Slow Is Fast: Importance of Baby Steps

I haven’t laced up my running shoes and hit the road since Christmas Day. Why? Because on that supposed jolliest of days, when I got dressed up in silly looking red clothes (my least favorite color) and headed out into the cold to celebrate my first run in weeks, I overdid it and re-aggravated an injury that had already been driving me crazy…maybe literally.

My triumphant return to the roads instead turned out to be a rebirth of pain.

“Life is short and if you’re looking for extension, you had best do well. ‘Cause there’s good deeds and then there’s good intentions. They are as far apart as Heaven and Hell.” – Ben Harper

I had been battling the world’s most persistent throat infection since Halloween. I ran my first marathon in mid-November, while reluctantly accepting my second consecutive prescription of antibiotics. Just after Thanksgiving, my old buddy Strep Throat flexed its muscles even stronger than before, and left me completely exhausted and unable to sleep, think, or breathe without excruciating pain.

Hooray! Back to the doctor.

A few days after being issued my THIRD script for even more horrible meds, I pushed through a lackluster but much appreciated six miles. That weekend, I knocked out a decent 12. I knew I wasn’t 100%, but I did feel better. And it was so good to be out there. I needed those miles. I needed those minutes alone on the road.

Then BOOM! I laced up for my regular Tuesday run. And for no reason I can conjure, my heel hurt from the very first step. In less than a mile, I knew I was finished. It wasn’t going to work itself out. My left Achilles tendon was killing me. “Confused” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I still don’t remember injuring it.

I tried again on Thursday.

No dice!

It hurt just as bad, so I stopped running even sooner. “I’ll be smart” I told myself. “Don’t make it worse” I said. “You need this.” I may have uttered a few profanities (a lot of them actually; the bad ones). I don’t know what happened, but I had to let it heal. So I promised myself that I wouldn’t run again until my ankle was completely pain-free.

Long

est

twelve

days

ev

ver.

I did my best to take it easy: no running at all, easier efforts on the bike, even tried to figure out that elliptical monster I’d seen people wrestling with at the gym. I also let myself skip a few workouts all together; something I am never comfortable doing. Never.

By Christmas Eve, I felt like shit mentally, but my ankle felt better. And I was determined to run the next day. As I shared a couple of weeks ago, I’ve suffered through recent holiday seasons more than I celebrated them, and last year’s bout of Santa-time sadness was getting particularly worrisome. I desperately needed my asphalt therapist back. So while the rest of the world sat in piles of paper around indoor trees, I hit the road.

I thought I was being modestly optimistic. If I could get just three short miles in, I’d be happy. But if I could get all the way to five, I’d be stoked. I was supposed to be training for a spring marathon. Five miles meant that I might be able to adjust my goals and salvage my training plan. If I couldn’t get to three, I might have to reevaluate my entire running plan for the coming year.

“With all these forks in the roads of our path, why do so many choose to take the knife?” – Anthony Liccione

It felt so good to run again: atypical sub-freezing temperatures, a bone numbing north wind. You know, Perfection. I was running well, maintaining a decent pace, feeling a hint of happiness, and of course constantly monitoring how my left foot was landing and how the ankle was holding up.

One mile in, I can only imagine how blissful I looked rounding those corners through my familiar neighborhood course. At two miles when I had to make the decision to turn left towards my apartment or right along my usual route, I felt the slightest tingle in my ankle. I turned right.

Wrong.

At three miles, I knew I’d fucked up. I was never going to make it to five. I should’ve stopped at two. And I was doing more harm than good. So I angrily turned to track the most direct route back, and conceded to a slow walk soon after that.

I was so aggravated. Why didn’t I just turn left? Why didn’t I run slower? Why is this happening to me? I just wanted to run. I just wanted to feel better.

Merry Christmas to me. I felt worse than ever.

“You can make bad choices and find yourself in a downward spiral or you can find something that gets you out of it.” – Ray LaMontagne

I’ve heard many people claim frustration with the inability to reach a certain goal as quickly as they’d like, or annoyance with the unexpected difficulty of achieving it at all. It’s that time of year I guess; a time for change. Some people want to eat better. Others might want to exercise more. Maybe someone just wants to read more comic books. Basically, everybody is trying find a way to feel better, be better, or both. And all of it’s totally possible as long as we’re willing to work hard and keep a realistic perspective.

It doesn’t really matter what the ambition is. Almost every time I hear someone feeling discouraged and beating themselves up over some small setback, I want to remind them that even small progress counts. Nothing happens overnight. Biting off more than we should can be discouraging and maybe even lead to disheartening aches and pains (or injury). Not turning obstacles into a reason to give up is the trick.

