The Rewards, Pleasures, And Life Lessons Of Running Fast
Joshua Spodek’s (PhD MBA) book, Leadership Step by Step, launches in February. He is an adjunct professor and coach of leadership and entrepreneurship at NYU and Columbia. His courses are available online at SpodekAcademy.com and he blogs daily at JoshuaSpodek.com.
A friend and former teammate introduced me to running long distances about twenty years ago. A few years ago I commented about running a lap of Central Park in about forty-five minutes. He remarked how running that speed at that age was impressive.
In the years since, I’ve meant to run a lap in forty-five minutes. Between China and just running long distances for past marathons, I haven’t gotten around to it. I didn’t prioritize it. I just kept it in mind.
A week or two ago I noticed an opportunity. Last weekend I ran my last half-marathon. Next weekend — the weekend before the marathon — I won’t run much. That left today open as a time when I’ve trained to run distances to try. Tomorrow I’m running my leadership seminar at General Assembly. Only today worked.
Central Park is six miles around. Forty-five minutes means 7:30 miles. That’s just over half the speed competitive athletes run, but I consider it a decent pace. I naturally ran that pace when I ran in my twenties and probably thirties, as far as I remember. Central Park also has a few big hills, making it harder than just straight running.
More challenging than the course’s physical layout was the mental challenge of pacing myself. I like running for its freedom. I see runners with equipment, phones telling them their paces, ear buds playing music, bottles strapped to belts, and so on. If those things work for them, great. But I like running with as little as possible between me and the breeze. In particular, I run without a watch or way to measure the time.
I mostly train by running at a pace that feels good, which usually means pushing myself moderately. My twenty-mile run a month or so ago had digital clocks showing the race time every mile, so I could pace myself easily, and I ran 8:00 miles for about the first fifteen miles and 8:15 average for the run. That slow-down at the end had me worried I might slow even more in the marathon. Twenty miles sounds like a lot but the marathon still has more than six miles after that. I’ve fallen apart and had to walk a lot in marathons in the last five miles, destroying my times.
Running for a good time over six hilly miles with no time piece presents some big challenges. I used a big clock at Columbus Circle to mark my start and end times, but I wouldn’t know my pace during the run until about mile 5.5, too late to make up more than a couple dozen seconds if I was behind. If you run too fast you can burn out and have to slow down a lot at the end. If you run too slow you’ll run a long distance without achieving your goal.
Most importantly, I wouldn’t know how fast I was running so I wouldn’t be able to pace myself or adjust. I wouldn’t know if I were running too fast or slow for forty-five minutes of pushing myself harder than I had in about a decade. I just have to run what feels about right. Only I haven’t run six 7:30 miles in a row in maybe ten years. It’s like being on a ship adrift at sea, only you’re running hard.
I started my run as the clock struck 12:16. That meant I had to cross that same line by 1:01.
Now I was adrift. I could only push myself harder than I had in years and hope I wasn’t pushing so hard I would burn myself out. Within a few hundred yards I was more out of breath than in any recent run, except when I would run fast to finish, when I didn’t have to save anything. Only this time I had to save for the remaining ninety-eight percent of the run.
In other words, this was a mental exercise as much as a physical one.
One thing I had going for me was that I got to pass everyone without fear of anyone passing me. Athletics means competition to me. I’ve found two definitions to the word compete. One is the one most people use disparagingly, usually by people who don’t understand competition, meaning to defeat an opponent. The other is the relevant one here, which means to improve yourself as much as you can. When people say so-and-so is a competitor, they usually mean that person trains with discipline and drive to explore their potential. I keep track of my speed relative to others in the second sense of competition, to help me reach my potential.
After a couple miles, I felt good but winded. My legs were far from giving out. What should I make of this feeling? Did feeling good mean I trained well? Or that I was taking it too easy and not running fast enough? If I finished in forty-seven minutes, though a fast time, it would leave me wanting. Who knows when I’d get to try again, since I would take weeks to recover from the marathon and the winter might make running optimally hard. Ten years after my last time running a lap in forty-five minutes, I might need every advantage I could get.
