There are people who time every run with their eyes to their Garmin, stopping their watches when they hit a stoplight; people who will delay eating (How could anyone delay a burrito for this?!) to upload their workout on Strava, who record every single workout and share it on social media with a selfie to let everyone know how hard they worked in such extreme temperatures, blah blah blah blah blah. Goals and focus are at the core of what they do running-wise
And then there are people who lace up their shoes and go out for a run. They go slower when they feel crappy, add in some speed bursts when they feel like it, maybe they stop at the library to drop off some library books or pause mid-run to buy an Italian ice on a hot day, the kind of people who forget to start the time on their watch when they leave and don’t really care, maybe they have vague time goals, but really, who cares when the point is to have fun?
Which way do you want to live?
I used to be a bit more like the first runner, what I call the “Type A” runner. I would sit down in advance of a season or year, figure out my key races, plot out workouts. My calendar was planned months in advance; the flu would shake up my workout schedule and leave me feeling out of sorts training-wise; I’d take off the minimal amount of time possible. I’d never miss my snooze button and would regularly run half-marathons before work, feeling strong and tough and all that stuff.
And I began getting good. Good enough to sometimes win races, or at least podium. The plaques I received suddenlly became too many to put on my walls, so I used some as trivets. I added more races, and more.
I discovered I had a talent for 24-hour races. Everyone kept talking about the mileage requirements to make the national team, and I was almost there. I just had to push a little more. And train more. And more. And more.
But I didn’t make it. I felt jaded. At one of my attempts, afterwards, I moaned, “I suck. I only ran 109 miles in 24 hours. Ugh. What was wrong with me today?”
Seriously, can we go back to the past and someone slap me? I ran 109 miles. That’s pretty freaking good. So what if it wasn’t a PR or a qualifying time?
The national team was created, and I wasn’t on the roster. I hadn’t even qualified. I felt so disheartened. 24-hour races were no longer times for fun, making new friends, eating grilled cheese while hallucinating and running fast and slow and however I felt at the moment. They were for qualifying. And honestly, focusing just on qualifying kind of sucks.
The goals felt like a heavy weight on me every time. There were races where I achieved my goal, which were great races and I felt so high and happy afterwards. I loved running.
Then there were races where I didn’t achieve my goal. I was a failure, wallowing in whatever held me back, ignoring the fact that I had made new friendships or seen glorious sunrises or whatever. All I could do was focus on the negative thing that I hadn’t made me goal.
Goals kept me from enjoying the greater awesomeness of ultrarunning.
After a few more almost-there-but-not-quite attempts, I found myself injured. I took off some time from running because Morton’s Neuroma made even just walking around painful. As I began to heal, I remembered I was something other than just a runner. I was more than my splits. I was a writer, a yogi, and a race director. I focused more and more on that. “Being injured sucks,” I told a friend. “But I have so much time now. I’m able to really focus on my writing. Focus on living. Life is more than running.” I wouldn’t have believed that last sentence a few months earlier, but really, it is.
I stopped using my coach. As a running coach, I knew what worked and wrote plans for my runners, but for me, I didn’t want a plan. I just wanted to run for the sheer joy of it. I ran ultras and set loose time goals, because, hey, who doesn’t want to finish 100 miles before dawn? I would set runs by how much time I had and where I felt like running on a particular day. I let my training partners pick the route and the pace. I focused in the fun of putting on the Burning Man Ultramarathon. When people wrote me to ask if the course was certified and would it count towards their 50 marathons in 50 states, I told them no, it was not certified, and it’s purely for fun, not something to check off some bucket list. “You’re missing the point. It’s an experience.”
It was an experience every time I qualified for and ran Boston Marathon, but you know what? I have had other experiences too. Most were more memorable – when I met lifelong friends during ultras, when I saw the most epic sunrises on a climb, when I stopped to really enjoy the view, when my husband stopped pacing me to kiss me, when I stopped mid-lap of a six hour to sit down on a very hot day and drink a very cold beer. Yes, those were some of the best memories in running.
It’s not just about the time it took you – it’s about the time you had.
Years earlier, upon entering ultrarunning, I had pondered whether I should sign up for a notoriously difficult trail race, Bear Mountain 50 Miler. It would only be my third 50 miler – did I have the endurance and speed to conquer this technical ultra with a short cut off?
My training partner, Nelson, had none of those worries. “So what you don’t make one of ‘their’ cut-offs? What’s the worst that could happen? You go to the woods, get a few hours of awesome running on some beautiful trails? What’s so bad about that?”