Life ain't a track meet, it's a marathon—and not stressing about speed can help you enjoy the ride, er, run even more
The Nike app on my phone, which I use to track my runs, asks me to rate each one when I'm finished on a scale of "I felt unstoppable!" (smiley face!) to "I got injured" (sad face). Scrolling through my history, I can see the ups and downs in distance, time, pace, and ratings over the past year, and how they relate to each other (or don't relate, as is mostly the case). In preparation for an upcoming half marathon, I recently looked back at all my long training runs and wasn't surprised to find that fast-for-me paces didn't necessarily correlate with smiles, nor did slow ones correlate with frowns.
The thing is, I know I'm not a fast runner...and that's okay with me. Even though I love road races—the cheering spectators, the camaraderie with other participants, the thrill of crossing a finish line—my happiness post-race has little to do with whether or not I've earned a PR. That's because I don't run to win, even when winning means just beating myself. (If I did, I'd have given up by now.) I do it to keep my body strong and my mind clear, because it's the most convenient and least expensive way to exercise, and because after a childhood and adolescence of hating to run, I realized in adulthood—with no gym teacher holding a stopwatch or coach yelling on the sidelines—that I find joy in the meditative rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other and the discipline of following a training plan. (It's one of the 30 Things We Appreciate About Running.)
That's not to say that my unyielding, turtle-like pace doesn't sometimes get a little frustrating. On a recent trip to California, my husband decided to join me for a morning jog on the beach. We started out side by side, but after a half-mile or so, I could tell that he wanted to go faster. I, enjoying the sunshine and the breeze and my leisurely stride, did not, but feeling pressured to keep up, I tried to go quicken the pace. My legs just couldn't turn over that quickly; my feet were sinking into the sand, making every step a challenge, and I just couldn't get my body to do what I wanted it to. My internal monologue flipped from "Look at those pretty waves! Beach running is the best!" to "You suck! Why can't you keep up with someone who almost never runs?" (Eventually, I convinced him to go ahead without me so I could move at my own pace, and the morning became pleasant again.)
At times I've resolved to get faster, building sprints and speed work into my exercise routine (find out how to Shave a Minute Off Your Mile Time!), but those workouts don't satisfy me the way a less structured session does, and I end up skipping most of them. So I've decided that I'd rather have a fitness habit I love than cut seconds off my 10K pace. And not caring about time can be freeing! I'm usually very competitive (just challenge me to game of Scrabble and you'll find out what I mean), and I've realized that it can be quite satisfying to work hard at something simply for the sake of hard work—and because it's fun.
Because running is fun. It's also a way to clear my mind, burn off nervous energy, and sleep better. It provides me opportunities to spend more time in nature and to explore new places. It allows for extra ice cream in my diet. And it's my favorite way to chase the aptly named "runner's high"—a powerful combination of sweat and endorphins that no other form of exercise has ever delivered to me so consistently. When I think about all the things running gives me, a personal best seems, at most, like the proverbial cherry on top—nice but unnecessary.