I just logged my best time ever for a half-marathon. According to the stats, I finished the 13.1 mile course in 1:54:40, at a pace of 8:46 per mile. For me, those are personal bests in both total time and pace per mile.
This was my 6th half-marathon. I didn't run my first one until 2017, succumbing to male ego and peer pressure since I had no intention of ever becoming a distance runner until a colleague encouraged me to watch her participate in one. In that process, I saw thousands of folks of all ages, sizes, ability levels - there were multiple people participating in wheel chairs --enthusiastically participating. Afterward, my colleague challenged me to run the race the following year. I had just seen people participate in wheel chairs, so how was I going to fail to accept that challenge?
The first race I ran was brutal in both preparation and execution, but my goal was to just finish. Nothing in my life since high school had indicated that I would be capable of running 13 miles all at once without stopping. So after a pulled calf, twisted knee, and a plethora of blisters, I completed the race! I averaged around 11:30 per mile. That didn't matter a whit! The goal was to finish, and I did. I internally announced my retirement from half-marathons.
The following year, I just observed the race from the corner near my house, since the route winds through my community of North Park in San Diego, California. This time as I watched, I was filled with an almost overwhelming longing to participate. Yes, I had met my goal the prior year, but something about that collective energy of everyone participating, and people lining the streets cheering them on sent a shock wave through me. I needed to run again!
So I went home and signed up for the upcoming race in Las Vegas.
For this second race, I set a goal of averaging less than 10 minutes per mile. I trained with that goal in mind, and ran that chilly evening on The Strip with the focus and intention of beating that time goal. Again, mission accomplished! I don't think I had ever been as sore as I was after that race, but the goal was met.
The next race (number 3) was the following year back in San Diego, and the goal was to just do better than I had in Vegas. I needed a major surge at the end (the last mile is a truly horrible thing), but again, goal met. Next race? This was the first one post-COVID, so I set a simple goal: do better than before. Done!
So I had always done incrementally better with each succeeding race, but during that fourth race, I had a brief encounter with a colleague and fellow runner. "So you're breaking 2 hours
today?" he asked. "No, just beating last year's pace" I replied.
I did that, but now I had it in my head that I can not run this race again without the goal of breaking the 2 hour barrier!.
So last year, I trained diligently and ran purposefully....and broke the 2 hour barrier for the first time. With great effort, I shaved about 8 minutes off my prior race time.
The only problem: I was miserable the whole time. During my training, which consists of several runs a week through a magnificent park, I was preoccupied with my pacing so much that I was hardly enjoying the beautiful surroundings. The race itself was probably the most stressful I've run, as I was tracking my pace at each mile marker, being cognizant of running too slow or too fast throughout. This was a Pyrrhic victory of sorts.
So when this year's race was coming up, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to participate. I had been doing my regular runs for fun, but not the usual more intense pre-race training runs to which I had become accustomed.
This time, I decided to forego the multiple weeks of escalating long training runs, and just run this race for pure fun, with no stated goals at all. Rather, I would remove the "efforting" from this experience. I wouldn't focus on making a specific outcome necessary. My training was limited to running longer distances on my usual Sunday runs in the park for the 2 weeks prior to the race, but without concern to pacing. I declared myself good to go.
Come race day, I felt totally relaxed walking to the starting line, which is about 2 miles from my house.
There are dozens of port-a-potties lined up near the starting line to accommodate last minute relief for the thousands of runners prior to the race. Usually, while I'm standing in line there I notice my heartbeat increasing, since the next stop will be the starting line and the pursuit of that year's goal. This time, I caught myself just noticing the cool and colorful shoes other folks in line were wearing. Then I headed to the starting line.
Once there, I found my playlist on my phone, and readied my running app, largely out of habit. As if the universe was trying to underline my point about not being fixated on my pacing, my running app hit a glitch right after I started the actual race, so from that point on there was no way to have a completely accurate tracking of my pace. Normally, I might have freaked out a little, since each second impacts overall pace and race time. But this time? No worries! It was really all for the best.
I ran at a comfortable pace, and took note of more of my fellow runners. As much of the course is lined with onlookers and well-wishers, I also took the opportunity to enjoy some of the signs they were holding, such as "All toenails go to heaven," and "I trained for months to hold this sign."
Otherwise, there was no familiar urgency when I reached the 9 mile marker to adjust my pace, and I didn't even dread the wicked incline between miles 10 and 11. I appreciated the musicians who were sprinkled throughout the course (this IS called the Rock n Roll Half Marathon), and I glided through the finish line this time, tired for sure, but not drained.
And somehow, after my most painless, stress-free run, I logged my fastest times ever.
I can't help but feel that there is something to this idea of releasing the "must have" from an experience, and allowing the "is." I might well have run the exact same times if I had trained for weeks and dutifully tracked every step of the race as I had in years past. But the undeniable lesson here is that I didn't have to. I got conceivably the same result, if not better, but without all the joy-sucking stress that takes much of the joy out of running in the first place.
It says here that this idea is likely transferable to many other aspects of life. We all face circumstances that can be challenging, serious or otherwise unpleasant, much more so than a voluntary race. But is the experience or outcome of any situation ever actually enhanced by adding stress and worry over a specific outcome?