My coach named this month’s key workout “The Caganer,” which my autocorrect already hates no matter how many times I assure it that yes, this is what I meant. A Caganer, according to Wikipedia, is “a figurine depicted in the act of defecation appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia and neighboring areas with Catalan culture.” That’s right: the workout is named after shitting your pants at Christmas.
I should add that she named the other key workout Drunk Uncle, so The Caganer is not inconsistent with her general sense of humor about the holiday season. That one is actually worse than this one, but we digress.
The Caganer involves running for twenty unbroken minutes at my 10K race pace, a pace that I excitedly, unexpectedly and joyfully clung to and even exceeded over the course of the almost-10K-race I ran in early October. That’s right - just two months ago, I ran this fast for close to an hour. Today, twenty minutes sounded improbably long. I wasn’t literally Caganer-level nervous (I do know what shitting-your-pants nerves feel like), but I was pretty worked up.
At 8 AM, I had already been thinking about the workout for well over two hours and coming up with reasons not to do it (with intermittent breaks to not-yell at my kid to focus on her underpants instead of her Moana book). It’s not terribly unusual for me to squeeze in a run between day care drop-off and my work day, but these are usually easy runs, meant to ease me out of the frenzy of getting a 3-year-old out the door and to the car with teeth brushed and shoes and jacket on so we can sit in traffic together for twenty minutes. I love my daughter and I love being her mother, but I do not love being her mother from 7:30-8:00 AM. The morning routine does not make me particularly excited to do much of anything, let alone put on two pairs of gloves and try not to shit my pants. A shit-your-pants run is best embarked upon less than 20 minutes after waking up, in my opinion. Not enough time to get too stressed about it; the old don’t-think-just-go mentality.
But I can’t avoid thinking about 10K pace forever. I’ve spent the two weeks since my more recent miscarriage creeping slowly towards the idea of running uncomfortably hard again. My pregnancies this fall had taken me to a mental place where running hard was not a place where I needed to expend any extra energy, physical or psychological. I was done running hard possibly until 2020, as far as I was concerned, and that was fine. I suppose it makes sense that my mind would need time to readjust to the idea of 10K pace just as much as my body. The idea of running hard sometimes is almost as intimidating as the act of running hard. I didn’t fear the burning in my lungs and legs so much as the mental space I’d be visiting during the upcoming 20 minutes.
The short version of the story is that I survived, I exceeded my pace expectations, and there were no acts of defecating. I could not have assured you of any of that until I had 4 minutes of hard work left. Until that point, I was just trying to fend off the demons. The heavy-leg demons down below and the you-can’t-keep-this-up demons up above. The former don’t really scare me; they’re more a function of running in 20 degrees than of anything else. It’s those other fuckers. The ones who want to draw my attention to how fit I was in August, how hard this feels (and SHOULD it feel this hard, really?) and, of course, how if I want to qualify for Boston in the next 15 years I will have to run an entire MARATHON faster than the pace I am struggling to maintain right now. And also, there’s a bridge with an incline coming up so good luck hanging onto 10K pace when you go over that, you jerk. Surviving this workout involved no revelations, nor any magical moments; just an unwillingness to stop that I was able to extend minute by minute until I was over that bridge and around the corner and enjoying a slight downhill and, yes, realizing that I really was 4 minutes away from finishing. Some days, that’s what mental toughness is: in the absence of exuberant positivity, you settle for just not shitting your pants. And for a frosty river to run along as you battle it out on the inside.
The demons will still be there next week when I do this workout again, but thanks to this week’s mental enema, there might be fewer of them to ignore. But even if there aren’t, I’ll still be okay.