Last Thursday I ran 4.5 miles around Lake Merced, as part of my running club's summer evening race series. That race was next-to-last of the series, and though I rarely do evening runs and had never done an evening race, I wanted to try it out at least once. It was very foggy and chilly and the field was much smaller than I expected; just a few dozen people. I couldn't hear the announcement of the start, the other runners all took off like a shot and left me gasping behind. I never caught up.
I spent the entire race alone, save a few runners and cyclists who weren't involved in the race, and all quickly passed me. I hated myself for the entire duration, cursing how slow I was. Persistent attempts to get my inner critic to shut up and just appreciate that I was making the effort at all, did not work. I'd never felt this negatively about any race before, and rarely this miserable during any workout.
By the time I came back to the start, the finish chute was being dismantled, only adding to my dismay. The race director spotted me though, and my time was officially recorded, five minutes after the previous finisher. It wasn't my slowest time, but it was my first last-place finish.
boyziggy came to meet me and enthused about how great it was that I went out and raced instead of staying home in front of the TV (ironically I would have been watching track & field on Universal Sports if I had stayed home). But I still felt slow and defeated.
I keep trying to tell myself that I run for fitness, and the times are irrelevant; I'm only competing against myself. There's a large camp that agrees with me, emphasizing going slow, walking when necessary, and having fun. But there's another camp that doesn't consider a race of any length to count unless you run the whole thing, and considers (for example) five-hour marathon times to be pathetic. These aren't professional athletes saying this, either. The irony is that I doubt the elite athletes care much about what the road warriors think. They get paid to compete rather than paying and start in their own division. It's just that large road races are unique in that elite and very casual athletes can compete in the same event.
I don't aspire to run a marathon, which I consider to be an entirely arbitrary distance based on a probably-false legend about a guy who ran 26 miles and then dropped dead. I did try training for a marathon back in 2000, and gave up after an 18 mile run left me with knee pain that prevented running for five weeks. I have run two half-marathons, and was going to run a third (a family funeral prevented this), but have decided even that distance is too much pounding on my body for too little gain, either in fitness or pride. I am in awe of ultrarunner Dean Karnazes and talk about him all the time, but I don't aspire to run long distances regularly myself.
What I do aspire to is to run what I consider to be a respectable pace, which is not the 12 minute miles I'm grinding out now. I know there are various things I can do to improve my times, but I get discouraged pretty easily. I like running because of its simplicity, but that same simplicity makes it easy to obsess over times, since that and distance are the only variables counted.
Fitness should be my primary goal, not running a sub-30 minute 5K. Of course the two aren't mutually exclusive. But I've gained back nearly all of the 20 pounds I lost last year, and it seems every time I get determined to start running again in earnest I get sick, injured, or distracted. Taking it easy would seem to be prudent, but not too easy. I need some level of challenge, physically and emotionally.