Trudging up the modest incline yesterday towards Spring Lake – huffing and puffing, chest tight, legs heavy as stones — I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this run is going to be a momentous struggle. To my utter dismay, this 50-year-old body of mine just isn’t responding the way it had on our last run, when my girlfriend and I had sped around the 6-mile course in Santa Rosa (CA)’s Howarth Park in record time, barely breaking a sweat. On this brisk, fall afternoon, however – red leaves lining our path and picking up the last golden light of the day – I am laboring significantly, my feet unable to lift much higher than a walnut. “This isn’t fair,” I say to myself. “Each of our previous runs over the last two months has been slightly better and measurably stronger than the one preceding it. And our last outing was the best yet. Effortless. So what’s the story today? What gives?”

To provide some context, running is still something of a novelty for me, an activity I hadn’t even considered over the last 25 years of sore knees, weight gain and a leg imbalance that forces me to wear a 1-inch lift in all of my left shoes. Although I love to exercise (bicycling, volleyball, gym workouts), there are some sporty things – or so I thought – that I simply DON’T do, and running was one of them. This all changed a few months ago when, for preventative health reasons, I revamped my dietary habits, eliminating dairy, processed foods of all types, gluten…and, oh yes, meat. Whether it was the ensuing weight loss or the resultant decrease in joint inflammation from some aspect of my new eating regimen, I have certainly enjoyed a most unexpected result: my knees just don’t hurt anymore. Putting this new phenomenon to the test, my girlfriend (a lifetime runner) suggested we go for a little “jog” in the park, just to see how it goes. Agreeing (somewhat reluctantly), I hit the trails and found myself, amazingly — on only our second outing — able to jog a 3-mile course without stopping. More runs were to follow, each a little longer than the one previous, leading up to my most-recent triumph just 3 days ago: a 6+ mile jaunt up and down hills that even mountain bikers fear — no knee pain, starting slow but finishing like a champ, the theme to Rocky tripping off my tongue.

Imagine, then, my frustration at yesterday’s “setback”. I mean, isn’t progress supposed to be a linear path? Didn’t my parents and teachers tell me that if only I apply enough effort, intention and self-discipline, I will move forward at a steady, measurable pace, piling success upon success? As if! The reality, it seems, is somewhat different from this childhood, motivational message. What I rediscovered yesterday is that progress is rarely a straight-forward journey. Sometimes it’s more like one like one step forward and two steps back; or even three steps sideways! The trick is to keep things in perspective, to modulate your expectations, to take it as it comes – safe in the knowledge that the general thrust of one’s efforts is forward, even if detours arise along the way.

Looking back now, with a day’s worth of perspective, I can see a variety of reasons for yesterday’s athletic struggles. I had not gotten enough sleep. My legs were probably a bit sore from playing volleyball over the weekend. I had, uncharacteristically, eaten a bag of popcorn (no butter added!) during the day. And I’d had a challenging day in general, feeling a bit on overload at work, my internet connection still down (after 5 days!) on my main computer. Although any or all of these factors certainly played a part, the fact is that no one can always perform at their optimal level, every second of every day. We all have “off moments”. The key is to give yourself a break, allowing yourself to be imperfect, and understanding that although an experience can be your teacher it doesn’t have to be your master.

Despite my dismay, despite the negative “gremlins” rumbling in my head, telling me I was a “loser”, insisting I was letting down both myself and my girlfriend, I didn’t stop running yesterday. What a great “classroom” this was for me to learn about my mind and the messages it throws up at me when frustrated and under pressure! Looking back, I realize now that this was not my strongest run, but it might have been my best. I didn’t give up. I didn’t allow myself to treat it as a failure. I finished the run. My afternoon was a success.