I wasn't heeding the advice of Pam Reed. The two-time winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon and one of the contributors to Long May You Run
, Reed told me she often hears runners on the starting line at races obsessing about pacing and finishing times, instead of just enjoying the overall running experience. "Most of them are not professional runners," she said. "They have lives and jobs. Once in a while they need to just take it all in and enjoy it. Running is supposed to be fun." Indeed, many of the book's nuggets of wisdom from world-class runners exhort readers to avoid overtraining, get enough rest, and keep running fun — advice I wouldn't expect from elite competitors whose livelihoods depend on winning. Nevertheless, five minutes from the start of a local 5K (3.1 mile) race, I was miserable.
Instead of eagerly awaiting the long and winding road before me, I fretted that the hilly course might keep me from running a personal best. Instead of chatting up my fellow runners, I sized them up to discern my odds of winning an age-group award. And rather than checking the double knots in my shoe laces, I focused on the double knots in my stomach from thoughts of running all out for the next 20 minutes or so. No. I was not a happy camper.
Of course, it didn't have to be that way; wasn't that the reason I wrote my book in the first place? The collection of motivational essays and advice is meant to enhance the enjoyment of runners of all ages and abilities by providing resolutions and achievable goals to keep one's running fresh, exciting, and fun. Unfortunately, the book was the furthest thing from my mind as we toed the line awaiting the starting gun that would send us streaming down the streets of my little town. When the gun did sound, I dutifully pressed the stem of my runner's watch to record the time, tried to avoid tripping over the scores of churning legs and feet, and looked for an opening in the sea of elbows that would lead me out of the pack and into the open where I would keep an eye on the leaders. Then something happened.
Somewhere between the barber shop and that little import place that always smells of incense, I slowed dramatically. Sure, marathoners talk about their body shutting down or "hitting the wall" at the 20-mile mark in their races; I hit the wall after only 100 yards. Of course, for me, that wall was more psychological than physiological. I suddenly found myself not with those chasing the leaders but far behind among those in the middle of the pack — a place I had never been before. And there I remained to ponder two questions I should have asked myself years ago when racing began to feel less like a thrill and more like a chore: "What do I have to prove anyway?" and "Aren't I getting too old for this?" Sure, I had trained hard and raced hard for years, had numerous first-place and age-group awards to show for it, and could run three miles in my sleep; I really had nothing more to prove to myself or others. And after thousands of miles and hundreds of races, maybe I really was getting too old to worry about pacing and race strategy and finishing times. What I should be worrying about was how to better keep and enjoy the passion that for me is running.
Funny, but those middle-of-the-pack runners seemed to be doing just that: enjoying it. They were actually talking to each other, and laughing and joking along the course like one big happy mass of fitness and frivolity. Who were these people apparently not concerned with pacing or mile splits, personal records, or age-group awards? Who were these affable runners of all shapes and sizes who seemed comfortable in the simple pursuit of physical fitness and camaraderie? It all started me thinking of a quote in my book from a three-time Olympian: "Make sure you are enjoying running" (Suzy Favor Hamilton).
Suddenly, like the scales that fell from the eyes of St. Paul awakening him to a new start in life, stress and nervousness fell away from me, replaced by a new-found urgency to lighten up and finally enjoy a race; this race. My mind cleared, the adrenalin pumped, and my pace notched up a gear. Reluctantly I nodded goodbye to my fellow middle-of-the-packers and pressed onward. One by one I passed other runners ahead of me, but this time it was different: as I came upon each one I decided to share a few strides with them and offer a "lookin' good" before moving on to the next runner. Never before in my competitive, go-for-broke racing mindset had I considered doing something like that. And now, at least for me, it was no longer a race. It was more like a brisk — yet enjoyable — weekend run.
With that attitude I gained even more speed, feeling like a 10-year old boy dashing home the last day of school before summer vacation, a world of possibilities just around the corner. Once again there was the familiar and calming slap-slap-slap poetry of one foot in front of the other. Nothing was working cross-grain to anything else; rather, every fiber and muscle and movement was in concert: the right leg like a piston in tandem with the swing of the left arm and the left in tandem with the right in a rhythm so simple and yet so perfect.
I turned a corner and caught a glimpse of the leader, now only about 75 yards ahead. Did I care? Nope. Several others still remained in front of me. Did I think about picking them off in the final stretch to snatch an age-group award? Nope. Nor did I aim to finish in the familiar all-out, pedal-to-the-metal, gasping-for-air sprint. Instead, I finished with an easy, satisfying bounce in my stride with plenty of air left in the old lungs. And if you were there at the finish, you would have seen a smile cross my lips just as I crossed the line.
The title of my book, Long May You Run, is not necessarily meant to imply running long distances; maybe it's more about duration. The essays and stories on nearly 200 topics are there to challenge runners to find enjoyment and fulfillment in their running now and until they reach three digits in age. So, next time I'll pay more attention to my own advice in the book. And in my next race, here's the plan: I'll stay with the middle-of-the-pack-runners as payback for the important lesson they taught me. In addition, I'll heed the suggestion given readers of my book from Bart Yasso of Runner's World magazine: "Accept the role of a mentor to a slower runner or someone who doesn't think he or she can finish a 5K." I will immerse myself in their world, encourage them, pace them, and offer them advice if they ask for it. Most of all, I'll listen to their stories in order to get to know these runners who don't expect to win any medals or trophies, but who train as hard and who have as much passion for the sport as the rest of us. When I join them and get to know them, I'm sure I'll realize after all these years that every race has many winners, not just the ones who cross the finish line first.
And how did I do? Third overall and first in my age-group. But more importantly, I finally had fun doing it!