When you do a really long run, try not to go around telling people about it.
I say this because, from personal experience, when you train for something like a marathon you become a slave to perspective, but you forget what’s normal to people not in marathon training.
If you tell people, “I ran 8 miles today,” they might say, “Wow! That’s really far.” But once you hit the double digits—when you tell people, “I ran 16 miles today,” the general response is “Urgh, now you’re making me feel bad for running only 5” or “All I did was eat chocolate,” or “Ew, why would you do that to yourself?” Unless it’s someone in marathon training, disgust is the general response. This is understandable, because when I’m not training for anything, if you suggested that I go outside and run 16 miles, I would laugh in your face (while consuming chocolate). And before I started running in 7th grade, I thought running was only for fast people, and I have never been or wanted to be fast. I love that each year, more of my friends discover that running slowly—not even as fast as jogging, but what I call plodding—is acceptable and enjoyable. “Running, Slow and Slower” is a book I would like to publish with Daniel Kahneman.
My friend and I “trained” for the marathon last fall. I insert the quotes because despite our best intentions, we pushed running away from our minds during the week, banking on the weekend long runs to settle our debts.
You can’t really settle your debts or procrastinate in running, though. That’s both the appeal and the problem.
Our long run schedule went from 8 miles on a Saturday through perfect increments each week thereafter, to 10, to 11, to 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20 (yes, 20!) and tapering back down. We didn’t hit every target, but our legs would still resent us every weekend. Legs have short memories.
Every distance, in your mind, is relative to the last one you ran and the next one you are going to run. There is no isolated rule that 10 miles is long, because 10 miles is less than half of the distance that you will eventually run. And because there is a schedule on your fridge with an expiration date, and a sense of inevitability, your mind can’t protest as much as your legs do. My friend and I mutually agreed that our most difficult run was the 8-miler. Yes, out of all the runs we did, the 8 miles were the hardest.
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has written an amazing non-fiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, about the intertwined nature of his running, writing, and personality. The Charles River in Boston is coincidentally one of his favorite places to run. He writes:
“In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
I like this idea—that every Saturday there is a shadow of my last Saturday’s self running alongside me, but this Saturday I leave the shadow behind at mile X, and go on two more miles. Incrementally ahead, but still ahead of where I once was.
Murakami also writes:
“I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void….The kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”
Typically the word “void” has a negative connotation, indicating the absence of something, and implying something is always better than nothing. But maybe you need nothing sometimes. The best part of a run is when you forget that you are running, and forget that you are thinking. Usually that only happens to me 2 miles into a run, and sometimes the void itself runs away from me, and I am back out of breath. My strategy for acquiring the “void” is to run at the same, slow, 10-12 min/mile pace. That is why I want to tell people, when they think I’m “intense,” that no—far from it. I run slow and meditatively, to feel like I’m not running at all. Often I trip and fall out of my reverie and onto the sidewalk. Chins hit, palms bloodied, knees scraped. Apart from the physical injury, being rudely jolted out of the “void” is similar, ironically, to having a dream about running and your twitching feet eventually jolting you back to wakefulness.
Before the Disney marathon a few weeks ago, tired of all the long practice runs and the anticipation of such a long event, I told myself not to train for anything of that distance again. I even went so far as to wonder if I should switch from running to something else.
But this week, when the ellipticals at the gym were full and I gingerly stepped on a treadmill, I realized that I can’t make a blanket decision like that. Running propels me like nothing else does—literally and figuratively. I won’t be like Murakami and run a marathon every single year, that’s for sure—and I may never have the time or desire to hit marathon #3. But I hope to keep up my voidful, self-competitive sport of plodding: whether for one minute, one mile, or many.