Running is pretty simple. It’s just left, right, left, right, lather rinse repeat. In the five years now that I’ve been running distance: 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons, you’d think I’d know everything there is to know about taking those two steps. My body and mind have left-righted hundreds of training miles in all kinds of weather, over all sorts of terrain, in sickness and in health, through lows where I sat by the side of the road not sure how I’d get home to highs where running feels like dancing. Singing away the miles, crying tears that only the wind could witness, hurting, or feeling so strong that I swore that, like Mercury, my shoes had sprouted wings. And yet, it’s only now that I feel that I’m coming into my own as a runner. I’m finally starting to get it.
For years I’ve battled the confusion of what running is to me and what it is by the standards of the sport. Time. Speed. Being fast. I don’t get it. Running to me has nothing to do with getting there fast. To the contrary — when I recently heard of a friend’s son who completed a half-marathon in an hour and a half, my first thought was of pity because it was such a beautiful day and I got to spend three hours running around a lake and he only got to run for half that time. Then I remember that running is a sport that honors the least amount of time you spend doing it.
Faster is better, at least for most people. This is what faster is for me: breathing so hard the air hurts as it hurdles through my throat, legs pounding in fury, vision doubles so that I watch the road through one eye, but mostly it’s the anxiety of watching my Garmin to see if I’m too slow, run faster, too slow, I should be faster, too slow. Running becomes a focus on numbers, not on the world around me, not on my thinky-thoughts, not on how I might be of service to others, but instead on me, Me, ME, and all that I am not. Sometimes you feel like a number, and I want to be more than that.
Since my Bad Run earlier in this marathon training, I’ve refocused on what feels best to me: running in my own way, back to the basics of going the distance because that is what works best for me and what pleases me the most. I look at my time only after the distance is done, mostly for amusement because it is so often a reverse indicator of how the run felt. I struggle through runs where I have to push to keep an 11:30 pace and float through runs where I am close to a 10-minute mile. Time is a funny thing.
I wanted my run last weekend at the Wineglass Half-Marathon in Corning to be my own. To be honest, I felt a little grateful when my Garmin froze up before the race because I wouldn’t accidentally see my pace when I checked the distance which I didn’t need to check anyway. At the start, I plugged in my earphones, and ran according to how my body felt. And despite the rain and cold, I felt pretty good, possibly because of the rain and cold, I don’t know. I remember feeling disappointed at the 7-mile flag because it meant the run was already half over, and I remember realizing that it was raining, not just a sprinkle, but a decent drizzle – how long had it been raining? Somehow I missed the ten-mile marker but when 11 miles came around, I felt really good, and it felt good to run a little faster, and so I did, and I felt better and better so I ran faster and faster until I ran out of miles to run.
And to my surprise, I set a PR.
Which was nice, but mostly I felt good that at the last corner before the finish, I came upon a runner who was walking so I said “Come on” and she started up again. Although this race was just for me, helping people run is part of who I am.
A lot of my friends set PRs on that fast course in spite of the rain and cold. Two of them placed fourth in their respective age groups. Wende didn’t particularly enjoy the course or the run, just glad to tick off another state in her 50 states quest (a marathon in every state), to finally get warm, and to be with friends. Over coffee, we talked with others about their runs, so many of them running the marathon for the first time, discovering the enigma of the last six miles. I mentioned that I ran without my Garmin and how much I enjoyed it, and Wende said she never runs a race with hers. Never.
How could this be so? How could she run so fast without data, without constant feedback, without the agony and self-obsession that running fast entails? Isn’t that what fast people do: constantly analyze their data and change their run according to the numbers? All that I read, all that I hear, true training is about hitting paces, splits, and timing of miles. People who care about being fast care about numbers, focusing on nothing else. And here was Wende, running like I do – by feel – she just happens to do it faster than I do. Wende wasn’t trying to be fast; she just was because of who she is.
I still have a lot to learn about running. It seems to me that the road to faster (if that’s where you want to go) is by running happier. Spend less time looking at data and spend more time finding the comfort in your body. Find the thinkiest thoughts you can and think about them some more. Dance, sing, smell the weather, watch the light change from beginning to end of your run, hear the secrets you tell only yourself. Become the person you want to be. You might get faster, but who knows, you may no longer care.