The most rewarding thing about running might be the most intangible.
The other day at lunch, I went out for a run, as I often do, with a group of friends and colleagues: my running buddies. They’re good runners, and they’re better than me. I started out with them, but at some point I began trailing behind. I could have pushed myself to keep up, but I don’t always want to, and so I let them get away. When they got far enough ahead of me, they stopped to wait. They always do this, and I always encourage them to keep going. “I know how to get back,” I said. They waited anyway. They are kind.
When I first fell in love with running, I had only two goals: getting faster and going further. Completing a half-marathon raised the question of running a full one. When I trained for a race, it was to PB. In this way, running became a maths problem: distance divided by time. But I was never very good at maths, and no one needs more problems. Over time, my outlook has changed.
Here’s something I haven’t figured out how to tell my running buddies: I’m not always interested in keeping up. I like running with them, and when I’m feeling good at a faster pace, I love the camaraderie. But when I’m feeling a little slow (which I don’t always know until I get out there), I’m okay with running slow. Speed isn’t my goal.
What is my goal? Grace. I run to find that feeling of slipping easily through the air, where my body and breath work in harmony to propel me along, where it feels like both effortless loping and a little like flying – as if, should I cast my arms out, I might take off into the sky.
Those runs are rare – as rare as PBs. Like all moments of grace, they tend to arrive as if by accident, and when they’re over, I’m left feeling elated and unsure it’ll ever happen again. In that way, too, they are like PBs.
But those moments are my reason for running. Every time I lace up my shoes, I do it because it’s the only way I know of to make that feeling happen again. I run, and I wait, and I hope.
I’ve run long enough to know that going out and pushing myself on every run won’t give me that experience. In fact, the only thing that brings me closer to grace is listening to myself.
Pushing hard is enjoyable. And I am proud of the achievements that pushing has yielded, whether it’s lowering my marathon time or completing a speedwork session at a faster-than-expected pace. These numbers are fun. But I try not to take them too seriously. I’ve learned that when I push too hard, too fast, too much, running becomes a gruelling, unpleasant labour. And no matter how fast I run, I won’t keep up with my own preconceived ideas about how much faster or stronger I should be. Then the numbers become nothing but indications of my own failure.
That kind of running is the opposite of grace. I am trying to resist it, to let myself run what feels embarrassingly slow at times in order to practise floating along, instead of pushing through.
I’m not sure what my running buddies thought, watching me trundle slowly up the road toward them. When I got there, they started up again, and we all ran together briefly. But I kept running slowly, and they ended up peeling away again. They had paces to keep to, and time goals in mind – goals that were perhaps bringing them closer to their own sense of grace.
Meanwhile, I did my thing, looking for an experience that I keep hoping finds me.