Prompt: What’s a lesson you learned the hard way? Write about it for 15 today.
I think a better question would be what lesson have I not learned the hard way. Oh I’m sure there are plenty but it always seems that the best lessons are only taught the hard way (which is what makes them the best lessons).
I’m thinking a lot about running today. Several of my friends ran the hot and steamy Boston marathon yesterday and I blew off my short run last night in favor of sleep and so I’m trying to figure out when I’m going to get that run in. I had a good run on Saturday although that is fading and I’m starting to feel bad about skipping that run last night. I’m going to try to keep Saturday’s run in my head a little while longer.
When I started running distance five years ago, I never considered speed. The only thing important was going the distance. Just getting through the run, just covering the miles was enough for me. Still is. The beauty of the scenery, the time spent running with friends, the time spent inside my own head serenaded by my funky playlist – those are still the most important lessons of the run. A couple of years ago, maybe I was feeling cocky, but since I had proved to myself that I could actually complete a marathon and a triathlon, I wondered if I could do it better, which in the wide world of sports means faster. I signed up with a coach and tried to follow her instructions. As a lifelong athlete, she spoke a language I didn’t understand; she didn’t know how to dumb down her instructions and I wasn’t able to smart up enough to comprehend. I tried to get faster but all I got was miserable. It took all the fun out of running and the parts I was best at — appreciating the beauty of the day, helping others around me, singing weird songs uninhibitedly while running — those counted for nothing in this new world of numbers. For me, better did not mean faster. I parted ways with the coach and, freed from the numbers and expectations, concentrated on feeling happier on my runs.
Last summer I tried a little experiment at a 5K I ran in Honeoye Falls. I don’t have a very fast PR at the 5K because I don’t usually start feeling good in a run until at least a mile or two, sometimes three miles in, and by then in a 5K, the race is done. I decided to push it really hard for 3 miles and see what happened. I’d never done that before – gone full out for the entire time. I started out faster than I had ever done. I was breathing hard and could only focus out one eye but I was left-right-left-righting it without falling down so I kept running as fast as I could. Mile two got harder so I slowed a little but I kept going. The third mile was impossible. I lost all will to run. I slowed to a walk when the finish line was less than half a mile away. Finally I started up again and ran it in. Although I had started out so fast, my final time was not any faster than my current PR. What’s more, I couldn’t stand around talking to my friends about our races because I was so lightheaded that if I didn’t keep moving, I knew I would pass out. I felt like shit. So the lesson was that running fast felt like shit.
That fall I started training for the NYC marathon. I had no time or pace expectations for myself and as I covered the longer distances, I noticed that I really start feeling good after about 6 miles. Eight miles feel swell. It’s not until I get to the 18-20 mile mark does it start to get hard again, but never hard like it is in the first three miles when my body is achy and stiff. I wore my Garmin Forerunner to track the distance but I never looked at pace during my long runs, only after I returned home, uploaded the data, and could look at it in hindsight. Surprisingly, I tended to get faster the longer I ran. It seemed a little crazy to me: the better I felt, the less I worked at speed, the more I worked at happiness, the faster I got. My lesson was to start out slow to work out the kinks, then when I eventually felt good, pick up the pace but only enough to remain feeling good.
I dubbed last Saturday’s run Loopapalooza because instead of running 12 straight miles, I ran four loops of the same three-mile stretch. My goal, beyond completing the loops, was to run each one successively faster. I started out nice and slow, letting the other runners go on ahead of me. Elaine ran with me and although it felt hard, the first three miles always do. My goal was to run the first loop REALLY slowly so I had a lot of room for improvement. When I looked at the Garmin at the end of the first loop, I felt doomed. It was at least 30 seconds per mile faster than I had intended. I had my work cut out for me in the remaining loops. I decided not to worry about it, but to continue my plan of running happy. Elaine and I reversed the loop and, to my surprise, it was two seconds per mile faster pace than the first one. While I took an extended bathroom break (those prunes I ate the day before threatened to turn this event into poopapalooza), Elaine dashed off with another runner. I was quite happy to run the third loop on my own. I hooked up my music and took off. Those miles were the easiest. No talking, a little singing, just good music on a familiar path making the running feel like dancing. And yep, it was faster than the previous loop. I grabbed some water, then started out on my final loop. This was really going to be a challenge. I was happy to run alone because I needed to concentrate on keeping myself going. The first mile felt good, the second one got harder, and on the third mile, as I was coming down the last half mile homestretch, I wanted to give up and walk. But I kept going because I thought, what if I am on pace and this last bit of walking makes me miss my goal? What if the problem isn’t in what I do at the beginning but instead what I do at the end? I pushed on and I beat my last loop pace by three seconds.
So what’s my lesson learned from this? Do what works best for you. And I think this works in life, not just in running. Figure out what works for you, and do it.
I still marvel over how so many runners can be so fast, including my friends at the Boston Marathon yesterday. When I look at them running their speedy paces, they don’t look like I did at the 5K, gasping and panting and fearing imminent death. They look like I do when I’m looping, feeling good in their own bodies that just happen to be faster than I am. Faster, but not happier. Happier is what works best for everyone.