When the Dreaded Fog Recedes

I took the above photo during an unplanned run break while at school this week. The fall colors in New England have not disappointed. Just when I thought we’d reached “peak foliage”, the shades of red, orange, and yellow have only become more brilliant.

Last week I wrote a bit about the struggle to get out the door and perform the way you want to when your head is not in the right place. I had given up on my planned long run just about a mile in, then the next day I tried again, determined to complete 20 miles. It ended up being a good run on paper, but the effort was akin to pulling teeth. It felt forced the entire time and I just buried myself in fatigue. I wanted to be doing anything else, but knew it was crucial toward being prepared for my upcoming goal race, the JFK 50 Mile.

Sometime since then, the fog has lifted. Grief seems to work like that; it comes and goes in waves. It reminds me of when I raced the 2019 Chicago Marathon. It was a very windy day. Whenever there was a gusty headwind, I just sort of put my head down, did what I could, and waited for the wind to die down for a few seconds for my chance to “go.” So I’d take off, then the wind would come back and I’d ease back, then a few moments of calm would come again and I’d make a run for it. Rinse and repeat. This ended up working well–I had enough energy left to close with a zippy, tailwind-assisted final 10K and ran a personal record by a couple minutes.

This week has felt like one of those, “And go!” moments. Beyond feeling less bogged down by emotional weight, my fitness seems to be coming around at just the right time, with the JFK 50 Mile one month away. It’s like my coach Karl knows what he’s doing when he writes my training schedules. Many runners, or really any kind of disciplinarian knows that feeling. When suddenly the thing you’ve been working at for so long finally seems to click. It’s evident in the little things: I’ve felt springier on my easy runs. I’ll glance down at my watch and be surprised at the quicker-than-expected pace. My looming track workout this week didn’t feel like a burden. Instead I felt hungry and eager to see what I could do.

Last night I buried myself in fatigue once again, but this time it was a welcome feeling. GG (aka Glenn) joined me for most of it and cheered me on for the parts I did solo. There were lots of people on the track, mostly walkers, plus a few little boys that became enamored with what I was doing. They’d see me coming, and with shrieks and laughter they’d run alongside me until their legs gave out, then they’d wait for me to loop back around and run with me again. I heard one of them exclaim, “I had to stop because I used up all my energy!!”

I was all smiles for most of the workout, but toward the end a deep wave of exhaustion overcame me, and it all began to feel very serious. The sun was still out when we’d started, but now the last few rays were disappearing from the sky. I started to wince and whimper, but somehow found a way to maintain or scrape a second or two from each lap. GG’s cheers became more serious as I went on. He could tell I was hurting, and he was invested in what I was doing.

Something special was happening on the track, like I found belief in myself that I wasn’t sure I still had. I think anyone that was there to see my effort would believe in me too. Not because of whatever athleticism I displayed, but that I cared about it to keep going lap after lap through the fatigue and struggle. After finishing, as I gasped for air and stumbled around before crouching over with my hands on my knees, GG looked at me incredulously and asked, “Where’s all this big girl energy coming from? You should run more [road] marathons!” I thought about it. “Well, I’ve been doing track workouts since August. It didn’t come out of nowhere!”

It’s impossible to predict when the “fog” will come and go. Similar to running on a windy day or a hilly course, you can’t always force something to happen when there’s resistance; you do the best you can with the energy you have, which sometimes means turning around and going home. Sometimes I look back a few years, pre-pandemic, less emotional burden, and a very fit/fast me, and wonder if that was the best I will be. I’m beginning to see that there’s no peak or end point when it comes to striving to be the best version of oneself. It’s a never-ending spiral of changing seasons, lessons to learn, hurdles to overcome, and brilliant colors yet to be seen.

💫

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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