You may not believe this. In fact you won't believe it. But for a long time, I really hated running.
OK. That's not really true. I actually hated racing.
I ran half marathons and eventually the marathon for several reasons - the main one being it's much more of an adventure that way - but one of the reasons, in fact perhaps the overriding reason, was I hated the pain of the shorter distances.
I only sort of liked 10Ks and honestly could not stand 5Ks.
I would do my best to avoid them when I could, and when I couldn't, when the inevitable Fourth of July or Thanksgiving race came around, I would run them with a sense of dread.
I approached the races the way you would approach a session with the Pit of Despair in the Princess Bride. I tried to block out the pain, putting myself in another place, and hoping (praying) that the aggressive metal would help me get my grr on.
Sometimes it worked. Other times it didn't. But always it was miserable. I remember asking my wife, "Am I really supposed to suffer THAT badly during a race?"
I did find some things that helped. I bought lighter shoes just for races, got a Garmin GPS to keep me honest and started taking medication for acid reflux, so my throat doesn't catch fire every time I run hard.
All that helped some. But the bigger issue was every time the gun went off, I felt trapped, like I was a prisoner being forced to run by wardens for sport.
As crazy as that sounds, in a sense, it was true. I have competitive, badass friends - as you saw in my previous post, I just got back from helping a few of them complete the Ironman - and when I raced, I felt a responsibility to run as hard as I could to not only keep up with them but not let them down. And they were justifying those fears without even realizing what they were doing, as every time I had a bad race (a race, by the way, that still beat 80 percent of the field but one I nor they were happy with at all), they would ask what went wrong, what happened, what I could do better next time. They weren't the only ones. I run an intervals track group on Wednesdays, and the coach of that track group would rightfully wonder about my times in a race, even if, he, too, didn't mean to be critical.
It's great to have badass friends. It pushes me to be much, much better than I ever thought I'd be. But there can be some pressure there. There was an episode of The Simpsons once where Marge feels pressure to keep up with some new, well-moneyed friends from the country club, and I felt what she was feeling, from an athletic sense.
It's so ironic, too, because I've never considered myself an athlete. Dribbling down a basketball court is challenging for me. I loved softball, mostly because I can't hit a baseball. Anything I did, whether it was bench pressing 300 pounds, climbing all the 14ers in Colorado or running a 6-minute mile, was because of hard work, not any kind of athletic gifts.
Still, I was feeling good this fall. After completing a marathon with a disappointing ending, I was running well, even if my results didn't always show it, and I knew I was due for a breakthrough. I ran 1:44 in a half marathon in October, a PR, and finished fifth in another trail half marathon two weeks earlier.
I had not really run a 5K all year, and I thought I had a good race in me in Arizona. I just had to do it.
And then, during a session of intervals with some tough friends (I usually finish near the end), we ran sections of 800 meters on a new track. The new track was significant because I didn't know where the splits were. I really wasn't even sure about the finish line. I would just have to run.
So I ran.
And I hit the 800 in right around 3 minutes.
That time's significant because that's the pace I would run for a mile. In the past that would hurt. But I just ran. And when I hit that time, I wasn't too gassed. Yeah, it hurt, but I didn't have to quit. I finished four more 800s and ran those pretty well too.
It's amazing what you can do when you don't know you're not supposed to be doing it, I tweeted.
So I approached that Arizona race with a different attitude. I was limiting myself. That night, my friends were encouraging, telling me it was a flat course, in cool weather, at sea level. But rather than let that put pressure on myself, I relaxed and just told them we would see how it would work out.
When the gun went off, I chanted my word, another mental exercise that I wrote about in the last post.
And I relaxed and found people to pace off. And I didn't look at my watch. I've said all that before.
But mostly I ran for fun.
It's fun, mostly, because what I've realized is pushing yourself isn't torture. Sure, it hurts, but letting go of the pressures we put on ourselves, whether its because of what we perceive from our friends or our leaders, is freeing, and pain is only temporary.
As proof, Thursday at that annual Thanksgiving race, where it all began six years ago, it was bitter cold, and I was still stiff from Saturday's race, and my feet were numb and I was stressed from getting Thanksgiving dinner together. But I smiled before the start, and I ran, and I ran 22:10, my best time at the event ever, despite a tough, hilly first mile that left me gassed right from the start. I finished 9th out of 119 in my age group for my first top-10 finish at such a large event.
And it was fun.
Pain really is only temporary. That race hurt for a while. Then it got better.
It always does.
When you're in the fire, breathe deep, my friends. Soon enough, it'll start to cool.