities on the values of trying hard and giving a shit, I was really looking forward to exploring effort and goal setting in a new arena: one that was personal and community driven rather than a performance in front of cameras and stadiums with glory and money on the line. I thought the physical changes of pregnancy would make the transition to recreational runner easier in a way, by forcing me to “go recreational” in one big move. But instead I found myself identifying with another group entirely: the sedentary and inactive. I spent almost a year this way, completely removed from physical activity. This is what I learned.
1. You can get used to anything.
I never imagined being able to be content without using my body, without a satisfying sweat, without a regular dose of nature and sunshine, without endorphins. I mean WHO WOULD DO THAT? Previous extended breaks had been mostly miserable, but this time I actually adapted. I could go on this way just fine if I had to. I surrendered. I can see how people could be totally inactive all their lives and still be fulfilled, which might be obvious to some, but for me it had been previously incomprehensible.
2. I care about you, not your sports.
I used to have conversations with people regularly about their athletic goals and very intently chew on them. This is because the part of my brain dedicated to my own athletic goals was activated, in addition to the part of me that is genuinely interested in you and your well-being. People do this all the time, especially athletes. We listen with a certain kind of ear, one that applies what we hear to ourselves. But when I became a person with zero athletic goals, I started to listen to others talk about sports the way my non-athletic parents used to listen to me talk about running. Once I adapted to a sedentary life, everything I heard went through the love and support part of my brain instead of the analyze and compare part. I no longer asked 10 follow up questions about training methodology, but I was interested. In you. And if my primary interest is you as a human being and not your athletics, I’m going to ask different questions. Probably fewer questions. Probably questions that make me seem like I don’t get it. I do. This realization has given me a new perspective on stories I’ve told myself over the years about who cares and who doesn’t, and how to tell the difference.
3. I’m better with sports in my life.
Yes, I can carry on without it. I can do the sedentary life and be ok. But I really am better with sports in my life. My pleasure meter used to range 0-10. Without activity it tops out at a 7.5. With physical effort in my life, with some kind of goal, my happy is happier, the world is more colorful, I get more done in a day despite having less time to work, I’m more creative, more spontaneous, more moved. When I first noticed how my inactivity changed how I saw and experienced the world, I asked my doctor if I could possibly be depressed. They keep a close tabs on the mental health of pregnant women at my clinic, especially those over 35, and the regular surveys they had me fill out raised zero flags. And deep down I knew it’s wasn’t that. It’s just that I knew better. Life without sports, for me, is like cake without frosting. It’s still cake, there’s plenty to be excited about there. But while I’m no frosting fanatic, there’s no question the cake is better with it than without.
4. Starting Again
The first time I went out for some exercise after having my daughter, it was a spontaneous decision. The weather was unseasonably warm. The baby was asleep. Jesse was working in the shed with our son. I was sitting there in my living room, looking from my bookshelf to my phone to my computer for what to do next and I realized I wanted to move my body. And there was nothing to stop me. No reason not to. I knew I had to act before the feeling went away, so I threw on some workout clothes and pulled my mountain bike off the rack. I told Jesse I’d be back in 45 minutes and handed him the baby monitor. I pulled out my phone and opened the Strava app and hit the start button, and as the seconds started to click over before my eyes I remembered how much I missed passing the time this way. I popped the phone in my CamelBak pocket and pedaled out of my driveway onto the road leading to our local trail system.
My legs were heavy, and weak, my breathing labored, but I was riding. By the time I got to the single track trails, I only had about 4 minutes left before I had to turn around and head home. And then something strange happened. As soon as my tires hit the dirt and I started leaning into the bends, the ghosts of runs and rides past came to life inside me and a smile erupted on my face. When I flipped back for home, the gradual downhill tricked me into feeling good for a second and I caught myself thinking “maybe I should train and sign up for a marathon!” At which point, I literally laughed out loud. I knew a big goal wasn’t what I wanted, or needed right now, but it was nice to feel something so familiar. I realized that the spirit of this feeling all along has been, “the worst is behind you, love. It’s time to look forward.”
It has been start and stop since that first ride in late October, still getting all my limbs and core on board, still figuring out what kind of athlete I am, still figuring out where goals fit in. When I put on my race singlet for the first time last weekend and served as a pacer for a 10k at the Tenacious 10 in Seattle, it was the longest and fastest I’d run in a year. And while it wasn’t really a “race” for me, working hard and being around all these people putting in the effort made me feel so inspired and motivated. As I held my pacer sign up for all to see in the starting area, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I felt at home among this sea of runners all living out their own personal story. And now that it’s over, I feel motivated to jump start my own. To train again, and race, and put joy at the center of it.
In my travels, I’ve heard countless stories about the intersection of sport and life, but the ones that really light me up and refresh me are from people who found sports later in life. People who lived without frosting for years. And now here we are, standing together at an expo booth or running event, talking about running, with tomorrow’s 10k or 13.1 or 26.2 miles calling them. A distance that had no meaning whatsoever for so many years has given them a star to chase, the chasing of which has made their smile brighter and their spirit lighter. I may not know all the details of what my athletic life will look like now that I am beginning to run again, but I know I want that spark held by the active. And I’m willing to go through the humble beginnings, false starts, and hard work to get it.
Have you had periods of your life where you were sedentary?
Have you had a defining workout or moment that turned your mindset around?
A workout or race that made you start to dream?
You never know how your story will ripple outward to motivate other people. Tell us about it. Post a story on your Strava feed. Give your community a boost. You just might find that it gives you a boost as well.