What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

*The title of this post is from a delightful non-fiction book by Japanese author Haruki Murakami – highly recommended if you’re a runner, athlete or Murakami fan.

Every Saturday, I’m up at 4:45am to go running with a good friend and mentor. We set a steady pace and usually cover 8-10km (it’s the weekend, after all). Last week, as we were approaching the start of an incline which marks the final 3km’s, we had an interesting conversation about our running histories, that turned to how our experience applied to life more generally. As we often do when we approach this particular incline, we checked in with each other to see if we could increase the pace for the final few kilometres. We both agreed we could, slightly, and I nonchalantly mentioned how I sometimes feel like I always run with too much in reserve, that it was hard to push myself closer to my threshold. My friend mentioned he was much the same until his early 20’s, after running mostly shorter distances he decided he wanted to really test himself, and so he trained for his first marathon (42.2km). I realised I had similar experiences training for a sprint distance triathlon (750m ocean swim, 20km bike ride, 5km run) and that half the reason I did this event was to show myself I could.

That all led me to thinking (sometime after our run) and maybe you’ve noticed for yourself, say, in a running race or sporting activity, ‘pacing yourself’? In running, keeping on in a steady fashion, we start to get comfortable. This feels good.  Running 5km for the first time, you might find your muscles ache during the distance, your breathing becomes  laboured and your heart seems to beat faster with every step. Keep practicing running 5km’s for long enough though and gradually your muscles protest less, breathing becomes rhythmic and your heart rate moderates. You might even be able to hold a conversation as you run. Over time, you can complete the same distance with relative ease, and become very efficient at running 5km. In subsequent runs, we learn to ‘pace ourselves’. Hold a little in reserve, and eventually finish the run with ease. In one sense, this is great – you’ve become increasingly fit and acclimated to the activity. On the flip side, it’s easy to become so complacent you just go through the motions. We reach a plateau. And unless we’re pushed (for some intrinsic or external reason) we remain at status quo. Running 12km would be a challenge, as would be running a quicker 5km. For a long time, I could run 5km comfortably in about 26mins, but it was tough to get to 25mins or even 24mins. I’ve recently started sprinkling my training with the occasional all out effort, and just this week I hit 25:49 for the run (5:09 per km or 8:18min per mile). Plenty of people can run faster (that’s not really the point) but it’s the quickest 5km I’ve run this year. I’d forgotten what it was like, and that whenever I get the insidious feeling of ‘just let up’, I can actually keep pushing to which the challenge gets easier to tolerate (the run itself of course, gets harder).

There are times in life where we need to remind ourselves what we’re capable of. To recalibrate our threshold for ‘discomfort’. The ROI in this pays dividends in all areas of life. Working a little harder on a project that important to us, repairing something at home rather than calling a handyman or purchasing a replacement, improving our health, hanging in there with a friend, cutting down expenses or learning to invest for financial independence. It reminds us what we actually can do, and makes more comfortable what used to seem like a challenging situation.