Last week’s post about not racing brought so much lovely feedback, most in the form of “I’ve been there, too.” In my own small way, I hope I help to make it easier to admit when there’s something in life just not serving us the same way it used to—be it running or a job or a relationship or any part of a routine. It exemplifies what I hope to put out into the world through writing this blog, so thank you for all the responses.
After writing about not racing, I immediately had the opportunity to challenge myself running in a way that was pure and wild: the Reach the Beach Relay (Race) in New Hampshire. Yes, the word “race” is in there, but only in the sense that there is a set course from Point A to Point B, and some teams try to cover that distance in the shortest amount of time possible. Point A and Point B happen to be 200 miles apart, starting in the mountains and ending at the beach. Teams consist of twelve people (running three legs each) or six people (running six legs each). It takes more than 24 hours, usually, and the teams ride along in passenger vans, eating peanut butter and catching a few minutes of sleep here and there. There are legs run in the heat of the day and under the cover of night, through towns and country, with transition zones set up in fields and at churches and schools. It’s really a ridiculous endeavor, made more ridiculous in my case by the fact that the group of friends I’ve done this with off and on over the past nine years are people I first met on the internet—back in the days when that was a weird thing to do. We all participated in a Boston-Bound forum on the Runner’s World magazine website, and over time have met in Boston and elsewhere, sharing miles and beers and laughs.
I was on the six-person team, and my legs added up to 40.5 miles. I really didn’t do any special training other than to keep my mileage in the 40-45 mpw range, do a few doubles, and trust that the fact my strength is endurance. My team wasn’t concerned about our overall time, so I had the added luxury of being able to set my own goal to run however felt good. I wanted to push when I felt like pushing, float when I felt like floating, slog when I felt like slogging (pretty much a given by the sixth leg). I wanted to drink in the beautiful scenery I was running through, look up at the stars and the milky way as I was running at 3:00am, feel the air on my skin and through my lungs.
Running alone on country roads in the middle of the night has almost a carnal feel to it—there is literally nothing else but my legs and lungs and the most basic of thoughts. My overnight legs were both over eight miles, and I’d set off just wanting to feel like I was floating, to cover the miles in a joyous way. I forgot to look at my watch. I forgot to care about how many miles I’d run or how many were ahead of me. I’d look at my average pace at the end and be amazed at how my perceived effort could give me a faster-than-expected pace, because I had disconnected and just let my body run.
This is how I want to feel running: strong, mindful, appreciative, flowing. I have to have some semblance of fitness to make that happen, and there have been times racing has brought me to that place. Right now, giving myself the opportunity to play, to push myself when I want to (not because I’m standing at the starting line), to build myself up rather than put pressure on myself—that all sounds like the kind of relationship with running I want to have.
Despite always returning from the weekend a zombie and slightly sick, there is a reason I keep going back to the relay and this group of people. There is no agenda, there is no expectation, there is no drama, just a connection to running and the joy we all experience when we can put everything aside for a few days, share loopy inside jokes at three am, connect over sore quads and sleep deprivation, and covering miles in the most pure, basic way possible. Although the pace doesn’t matter, everyone has the same mindset about wanting to run in the moment, to push enough to reach that place where challenge is a joy, and that creates an atmosphere that is nourishing and inspiring.