Which is harder? Starting running - or restarting?

I seem to have misplaced my speed, what little I used to have. Long, slow slogs over the last couple of weeks remind of this sad factoid and also gave rise to this thought - Is it harder to start running or restart your running off an extended layoff?


I wonder if a study exists that tracks when people start running. I suspect many longtime runners assume that everyone started in high school, or even earlier. I'm not so sure, especially for women runners. In my case, I ran in high school only because I had a track coach that thought even discus throwers needed to cruise five miles a day. Protests that the discus circle was only eight feet across and the flinging the disc was an explosive event fell on Mr. Stanley's deaf ears. Off I went, grumbling, until I settled on my first ever running goal.

Get fast enough to keep up with the cute girls.

I had no background for running and this was early enough in the first running boom that information was pretty limited, so we all turned the same miles. In hindsight, the best part of being a teenager is the ability to recover. I plowed through the first couple of five-milers, dying off as the group outran my meager ability. Each day, I died a little later into the route until one day, two weeks into the regimen, I finished with the girls. Barely. Progress. Also, goal achieved.

Every practice started the same, with the run. Then, we'd split to tackle our individual events. While the runners did their speed work, I spun myself dizzy, working on perfecting release angles and timing, building calluses on the edges of first two fingers. Also, wearing out the soles of my sneakers. Discus is ridiculously hard on footwear.

Summer came, and I kept running because the cute girls did, and the monthly 10K's popped up on the horizon. I started racing them and discovered early on that I had a governor on my engine. Sprint speed I had, not great but I could hold my own in a kick. What I didn't have was the one essential quality that every great distance runner must possess - the ability to process incredible amounts of oxygen. I didn't know it at the time, but I had/have exercised-induced asthma.

Funny thing about exercised-induced asthma; the worst period of the attack is 5-20 minutes into the run. I used to joke that it took me three miles to warm up. As always, a kernel of truth hides within the joke.

Since I couldn't run away with the leaders, I developed a racing strategy that worked. I became a grinder, hanging on through that first hard period, letting the fingers on my hands go numb as I pushed the redline. When my lungs finally started to relax, I'd notch the pace up. I got used to suffering in the middle of the race as much as I did in the beginning after the first rush.

That's when I discovered that most people don't like to suffer, not even in a race. I learned to run on that redline full-time, knowing that it would recede as my lungs opened. I'd step to the start line with the intention winning my battles by being willing to suffer more. The longer the race went, the better I did, getting stronger as others died off.

It came to a head in a 10K when I tangled up with an old Marine. Dude had to be at least 40 (ed. note, a decade younger than I am now) {sigh} and was still running with me three miles into the race. I ratcheted up the pace, he matched. In a surreal haze, we dueled for two miles, the Marine edging ahead a half-step, which I would answer and challenge with another uptick.

There's a beauty and purity to that kind of battle, with each racer calling forth better from his competitor, and answering the call himself. The Marine, a colonel, had racing courage in spades. With every stride he conveyed one message; either I would beat him, head up, or he would beat me. He would not concede.

I finally broke him on a hill, a mile out, surging halfway up. I didn't look back, but kept finding a little more air and speed, convinced he was still coming for me.  I finished with a long kick, trying to catch a fellow high-school athlete who would one day be my brother-in-law. That 10K would be the fastest of my life. I ran a 35:56, not shabby for a discus thrower.

When starting, I had no baseline for how hard running could be, the pain you can inflict on yourself in the middle of a race. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I had no idea of my eventual capabilities.

This is an advantage for beginning runners, young ones in particular. With no expectations, the beginning runner finds their way forward, discovering the endorphin rush, the aches, joy and the boredom that can come with the miles. Each experience is new, and discovery whitewashes the memories of yesterday's painful finish. Returning runners don't have the benefit of discovery and newness.

Shortly after that PR 10K, I would end up taking a break of two decades from running. I'll tackle restarting - for the first time - on Tuesday