A Case for Running Slow, from Someone Who Went (moderately) Fast
To be fair, I was never an “elite” runner. Freshman & sophomore years of high school I was one of the slowest kids on one of the fastest X-C teams in the state, which means I usually finished around mid-pack in races. I trained my butt off every season, but rarely broke the 20 minute 5k mark, while my teammates were finishing sub-16. Eventually I got sick of this, and junior year I gave the lower 50% of racers a chance by hanging up racing flats for golf clubs, since I was actually good at golf and practice didn’t hurt like hell. Four years of sedentary life followed between the ages of 16 & 20, where I gradually packed on some pounds. Turns out when you stop burning an extra 600 calories per day but continue to eat like crap you gain weight. It wasn’t until my idyllic first internship in Seattle that I bought a bike, discovered that climbing big hills is a great (albeit weird) way to get over a first breakup, and started getting my ass in shape.
After returning to slightly-less-than-idyllic Rochester I continued to train on the bike, but the time & money commitment was tough on a broke student cultivating the first indications of both workaholism and alcoholism (luckily only one of these carried forth into adulthood). Worse, both Rochesters are renowned for their long snowy winters, and I picked the one with more snow, meaning riding season was around 5 months tops. So when my friend suggested we sign up for the Freezefest 5k (yes, that’s the name of the festival. Because it’s cold. Because it’s Rochester.), I groveled about my knees for a bit before saying “if I’m gonna do this, might as well overdo it and train my butt off”.
So for the next two months I trained, and quickly fell in love. With every run I was able to go further & further, faster & faster, until race day came and I turned in a solid 21:27, not far off from my X-C days and good enough for third place. The success was intoxicating, so I spent the summer of 2018 hunting down races, throwing everything into training, and destroying my target times.
My last race of 2018 was a 5k my company hosted. Emboldened by my successes, I set an ambitious target. Break 20 minutes. I had done it twice in high school, and had recently run a 20:13 in beautiful Livonia, Michigan to finish second, with a second-mile wrong-turn thrown in for good measure. Armed with my new goal, I set up another intense training plan. But as days turned into weeks something felt off. As opposed to enjoying each run (the challenge, the fresh air, the fitness gains I was working towards), I kept feeling an intense pressure to meet my lofty pace & distance standards each & every day. Instead of watching the world crawl by me, my face was buried in my smart watch, as I desperately tried to make the Pace number look “acceptable”. Instead of looking forward to each run, I dreaded putting my shoes on, knowing I was in for another half hour of pain & disappointment.
Race day came, and the combination of heat, hills, and overtraining resulted in a measly 22:17, barely finishing in the top 30. “Pathetic”.
I still ran through the winter, continuing to fret my lack of improvement as I half-destroyed myself with each workout. Gradually this “motivation” wore off, and come springtime I traded in the running shoes for the golf clubs (again).
A couple months passed, and I eventually felt the urge to run again. One drive to the trail later, I had a plan. I was going to run, but I wasn’t going to care about distance or pace. I was going to run slowly, on purpose, and turn around once I started getting tired. This may sound basic, but to me it was a radical departure from the way I thought about running. 2018 Grant would have scoffed and called me a “hobbyjogger”, but 2018 Grant could barely walk some days due to his training load. Instead I ran slowly, keeping the intensity low enough for me to enjoy the scenery, the sounds of birds, and feeling of wind on my skin, and absolutely loved it.
A couple months have passed, and I continue to run ~5 days per week. I still look forward to each run, and actually enjoy my time on the trail. Though I may not set any PRs, I have dropped a few pounds, and in general feel energetic & happy instead of sore & tired all the time. Best of all, my relationship with my own expectations has improved significantly. Bad runs, like bad days, happen. Setting goals can be worthwhile, but falling short does not make me any less of a person. Running slowly forced me to separate my sense of self-worth from race results, leading to an overall greater sense of happiness & contentment.
Unless you’re doing it for a living, or some dastardly villain kidnaps your family and refuses to return them until you run a 3 hour marathon (the strange, sadistic bastard), your running abilities only matter as much as you make them matter.
One of the most freeing revelations is realizing that strangers don’t give nearly as much of a crap about you as you think they do. 99% of people won’t judge you on your 10k PR (most couldn’t care less), and the Judgy Jasons that do probably aren’t worth hanging around anyway. To most people, your 20 minute rant about your intense training schedule is (at best) a curious case-study in masochism, and (more likely) really freaking boring.
Once you expel the illusion of the world’s judgements, all that’s left is your own mind. Although this piece explored some of it’s dark, seedy mutations, motivation in of itself is an excellent force for good. You can use your goal-based motivation to get your butt out the door & your feet in some running shoes, but once your legs start moving try forgetting about that goal and just focusing on your breath, footsteps, or anything else in the moment. Chase after the goals you choose to set, but know that succeeding won’t make you a better person, make people like you, or banish every source of suffering in your life. Just like failing won’t make you a worse person or snuff out any sources of day-to-day happiness. And if you’re someone like me, who struggles to not let goals constantly consume far-reaching parts of his life, forget the goals, and just run!
My company’s 5k is approaching once again, and unlike last year I have no goal, no target pace, no training plan, and no expectations. I’ll continue to run, slowly meandering through the woods on my local trails, but come September, when my toe touches the starting line on that fall evening, I’ll run my ass off, have fun, and afterwards saunter off to happy hour, satisfied with whatever time I get.