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Throwback Thursday: Flammable

Continuing the theme of #TBT I started last week, this is a piece I wrote as I set out to begin a slow and arduous comeback to endurance sports after nearly six months away and a near-fatal illness. The whole thing started during the summer of 2012 when I was training for a 100-mile ultramarathon and was poisoned by a tick (think Lyme disease, but worse). In fact, all of these Throwback Thursday pieces are from that period of time, hence a recurring theme of struggle and coming back to life. The story had a happy ending though: within a year, I was back to my normal health; back to running; and back to cycling. And, not by coincidence, it was during those endless weeks of recovery that I began to revisit writing and photography.

January 23, 2013

For a while, it was like trying to stand in a room with five foot ceilings. Week after week, I was reflexively trying to get myself back to running; back to how things were before; back to that familiar place of tapping out metronomic mile after mile. But I couldn’t. I could stand upright, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t fully extend my legs.

I decided to let it go. I put my running shoes away with the rest of my running clothes, taking them from their normal home on the mat just inside the mudroom. The space made empty by their removal, just filled with another pair of random dress shoes. The kind of shoes incapable of anything magnificent. Along with my shoes, I also put away my memories of running fifty milers and my aspirations of running the big hundred.

I turned my attention, instead, to the bike and to the weights as a means to build back my endurance. I started slow, but made steady progress, laying brick upon brick as I methodically began to build my new foundation. Along the way, I relived some of those smitten summer days of riding through the hills, gritting my teeth up one side of the climb only to bury the needle on the descent, even as the snow began to fly.

Things were good, but you can’t fool the subconscious. Amidst the waves of the deepest, swirling sleep, I dreamt of running on three separate evenings recently. In one scenario, I found myself in the middle of a race, disappointed by the realization that I was unable to run any further as I watched the pack pull away from me. I was left standing on the shoulder of the road, just down the street from the house I grew up in. In another, I was cresting a local climb I’ve done countless times before, seeing the sun rise to my left, and feeling no pain, fatigue, or even breathlessness. By the third dream, I wasn’t surprised by the vision of running effortlessly along some twisting country road I’ve yet to see in my waking life, though the scene was without any sound. Not even my own breathing.

The morning after, I awoke with a feeling of newness. Revitalization. There was no question in my mind that it was time to start trying again. So I left the house with no predetermined route and no plan of action… Just the sense that it was the right thing to be doing, despite the months I spent away from the sport.

It came back to me right away. In short time, I was running smoothly and with my old familiar gait. Almost like I hadn’t taken a break from it at all. I thought about turning right and heading home to make it a three-mile loop, but instead, I turned left to make it five. At the third mile, I made the left-hand turn and started a gentle climb, surprising myself by the quick cadence of my turnover. The road swept to the left before quickly turning right again and climbing steeper. I leaned forward and into the rise, feeling the pavement push back on me, but each footfall was strong and sure. I wasn’t paying attention to my heart rate, but I could feel that there was plenty of headroom, so I pushed harder. I stood up straight, in that awkward five-foot room, and burst through the ceiling with both legs fully extended.

Almost home, I crossed a clearing where the cold wind ripped across the road and passed right through me, making the hot air bellowing up from under my shirt that much more noticeable. It was right at that moment when I thought of the risk of catching fire. Was I going too hard? Would I end up having to walk home? When was the last time I ran this hard? I felt like I was holding a match one inch away from a hay bale. Combustion was inevitable. But this was the game I had missed so dearly over the past six months. The constant stream of internal dialogue questioning just how much more of this effort the body can maintain. The teetering on the edge of what’s possible, and the truest sense of not knowing where the limits are.

I turned down the final stretch of road and began to cool down. As I strode home, I saw myself from afar (almost like in a dream) and felt a wave of comfort wash over me. It was like having a switch flipped back on, because all of a sudden I realized, things were right again