I experienced somewhat of a running Renaissance in April. A speed revival, if you will. This will likely bore some of you to death, but for the longest time my average mile pace has hovered just under 8 minutes. It's not impressive. Yet it is the groove in which I had settled. But then in April for some unknown reason that average time began to plummet. Actually, the "unknown reason" part is a lie. It was stress. Lots and lots of stress with a dash of existential angst thrown in for good measure. Perhaps not the healthiest form of speed work, but it gets the job done in the short term.
Where was I? The plummeting times. For the last handful of years, I have one of those apps that keeps track of all my runs. Seven different times in April I set a new record for my fastest 5K or 10K. My average mile time was dipping down to seven minutes and a few times dipped into the sixes for the first time since probably college. I'm not going to lie: it felt kind of awesome. Speed-wise, I was still a mediocre runner. But it was mediocrity on an upward trajectory.
And then at the end of April, a infinitesimal inner ear virus gave me a vicious case of vertigo. I was out of work for nearly two weeks and mainly holding on to the couch in our living room like a life raft in an angry sea (albeit one that had access to Netflix so it could have been worse). After several trips to the doctor and some medical treatments, steroids eventually got me back on my feet. I realize now that I have endorsed both high levels of stress and steroids in this post as means to positive ends. My apologies for that.
Even though I have been close to 100% for a handful of days, I hadn't gone for a run until this evening. EA, who kept the ship afloat while I was tossed about, was more than a little concerned that I would make a return voyage to what she dubbed "Vertigoland." She naturally wanted to make sure I was truly well before I started over-exerting myself in the mid-May heat. First run out, she told me to only go 3 miles. "3 miles? Really?" I whined like a five year old who had just been told they had to eat all their vegetables if they wanted dessert. I think I got her up to three and a half, but her agreement was begrudging.
I was going to take things slow. I was not going to charge forward like it was April. I was simply going to run three or three and a half miles. And that seemed like a good plan when my feet hit the asphalt. My legs felt sluggish and a little wobbly. I was certain I looked like a smaller version of Frankenstein's lumbering monster. Nearing the mile mark, I was certain the voice on my app would inform me that I was running in the high eights. Maybe over 9 minutes.
And then her automated voiced called out: "Distance: 1 mile. Time: 6 minutes, 58 seconds."
Even though everything in my head was telling me to take things slow, the muscle memory in my legs was yelling, "LET'S GOOOOOOOOO!" like an idiot. I thought muscle memory was responsible. He has "memory" in his name; it gives him some respectability. Unfortunately, he is more brawn than brain. He was not a scholar trying to remind my body what it was supposed to do. He was a bro on Spring Break taking dares. Even after that first mile, when I was trying to pump the brakes, my legs kept trying push the gas.
It didn't matter that I had not run in over two weeks. It did not matter that on days in which I don't run, I still end up walking five or six miles at my job and for two weeks I only walked from my bed to the couch. My legs thought they could do it. It was like it had no memory of the last half month at all. But my muscle memory was not the only one with selective amnesia. Instead of walking or slowing down, I charged through. I chose to believe that the last two weeks hadn't happened and my belabored run would smooth into a strong stride. And that just doesn't happen.
After I hit mile three, I lurched to a stop. My legs throbbed. My lungs burned. My heart pounded like a kick drum. The good news here is that I am a little bit more mature than I was ten years ago. Back then a voice in my head would have called me a pansy and I would have run until nearly passing out. I leaned on my knees and looked up the rest of the hill that led to our street. I was ticked off. I had been running really well. I didn't ask for vertigo. And now I felt like I had taken three steps backwards.
Yet that is how life is. 99% of the time you don't get to choose what is thrown your way. And you don't get to coast off of muscle memory or passion or how you think something is supposed to go. If anything is going to be worthwhile, it is going to require difficult work. It's not a palatable truth. Often I'd rather pick amnesia. I would rather believe that I am stronger than I truly am even if it hurts me in the long run.
I can't help but compare this story to following Jesus. I decided to follow Jesus a little over twenty-five years ago. And it can be very easy to simply coast on spiritual muscle memory. I have done this before. I know the drill. Let's go! I can choose amnesia, forget the valleys, ignore any apathy on my part, and just think that my legs will turn over just as they always have. And when I do that, I often find myself leaning on my knees ticked off because it's far more difficult than I think it should be. It doesn't matter if the proverbial vertigo was something that happened to me or something that I brought upon myself. There is plenty of each. I am simply not as strong as I think I am.
You and I cannot choose amnesia. There are too many ups and downs for that path. There will be times when the road is joyful, effortless. There will be others when it is ordinary and times when it is a slog. Spiritual muscle memory can keep us going for a little while, but eventually we'll hit the wall. We cannot think that we have this following Jesus thing down just because we've done it before. We are not as strong as we think we are. We need grace upon grace. We need to put in the difficult work of loving God and loving our neighbor daily. Do not coast. Do not take it for granted. Run after Jesus to the best of your ability and may grace carry you the rest of the way home.