Beginning Runner

The most humbling moment of my life as a runner came about 20 months ago when my knee clamped up on me in a way and for such duration that a knee operation, or knee replacement, seemed imminent. I had been been a subscriber to a popular (and not cheap) online training program for about a year and it all came to a grinding halt when my knee stopped functioning. Even walking it would buckle on me. Often enough to spur worried looks from my co-workers as I navigated the office with shaky control. It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like. There was a wince of pain followed by a sort of electrical outage within the knee–all of the stabilizers seemed to just shut down and the leg was like a toy leg made of wooden parts laced together with a piece of string.

As I’ve written about substantially, this was why I turned to CrossFit. An act of desperation. First and foremost to avoid surgery. Second to try and get some sort of exercise going and third, as an experiment to see if it was (as I’d been told by some) indeed a path toward being able to enjoy running again. As it was at the time–although I diligently followed the online training schedules I’d paid for over the course of a year—I had a tough time enjoying the running. Every run seemed to be a high-wire act of trying not to fall prey to an injury. The running was never fun.

One of the things I learned in my first months of CrossFit was that my body was wired with all sorts of booby traps as far as weaknesses and imbalances. I remember the first time I was asked to try a box jump–a common exercise in CrossFit gyms that is as simple as the name implies: you jump onto a box. This was at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. A 20-inch box was placed out in front of me. It might as well have been a one-story building.

It’s too bad I didn’t have access to these toys when I first started CrossFit because that’s about all I was ready to handle.

There was no way I was going to be able to jump onto that thing. The coach looked at me with a puzzled look—I had told him about my background of running marathons and Ironman triathlons so I imagine he inferred I had some sort of athletic ability at my disposal. He had me put away the 20-inch box and get a 12-inch box. I placed it on the rubber-matted floor, squared my feet to the box, bent my knees into springs and then…balked. The message from my body was that I was courting sure disaster if tried to leap on to that box. I eventually worked up the courage and barely made it. A 12-inch box. Humbling.

That was just the beginning of the series of shocks to my ego, long rooted in an image of an athlete. Deadlifts and squats of course exposed a blight of weaknesses and imbalances, but the biggie was overhead squats. I’m glad no one shot video of my first session of trying an overhead squat in one of my first workouts after joining CrossFit Elysium in July of 2011. Some of my those who were present at the workout would months later tell me how worried they were for me as I struggled to get any depth in a squat with a weightless bar raised over my head.

It was after that workout that I shelved my initial goal of just trying to get back to being a distance runner as fast as I could. I realized that I’d punished my body enough over the years—punishment in the forms of overuse of certain movement patterns and underuse of others–that I just needed to spend some time doing a top-to-bottom overhaul. And one of the things I experienced in my journey into CrossFit was a sensation that had eluded me for years with my faltering running: I had fun again. Rather than grinding through the gears of injury I was doing something that was healthy for my body and generated objective progress. The payback was that it was fun.

But running is what I love most and so I am shifting my focus back to the exploration of how CrossFit can be both a mechanism for overall health and also a tool to enable me to run in some races again. The community of CrossFit is a great thing. And so is the community of runners and running races. In moving back to San Francisco in March I moved back to the city where some time ago I loved being a runner. Here I’m haunted by the memories of countless runs on the trails of Golden Gate Park and through the low fog of the Marin Headlands in times when I deeply enjoyed running. Whizzing around the track doing interval workouts with friends at Kezar Stadium or Chabot College. Road races, cross-country races, track races.

The goal now is just to be able to do some of those things again. But I remain humbled. Yesterday I went into the park, first with the intent of doing a time trial of sorts at the Polo Fields (closed off, by the way, because they’re preparing for a huge music festival this weekend). My running was so slow a time trial seemed a ridiculous idea. Jogging was a more accurate way to describe it. It was a sunny, no fog, and I jogged through the park to the Great Highway and ran south for a while. For a bit I felt the sting to my ego of jogging so slowly. But then I remembered what it was like when I couldn’t run at all not too long ago; when I could barely walk 20 yards. And I also recalled advice given by the great American running coach, Jack Daniels. He talked about coming back from long-term injuries or long layoffs. This was in his book, “The Daniels Running Formula”: In coming back from a long layoff you’ll be tempted to think that it was easy to get your running fitness the first time around and it will be easy again. The truth is it was hard the first time and it will even be harder now.

Last week when I interviewed Dean Karnazes I asked him about his mental approach to something as unreal as running for 200 miles or running across America–the inevitable low points that would have to drag on and on. (He said that in his run across the country he spent most of running through Kansas in the rain and leaning into a stiff headwind–and recounted it as one of the most psychologically taxing times in his life). He said it was a matter of breaking everything down into small, moment to moment goals. Just getting to the next telephone pole, for example, as opposed to letting the overwhelming thoughts of the entire distance slam into you with brutal, motivation-imploding weight. This is what I started to think about during my first run yesterday when I began to feel down. I thought about Dean’s advice and felt better when I realized I just need to take it one workout at a time, one day at a time and so forth,  and break everything down into small objectives.

And then I realized something altogether different; something quite liberating. Leveraging the advice of Daniel’s, I figured why not forget about my running past? What difference does it make anyway? None. Just fading memories that have little to do with the present. Better to just chuck it and look at everything as brand new.

I remember a long time ago when I sold running shoes at Hoy’s Sports on Haight Street, how cool it was to help an absolute beginner pick out a first pair of shoes. How excited they were about the prospect of becoming a runner. What a great thing. That’s my new attitude toward this whole project. I’m a beginning runner.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.