For that matter, Central Park was busy today. I kept having to weave around people. Each time I worried I might lose a second or two, or tire enough that I couldn’t make up time in the last half-mile. Sixty weaves might mean a minute lost, which could be significant.
Yet I kept feeling good. I couldn’t resolve whether I was running fast, slow, or what. All I could do was keep running, panting the whole time, hoping not too much nor too little.
You can’t help in a forty-five minute run thinking about a lot of things. Mostly you pay attention to your body to gauge your level of challenge, fatigue, pain, pleasure, and so on.
You also think about life, which today I saw as more like my run than I would have expected. I’ve chosen a lifestyle without the usual ways to pace it most people have. I haven’t worked 9–5 every weekday for a regular company since 2004, when I left a job and started racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt to pay for an Ivy League business school education, also taking out almost two years of salary. I had some savings from working at that company, but not that much. I had no other savings or income.
In the meantime I’ve started companies, worked at old companies I started, traveled the world including North Korea twice, swam across the Hudson, and started coaching and teaching leadership. I’ve had no financial safety net nor consistent measure of progress.
Since leaving graduate school, it seems, twenty years ago, except for those two years at my friend’s company (where I was working because the venture I started before had nearly failed), I’ve worked like I ran today, pushing hard but never knowing if I was pushing so hard I’d burn out before finishing or not hard enough, so I’d cross the finish line without achieving my goal.
Living with such uncertainty can be tough. It can be stressful to feel adrift with no land on the horizon. Or high up without a safety net. Lately I’ve made myself more visible with public speaking.
I found a way to create a sense of relief and confidence in situations like that. I think I run in part to find that confidence. With nothing external to guide you, you have to find it inside, or rather to create it.
Without a tool to pace myself today I told myself, as I often do, “My race.” I like to say that to myself. “My race” is reassuring. It builds confidence. It keeps me independent of others’ criticism. It makes me not worry about how I’ll finish. I’m not running for anyone else. I like having goals to challenge myself with, like to finish in forty-five minutes, but I’m running for myself, to enjoy the challenge, the feel of the outdoors, the exercise of my body, exploring uncharted territory, and so on. It’s my race. It’s my life. When I feel that way I can’t fail since just running is success, though I also have the discipline that I won’t let myself become complacent.
Saying “My race” to myself while running is like saying “My life” when leading or choosing to go your way. I guess I’ve lived like I run my race for about two decades now.
Around four-and-a-half miles a guy passed me. I had wished that wouldn’t happen. At first I let him get ahead since I thought I was running as fast as I could. After he got twenty or thirty yards ahead he stopped gaining ground. I don’t know if he slowed down, I sped up, or what. As we neared my finish I got closer to where I didn’t need to save anything. In the last half-mile, which starts uphill, then changes to downhill, and ends flat, I realized I could catch him and sped up a lot.
At the top of that hill, I could see the clock at Columbus Circle. I didn’t know how much time I’d take to finish from there, but the clock read 12:55 or 12:56, most likely meaning I had time to spare, but I was too tired and running too fast to do the calculations in my head. All I knew was I was ahead of pace, was closing in on a guy I was using to pace myself and run faster than I normally would, and had no reason to hold back.
If I pushed hard, I could catch the guy before finishing. I passed him with under a hundred yards to go. He did a friendly but odd thing as I passed. He said, “Ah, there you are,” in a comforting way. I couldn’t slow to talk to him, but nodded.
I crossed the start/finish line with the clock reading 12:57. Moments after stopping I looked up again to see it read 12:58, meaning I finished seconds under 42 minutes — under 7:00 per mile!
I may have never run a lap of Central Park that fast before, even ten or fifteen years younger.
I felt great. I gave that guy a high-five as he passed after I stopped. I wish I could have talked more with him.
I ran my race and I exceeded my expectations. I renewed my confidence to run “My race” going into the marathon two weeks away.
I renewed my confidence living “My life” without intending to. But since I live my life the way I ran my race, I’m confidence I’ll exceed my expectation in life the same as in competition.