If you’re new to running, I don’t recommend a marathon.
On a crisp morning in San Francisco, I was running up a hill through the kind of low fog that has micro raindrops suspended within it. The kind that you can almost see but can definitely feel and taste. Move through it too fast and your face gets wet. This is my favorite environment to run in, but on this particular morning, appreciating the setting was the last thing on my mind. About half way up that hill, I realized that I couldn’t keep up the delusion any more.
The pain in my shins had managed to evade the painkiller I took before the run, and with each foot fall, the realization that I was compounding the problem became harder to ignore. I didn’t make it to the top of the hill that morning. The pain had finally won and stopped me in my tracks. A few days later, after limping to my doctor’s office, I got the news I was most dreading: there was no way I was going to be able to run in the marathon I was training for. Dozens of hours of training, countless missed opportunities to hang with friends over the prior two months, and the $100 non-refundable registration fee were now all for nothing.
I wish I could say that this only happened once, but that wouldn’t be true. I’ve trained for three marathons to date, and in every single case, bodily injury, usually in the form of shin splints, has either severely hampered my performance, or outright shut down my dreams. If you’re someone new to running, signing up for a marathon is a bad way to acquaint yourself with the sport. New runners, full of vim and eagerness, often don’t yet know how to listen to the subtle cues their bodies are signaling, and the pressure of a race makes bad decisions inevitable.
Back in 2009, I ran my first marathon after watching my brother complete his. I was 26 and still made of rubber. I followed a grueling 16 week training program, and on race day, I barely crawled to the finish line before the cut off time. I earned the bragging rights, but my body was battered, and the whole experience was so demanding and painful that it took me years to sign up for another. This experience would define my relationship with running for the next 13 years: get the itch to run a challenging race (usually around January 1st), torture myself through training, and more often than not, injure myself to the point to where I couldn’t run on race day. Rinse. Repeat. Each time I’d ‘injure out’, I’d suffer a huge blow to my self esteem. I eventually stopped sharing my running goals with others because I knew, despite all the positive self-talk, that there was a high chance of failure.
This year is different. As I write this, I’m on my 16th week of running, and I’ve only noticed the slightest blush of pain on a handful of occasions. I find myself looking forward to my runs, even during the sweltering afternoons we get here in Tennessee. I’ve finally figured out a system for running that works for me, and it trades bragging rights for consistency, sustainability, and dare I say it, self actualization. If you’re interested in the particulars, read on.
Consistency through identity
My first few years of running were wholly movatived by the desire to join the tiny percentage of people that have ever run a distance as long as 26.2 miles. I wanted to summit the mountain, and a marathon was as good as Everest. After checking that box, the motivation for completing my second marathon could be boiled down to the need to confirm that “I still got it.” That kind of motivational fuel evaporates the minute I accomplish the goal it’s tied to, and predictably, my running habit all but went extinct over the following years. Even without a race on the calendar however, I still felt the pull of running. I’d pick up the odd issue of Runner’s World, and find myself devouring running books like Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” and Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run.” It was a decade of fits and starts, but something kept me coming back to the well.
After reflecting on this, I realized that I had fallen in love with the idea of being a runner. I’ve always found the discipline of a regular running routine appealing. As a recovering alcoholic, I appreciate how the flow of endorphins light up the pleasure circuits in my brain; a job I used to outsource to booze. I’m drawn to the meditative state that the runner’s high brings. Runners appear to be healthy and hearty people, and anytime I’d tell people that I was training for a marathon, I enjoyed the feeling of being seen as a runner in their eyes.
To quote James Clear, “Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it.” This was the missing ingredient, and once I noticed it, I made a conscious decision to be a member of the running tribe instead of just being a race participant. Consistency is no longer an issue, since as long as I continue to run, day in and day out, saying that I’m a runner is no longer a claim, it’s a fact.
Slow and steady, no race needed
Back in those early days of running, I lost count of the number of times, in the name of giving my body a chance to recover and heal, I had to wrestle with the shame and stress of a slow or missed run. All those negative feelings were tied up with not being ‘on track’ for race day. Identity-based running, by contrast, has given me the freedom and permission needed to reframe my goals. I’m now pursuing a broader, more sustainable outcome: I want to be someone who runs three miles, every single day, no matter what.
I defined a plan that begins with running one mile, three days a week. I then increase the weekly mileage no more than 10% from one week to the next. At this very modest building rate, it’ll take me about nine months before I’m running 21 miles a week. For comparison, many marathon training plans have you completing a 28 mile run, on a single day, within three months starting.
Unlike any previous running plan I’ve attempted before, there is no race at the end. Today, if I start to feel any pain whatsoever, I walk. There’s no concept of falling behind, because as long as I’m consistent, I’m right where I need to be. The pace of my plan is glacial, but as long as I don’t get injured on my way to 21 miles a week, I don’t care if it takes a year.
Running up the score
The last component of my running system is measurement. I use a spreadsheet to log my runs, but a habit tracker or even just crossing off days on a paper calendar would be equally effective. The more visual the better. Seeing an unbroken streak of completed runs keeps me motivated and accountable, and I’m not above admitting that I love the little hit of dopamine that comes with logging another completed run. Tracking progress is nothing new, but the difference this time around is that I’m now counting up the days I spend as a runner, rather than counting down the days until race day. This makes all the difference in the world.
Putting it all together
It’s a shame that most of the content published about running is either aimed at elite runners looking to shave seconds off of their world records, or is focused on gear and supplements to help you with your next race. In a world seemingly built for hares, taking the tortoise point of view that a slow and steady approach is best, isn’t exactly going to win me a popularity contest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against running marathons in general, I just feel that developing a healthy relationship with running first, before taking on a marathon, is a woefully under-discussed point of view. For anyone out there that’s been struggling with running over the years, just know that you don’t always have to summit the mountain. Living on it can be just as rewarding, and it’s a hell of a lot easier on your body too.