I was out hiking the other day when I noticed, in the distance, a familiar landmark along the river. It reminded me of my turnaround point while training for a half marathon last fall. I stood there, high on a wooded ridge, contemplating what went into training for that race.
One of the strongest thoughts that crossed my mind: I don’t miss those long runs.
That surprised me. I typically need a few weeks to let my mind settle and my body heal after a big race. But now it feels different. The thought of lacing ‘em up and heading out for a 12-mile, or 20-mile, training run makes me reflexively draw back, even though three months have passed.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be. For the past seven years, I’ve run a number of 15Ks, half marathons, 25Ks, a marathon, and other odd-distance races going anywhere from five to 25 miles, road and trail. But this year, I’m skipping one of my favorite trail races and bailed on another for the fourth straight year.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still running. The weekly Friday run group is a major blessing to me (we had three new runners Friday!), and I do plenty of training runs throughout the week. I’m also getting a kick out of 5Ks again.
And yes, the thought of knocking down another 26.2, or snagging a PR in the half, or even bagging my first ultra has some appeal. But the work it takes to get there, to perform how I want to perform, elicits a big “eh,” and I move on.
One side of me thinks this is wrong, reinforced by the popular notion that you must run more, run farther, run faster, run wilder trails and get more extreme.
When you first started running and met more experienced runners, they probably encouraged you to try something harder. Ran a 5K, you say? Train for the 15K. Got that done? You’re a step away from a half marathon, so sign up! Got a half under your belt? May as well go for the full. You’re a marathoner? Try an ultra. That first 5K must lead you to a hundred-miler and a buckle or you’ve failed as a runner.
So you dive into all things running. Buy the gear. Be the dirtbag. Grow the beard. Do all the things, and be sure to photograph your black toenails, bulging blisters and trail scrapes. And then, of course, share those images on the Trail and Ultra Running Facebook page or on your Instagram, because you have to show everyone how extreme you are, how much you’ve bought in, how much you really belong. Shoot, maybe you can even become a brand ambassador and get free stickers, a trucker’s hat or a T-shirt.
I haven’t done the ultra thing yet (and I won’t rule it out), but I’ve felt the pull of collecting the merit badges that seem to come with identifying as a runner. And believe me, I think the running community is awesome. I’ve met some incredible people through running. And yeah, I’ve worked with a brand or two.
But after a time, chasing all these gold stars seems like just another thing to do. I shouldn’t feel compelled to run every time I’m on a trail. Hiking is sometimes more fun. I should feel OK if I jump on a bike or blow myself out in the weight room instead of tallying the expected weekly mileage count. If I want to hoist barbells instead of piling up more junk miles, that shouldn’t be a big deal. I shouldn’t feel guilty if I’m not “living the life” according to whomever.
And maybe that’s why those long run memories aren’t pulling me toward another race. You’ve got to want to do this stuff. Otherwise, it’s just work. You can do a million different things to stay in shape, after all.
There’s satisfaction in a race well-run. Or even challenging yourself on the trail when no one is around. But in the end, it needs to be profitable. Not just in terms or fitness or accomplishment, but for what it does for you outside the merit badges of running culture.
I’m gonna race a 5K this weekend. I’m also going to do a lot of other things many of my runner friends won’t do. And they’re going to do a lot of things I’m not going to do (or, frankly, can’t do because they’re awesome at this running thing). And that’s fine by me.
Maybe by this summer, I’ll feel the pull or the PR, create another training program, and have another go at a longer race. Shoot, maybe I’ll go all in on the ultra. But if I don’t, I’m not going to sweat it.