After much thought, I have concluded that there are two types of runners. There are those who have to run like they have to breathe. Whether it is 25 degrees and snowing or a sweltering 95 outside, they will figure out a way to get in their miles and beat their bests, motivated by the pure joy they derive from the sport. For them, running is an inseparable part of who they are and, absent injury, it seems to the outside observer that nothing will ever hold them back. Then there is a second class of runners who, for want of a better metaphor, need a carrot (or the promise of guilt-free chocolate) to entice them out the door. I have to confess that as much as I want to put myself in the first category, when it comes to challenging myself during my runs, I am more of a carrot-and-stick type of gal.
I received a lot of credit for training for and finishing the NYC Marathon last fall, and I often hear some version of “I can’t believe you did that”. What I want to say in response is that when it comes to running, signing up for the NYC Marathon was actually the easiest decision I ever made because, for me, my best motivation is having a goal and reward to chase.
There was no mystery involved in what I had to do to train up to the marathon, even more so because I was lucky enough to have a coach who dictated and remotely monitored each run, and prescribed each distance, pace, workout, and rest day. It did not matter if I did not feel like running fourteen miles on a given Sunday, because if Coach John wanted fourteen miles out of me that day, I was not going to fall short. Set a goal, meet or beat that goal. Done.
My problem lies in the in-between months, when I do not have a race in my immediate future that I am training for, let alone a coach telling me what to do. What do I do when it is up to me to decide how far and how fast to go, and how hard to push? It is an unsettling place for me to be, mostly because I am worried about failing a test that does not even exist unless I write it.
The obvious answer to my dilemma is to define my year’s goals, map out a race schedule, and plan my runs accordingly. I am working on it. In the meantime, I have days like Sunday, out for a solo long run, with a vague idea that I might run nine miles, maybe more or less depending on how I was feeling. By mile eight, I reached an intersection where I could easily bail out and hit the nine-mile finish line at my driveway. Turning there would have been an easy decision: nine was a solid run, there was no compelling reason to run more, there was no coach to answer to, and, frankly, I was running late to my own Super Bowl party. On the other hand, I knew I had more in the tank and in that moment the thought of being able to write a double digit “10” on my calendar instead of a mere “9” was sufficient enticement to keep me going. That does not always happen.
But on that day, I ran the extra mile.
But this actually is not the point to this story. If I did not run that extra mile, I would not have seen the woman who was running ahead of me. There is a long straightaway in the last half-mile before our house, and with the path laid out ahead you can see whoever it is that you trail. Yesterday, it was a woman, about my age, who seemed to be struggling and alternating between a walk and a slow jog. Before the path curves left, there is an underpass and a hill, and when she hit the bottom of that incline I fully expected to see her walk. Instead, as soon as she hit the base, she increased her speed to a jog and did not stop until she reached the top. If I knew her or had more courage to engage, this is what I would have asked her: What made you run up that hill? Because whatever it was, I want to harness it. What I witnessed was strength and will. And the next time I have to decide whether to go that extra mile, and I think no one is watching, and no one is telling me what to do, and I am tempted to take the easy way out, I want the same strength to push me forward instead. Just like she did.