I just walked in from my weekend long run. Well, what was supposed to be a long run, anyway. The plan was for eighteen miles all by myself on the pavement and trails of my new pretty California neighborhood. I wanted a new route so I planned three rounds of a perfect 6 mile loop with my ever-faithful running partner, Oscar the boxer dog.
That first loop was great. Nicely paved sidewalks and lots of different trees. The sun was out but the air was cool and crisp with a few leaves crunching underfoot, so it felt a bit like autumn in New England.
The loop ended at the start of my street and when I reached it, I kept going on to the second loop. I was feeling fine, legs still strong, and I was deep in the zone. I thought, if this was the end of my run I’d finish so strong, with a happy heart and positive thoughts about the experience. By the time I finish this second loop I’m going to be much more tired, and probably feeling less happy. And what about the third loop? How will I feel after 18 miles – will I never want to run again? Then I thought, if this was the marathon that I have coming up next month, I’d get to this point and still have a 20-miler ahead of me —
And that’s when I stopped dead. And I asked myself: For what reason am I doing this to myself? Why am I ruining a perfectly happy, gorgeous fall 6 mile run? To train for a marathon? And then what, another ultra? What exactly am I trying to accomplish here?
I looked down at Oscar and said out loud, “This is stupid.” He looked up at me, panting, with his huge brown eyes and a bit of drool hanging from his adorable jowls, and seemed to agree. So we turned around right there, and we walked the last mile home. When we arrived my Garmin watch said 7.56 miles. I remember a time when that was far enough to make me feel accomplished. Why isn’t it enough anymore?
The answer is this: because I became an ultra runner. And that just may have been the biggest mistake I ever made in my running life.
Last year at this time I was training for a 50K. My first ultra-marathon. I always loved that word. Ultra-marathon. The term alone sounds like a feat of royalty. In the running world, being an ultra runner holds such a high esteem. I wanted that for myself.
At the prodding of my well-intentioned group of trail running buddies, I signed up for the Pineland Farms 50K and started training with gusto. My short runs got longer and longer, and my weekend runs quickly went from 8 to 12 to 15 miles and longer. I ran as much as I could, and in the beginning I relished the piling on of miles. New personal distance records were happening almost every week for me, it was such a great high. But as my training wore on it got more dreaded and strained. During the last two miles of my final training run before the race, I wanted to cry. And I never wanted to run again. I was bored, mentally drained and desperately lonely.
Not surprisingly, the 50K itself went much like those last few training runs, only it was much longer and much more awful. I nearly threw in the towel twice, and if it wasn’t for the charity of my friend Sheree run/walking me in those last five miles, I couldn’t call myself an ultra runner today. I crossed the finish line, and I got my medal, but oftentimes I wonder, did I really accomplish anything that day?
It’s possible the only thing that 50K managed to do was murder my running mojo. And I’m talking murder of the gruesome, bloody and screaming variety, with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre score playing in the background.
All I wanted to do was earn a shiny new status as an Ultra-Marathon Runner, to exemplify my love for the sport; to take my strength and determination to a higher level; to qualify my place in the trail running world, among all the other serious trail runners that I count as friends, acquaintances and role models. But after that race was over, all I ended up with was a worn spot on the couch where my ass never left for weeks.
In the last 8 months since that race I have slowly begun to run a fair amount of miles again, though rather inconsistently. Some weeks I get to 27 miles, some weeks I barely break 10. I still dread any distance longer than a half marathon. Also I have gained over ten pounds because I have continued to eat like I’m running lots of miles each week, even though I am not.
I signed up for a marathon in January because I thought it would make me train again. That the thought of an upcoming race would ramp up my motivation. But it’s actually done the opposite. Because I have to run to train for this race, I don’t want to run at all. To be completely honest, I don’t even want to run this race and I’m contemplating the best way to sell my number to someone so I don’t waste the entry fee.
I used to be such a happier runner. When I first discovered the point of running with good form, I enjoyed the process of learning it. Then that joy transferred to the joy of adding mileage to my previously embarrassing weekly runs. And then the joy only grew. I learned how much I loved running 5, 6, 7 miles at a time. How much I enjoyed the silence, the time spent with my dog, the pure exertion. I began to lose weight, look stronger, feel better about myself. Back then, I was only running half the weekly distance that I am now.
Today on the seventh mile of my run I realized that somewhere along these last few months I’ve lost all the reasons why running made me happy before. Before I started running for this reason or that, for training or for some arbitrary weekly mileage number or for accolades from other runners.
Today I realized something very interesting: that running makes me happiest when I am doing it for no reason. No reason at all.
If all this time I had been running just that little 6-mile loop, three, maybe four times a week, I could have been easily racking up 24 mile weeks, avoided burnout, ended every run with a smile on my face, lost 8-10 pounds a month, and never had to attempt a grueling 20 miler, ever. If only I could have been satisfied with that.
If only I could have decided earlier that just because I look up to some of my more talented running friends, doesn’t mean I have to be just like them. If only I could have kicked that feeling a long time ago, the anxiety over being left behind in the dust by all of those fast and fit ultra runners, while I plugged along on my happy little 6-10 mile long runs. If only I had the fortitude to smile and wave at them as they left me, perfectly content to log my own miles, at my own pace, in my own way. Bon voyage.
But I didn’t. I didn’t have the courage to say “not yet.” Or even, god forbid, “not ever.” No thanks, it’s not for me. Instead I left my happy running place, under the guise of “discovering my limits.” I trained hard. I dug deep. I learned my limits, and I chased the dream. And in the process, I also managed to chase down and kill my own love of running. Not exactly the outcome I anticipated, although in hindsight, I really should have seen it coming.
Last night while I was home by myself, I watched a documentary film called Happy. I’m glad I did, because I found it quite moving and insightful. It’s a film delving into what it is that makes people happy on a universal level, and I highly recommend it. One particularly interesting point it makes is that people are ultimately the most happy when they can do things with intrinsic value to them, when they can get into a zone while doing these things, and often, when they are doing something for no real reason at all, other than the desire to do it. Playing a game, relaxing with a good book, going for a run. The movie goes on to talk about the importance of intrinsic values (sense of community, good deeds) over extrinsic ones (money, status) in a person’s happiness, and the surprising definition of wealth and well-being to some of the happiest people on earth (spoiler alert: it’s the Danish).
What this film taught me is that I need to curb my extrinsic feelings about running (an ever-growing desire for recognition, accolades and status from others in the ultra running community), and nurture my intrinsic ones (personal growth, self-motivation, volunteerism) instead. I need to kick off the shackles of training commitments and ever-looming pressures to sign up for races that are too far outside of my current comfort level, and go back again to my roots of running for no reason at all.
I need to go back to chasing only happiness, because I know that’s when I’ll finally start feeling like a runner again.