You want to eat better? Do it. You don’t have to throw out all of the food that’s already in your pantry. You can. If it’s all total junk food, you probably should. But you don’t have to. Just change the smallest, easiest part. Leave the chocolate syrup off of your ice cream at night. Switch to low fat milk in that morning cereal. Pack your lunch on workdays to prevent fast food slip-ups. Eat a salad with dinner. The more good stuff you eat, the less room you’ll leave for the bad stuff. And you will feel better. If you mess up and eat something that you know is horrible for you, don’t give up. You didn’t lose the war. You can’t lose as long as you’re still fighting it.

If you want to exercise more, do it. You don’t have join an expensive gym or dedicate two thirds of your garage to some ridiculously complicated torture device (that often ends up covered in laundry). Just go for a walk. Run around the block. Ride your bike to the store. Move your body. Accelerate your heart rate. You will feel better. I promise. If you planned to go to the gym (or for that walk) three days this week, and then only went twice, congratulations. That’s two more than zero. That’s progress. You nailed it. Next week you’ll get all three. If you didn’t do anything at all this week, next week seems like a great week to try again. Shit, what are you doing tomorrow? Tomorrow’s a good day to have a good day.

There is no benefit in the idea that just because you missed a step today, that the entire effort is no longer worthwhile. That’s bullshit thinking. If you messed up, acknowledge that you did yourself a disservice, try to figure out why, and then make the next right move. You’ve got the rest of your life to get it right. And every small victory can put a few extra seconds on that timeline.

Within our larger ambitions, it’s important to establish smaller, more achievable goals. Accomplishing them will build confidence into the next slightly larger objective. And we should celebrate every victory. Each is a step in the right direction. Baby steps are still steps. Steps are movement. Movement is progress.

It seems so obvious when I’m looking at someone else.

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”
– Oscar Wilde

That stupid mistake I made last month has forced me to rediscover my appreciation for small victories. I’ve harped about the value of baby steps a hundred times. But I’m a hypocrite. I want to make long strides. I’m impatient. I want to move. I wouldn’t want the fact that I don’t know where I’m going to keep me from charging into the darkness at full speed. I want to go now!

My Christmas debacle was my last run of 2013. The next day, my ankle felt worse than ever. I was so mad at myself. I wanted to run my first sub-four-hour marathon this March. I’ve had to accept that that will not happen. I missed my first race of the year a few weeks ago. I’m going to miss my second race this Saturday. I’m relatively clueless about how this year’s race plans are going to look. But I can’t distract myself with that stuff. I need my foot back first. I need to focus on this moment.

Christmas was also my last day of antibiotics. And whether it is coincidence or not, I did feel like my body was healing and recovering faster within days of swallowing that last stupid pill. I’ve upped my intake of probiotics, both in supplements and food sources. And I think I’m on the mend.

Unlike the first time, my ankle felt better within days. But instead of immediately trying to run, I restricted myself to a short, low intensity stint on an elliptical. If I felt anything in my ankle, I’d stop. But I didn’t feel anything. I’ve spent more time stretching my ankle. I wear compression sleeves on my ankle and lower leg A LOT just to help stabilize the whole area.

After almost two weeks without running a step, I allowed a very short and excruciatingly slow treadmill run. It sucked. But it didn’t hurt. And that was awesome. Baby steps.

I’m still restricting myself to the dreadmill. But I have been able to run a few times a week over the last two weeks. My speed and endurance is slowly coming back. It is a constant battle not to push myself. And I cannot explain how much I want/need a two or three hour run in the sun…or rain…or snow. I don’t care. I just want to be back outside. But I’m sticking to this cautious path.

My run journal has become a total exercise and wellness journal. And in addition to workout and meditation notes, it’s also littered with reminders like: “DO NOT PUSH IT!” “I WILL NOT PUSH IT THIS TIME!” “STAY CAUTIOUS.”

(Of course, not so cautious that I didn’t strap my feet to a board and repeatedly throw my clumsy ass down a snow covered hill yesterday. But hey, it doesn’t snow in southeast VA very often.)

I’ve so often commented on the importance of viewing baby steps as simple tools to stay motivated or as consolation prizes within a larger game. And I believe they can be both. But in this case, I’m learning that those small cautious strides might be the only way that I will ever get back out on the roads where I belong. I hope I actually listen to myself this time. Wish me luck. Happy Wednesday.

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