This is one of my favorite songs ever.
In my clubbing days, it would come on, and my friends and I would migrate onto the dance floor to glide and swirl to the rhythms. The track had a timelessness, and I'd lose myself in it. No urgency, just a moment preserved, shimmering like the chords of the track.
Running's not like that, alas.
I've been injured before, and come back, though this winter was definitely my longest time off ever. When discussing how to emotionally handle taking time off due to injury, most people focus on how to preserve one's sanity and mental balance at the time of the injury, or during cross-training. In my opinion, those are the easy times. Getting injured is like having a bandaid ripped off of your running dreams. It hurts, but pain and denial are quickly replaced by acceptance and determination.
Cross-training and rehabilitation require diligence, but are balanced by the constant affirmation you get from others, the sympathy (especially if you get to wear an aircast), and fantasies of the progress you'll make once on the road again.
The initial return to running is scary in some ways. But it's also freeing in others. You're running, but without expectations and with gratitude and in the moment, appreciative of each step. Quite possibly the closest you'll ever get to twirling on the dance floor. The first workout is like that as well. You step onto the track, uncertain of what to expect. When you have no expectations, then it's easy to exceed them. For the first week or two.
And then, if you're like me, your expectations make a leap. From appreciation for what you have, to frustration with what you lack. There's a logical, continuous progression when coming back; times will drop over the weeks of training, and gradually approach (and hopefully eventually surpass) where you were before. And yet, we type A personalities tend to be all-or-nothing types, and so if it's not nothing (no running) than it surely must be all (same fitness pre-injury).
A big training mistake for any runner is running workouts at a level above your present fitness. It works the wrong physiological systems, and it places additional stress on your body without any additional benefit. At no time is this mistake easier to make than when coming back.
You remember your pre-injury fitness and corresponding race paces, but fudge over the effort levels. The thought process is: "well, if this is the time I raced when I did those workouts, then if I can do those workouts now, then I can race those times...." And so you sprint towards the paces you feel entitled to, through a minefield of injury and overtraining.
So now I'm in the danger zone -- the hardest part of the recovery for any formerly injured runner. I'm not only "TRYING to run," but "TRYING to run smart." I comprehend the need to run workouts within myself ("start slow, finish fast," "don't be afraid to adjust," "train, don't strain"), but when I succeed at this, I still feel that I've failed. Every split that doesn't hit or surpass an impractical standard becomes an insult. Did I maybe not work hard enough in the pool? Am I maybe not tough enough anymore?
I have discovered that part of the key to this issue is re-aiming my perfectionist nature. I can't eliminate that personality quirk, but I can play mental games like setting pace ceilings on workouts (first mile or interval must be no faster than "#.##"), and then trying to hit those on the nose. It's working to some extent (especially if I make sure to verbally commit to it beforehand, so I can't back out -- which I'm sure will rapidly annoy those I run with). But there's still the wondering -- isn't this supposed to hurt more? You remind yourself that you're returning from an injury, but then... maybe I'm just a slacker.
The progress is there. But you don't want the journey. You want the destination. And so you keep asking:
When you say it's gonna happen "now"
Well when exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long...
Morrissey and Johnny Marr, "How Soon is Now?" Performed by The Smiths on Meat is Murder, 1985.