The hills were pretty difficult at times, but overall it was a good run and I tried to just enjoy myself and not think about pace.
As I was out there, I thought about a friend who is a new runner. I've been running about 6 1/2 years, and she's been running about 3-6 months. She'd asked me recently when I started trying to get faster; how long had I been into running before I started trying to increase my speed (note I said 'increase', not 'improve' -- my high school English teacher would've called that foreshadowing). =)
It has been a week or so since she asked me, and I've waited awhile to respond since it is something of a lengthy and complex answer -- and so I pondered that today as I ran.
The short answer is: It was probably around 6 months or 1 year into running, maybe 18 months -- whenever I ran my first bibbed race and wondered if I could do it faster.
And now, here is the long answer.
I had this impression that as I got more fit, my speed would naturally increase. And it did. I set PR after PR after PR and it was intoxicating. And while I knew at some point to 'get faster' would mean more work and cross training and etc etc, I somehow thought that if when I started a 90% effort gave me a PR then over time, that same 90% effort would simply yield more and more speed. In essence I thought I'd get faster without 'feeling' like I was working any harder. And that was true for a time.
I've hit a peak now, though, where I don't know that I can get any faster. I mean, if I think about it, it makes sense: If I started at a 12:00/mile pace and then later for the same effort I was running an 11:00/mile pace and then 10:00/mile pace etc... at some point there *has* to be a limit, right? If I just keep running and working harder, can I hit an 8 pace for a 10k? a 7 pace for a 5k? -- then a 7 pace for a 10k and a 6:30 pace for a 5k? Will I ever run a 5:00 mile? Where's my lower limit?
And for a few years, I had no idea where that limit was, so when it started to get harder to go faster; and PRs started to get less and less common, I just worked harder. I tried new training plans and different stretches and speed drills and different shoes and different fueling techniques. And sometimes it paid off. I saw a few more PRs and that was fun.
But now I realize that the increased work and effort and stress to eek out a 2-3 sec/mile gain is just not worth it. In reaching for the prize of a reduced time on my watch, I paid the price of losing the joy of just being out there reveling in the movement and sights and experience of running just for the sake of running.
And couple that with this: seeing someone who has been running less time than I have, who is older than me, run faster than me! That's one of the main reasons I stopped reading RunnersWorld magazine. There's a section called "What does it take to..." and it is meant to be motivational, I suppose. This section has a few mini articles, with catchy headings like "What does it take to run a marathon on one leg?" and will tell the story about a soldier who has a prosthetic leg and ran his first marathon, for charity. "Yea! How inspiring! If he can do it so can I!!!" But there's also the ones like "Jeff McSpeedy had a heart attack at age 54, weighed in at 285#, and started running 6 months ago. Today he weighs 152# and he just ran his very first marathon in 3:15, qualifying for Boston next year!!!" and those would actually DE-motivate me. I'd see person after person on those pages who was improving WAY faster and WAY more than I was. "What does it take to...?" Apparently, it takes a hell of a lot more than I have inside me.
And it is not just in magazines. A personal friend is about a decade younger than me. He was not overweight, but also not very active. He was a pretty aggressive hiker, but did not have a chance to go do that regularly. He said I inspired him to start running. Yea! I felt special! Until, after 3-4 months of running, he ran his first half-marathon...at around a 7:30/mile pace. Now, after 1-2 years or so, he runs 10 mile training runs at a 7:15 pace just on a routine day. And yes it's not all sour grapes. I'm happy for him, I really am! But somewhere inside, my heart whispers: "How come I can't do that?" and that points me back to the gaping hole inside me with a neon sign that blares out "NOT ENOUGH! NOT ENOUGH! NOT ENOUGH!" over and over and over.
So between the 'motivational' articles in magazines, & the real-life stories of people I know, suddenly I was no longer as special as I thought. At least not on paper, looking at numbers.
I was just a below-average-improvement-rate guy facing the fact that I was never going to be as fast as "that person". And yeah, maybe someone else will never be as "fast" as I am, but somehow that doesn't ease the pain of knowing I've plateaued and the goals I once thought were realistic (a 4:00 marathon, or a 1:45 Half, etc) may be unattainable. Or the work I'd have to put in would not be worth the result. Especially since once I hit *that* goal, there would be yet another carrot out in front of me and it would be a never-ending procession of trying and failing...and that became hurtful to me.
And it all came to a head this January when I ran my favorite half-marathon, for the 5th year in a row. I had my sights set on a PR, and was well on my way at the 6.5 mile turn-around. Then at the 9 mile point I was hanging on...and around mile 11 "the wheels fell off" as we say, and while I finished faster than some people, I didn't finish as fast as I had hoped, despite hard efforts. I was demoralized, demotivated, and depressed.
So I had a choice.
So now instead of being upset by that, I've given myself grace. We are, all of us, faster than someone else, and slower than someone else. And instead of trying to be someone I'm not, I'm trying to just be who I am -- knowing some days I'll set a PR that will feel really good, and other days (MOST other days) I won't. And while I understand the value of always trying to 'be a better me' I now understand that speed or distance are much less important to me than they once were.
"Better" means something new to me now.
I've entered a new phase of my running where I set my super-fancy GPS watch to just tell me total time. I have no idea how far or how fast I'm going. I have to have a general idea, so I know when to turn around and come home, etc -- but I resist the temptation to do the math in my head of figuring out "Well, I know from my house to here it's about x miles and if my watch says I've been running Y minutes, then I must be averaging Z minutes/mile"
Instead, I really just try to just stay within my breath, and take in the experience; enjoy the time. Some days I put out a little more effort and some days I take it real easy. I vary things to spice it up a bit and play around. And when I get home and synch my watch, it'll tell me the data. Some days I'm faster than I thought I was -- and some days I'm slower, and while the former is still quite fun, the latter is no longer as upsetting as it used to be.
Some day I may 'try for more' again, but I hope if that happens I'll be more gentle with myself.
So if you are reading this and are new to running or have been running for ages and are at a plateau, I encourage you to do the same. If there is a 'biggest' mistake I've made along the way ('cause there've been a few!) it's the above.
The most amazing aspect of becoming a runner is this: I get to spend time "Running Into Myself" over and over again. I now know that no matter how deep I dig, there's always a little bit more inside. There's always more inside me than I think there is: more muck to clean out, and more goodness and light to reveal and share. And that translates into every other aspect of my life and has given me confidence and courage in many ways.
But I've focused too much on the rush of the "I'm getting faster/thinner/stronger/etc!" aspect of the "I had more inside me than I ever thought I did" feelings. And each of those has a limit.
Now, I am trying to stay in the realm of "I have more inside me than I ever thought I did" but from the perspective of "Let's see how many minutes of this run today I can spend actually *enjoying* myself and spending time with God and creation and whatever I'm listening to, whether it is my thoughts or an audio book or music or whatever."
No matter what my time or distance, letting running stay "funning" is what will keep me getting out there again and again and again.
That simple joy is where it is at.
And there is no limit to that joy.