Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Runner I'm Not

Why Do You RunRecently, one of my favorite Bay Area running stores, See Jane Run, has been posting real answers to the question "What do you run for?" on their Facebook page. The answers include things like...

  • "I run because I want to stay healthy for my 10 year old, my 20 year old, my 29 year old and of course my beautiful granddaughters. Because being over 50 is hard, and if you continue running, you'll not only be young at heart, you'll continue to add years to your life."
  • "I run to stay healthy, mentally and physically. I had a crazy year with lots of health issues and enough medical procedures to keep me doing my best to stay as healthy as possible without the doctor! Running helps me get there!"
  • "I run for that little bit of time that I take FOR ME, when I am not a mother, an employee or a wife. I am myself. I use it to clear my mind, cleanse my soul, and as I run toward my goal, I use it as a visual metaphor for my life."
  • "I run because I was always picked last in gym class. I run because I have never been considered athletic. I run because at 41, I no longer care what I look like doing it or how fast I do it. I only care that I do it. I run for me."

There are probably as many reasons for running as there are runners, and the vast, vast majority of them are all fantastic reasons, especially if they get us up and moving and accomplishing things. I always enjoy hearing deep, inspiring reasons like these that people have for beginning or continuing to run, because it's so clear that running has improved their quality of life and provided them with a way to feel strong and powerful. We all need something like that.

Part of the reason I hate discussing that question with people (the “why do you run” question), though, is that I just don't have anything deep and inspiring like that to say. I don't run for existential reasons. I don't have any moving quotes that will bring a tear to your eye. I don’t do it for fun or entertainment or even fitness (though that is admittedly a great bonus). Those are all the runners that I’m not (and likely never will be). Most of the time, I run because I’ve gotten in the habit of beating people, and the next time I race, I want to beat as many people as I possibly can.

I hope this doesn't make me a shallow person; for some reason it kind of seems like enjoying the big summer blockbuster more than the deep, thought-provoking indy film.
It is the truth, though. I started thinking about it while trying to choose a fall half marathon. I'd more or less settled on Clarksburg, but the US Half also looked awfully appealing, and Primo's Run still sounds like fun too. A runner friend of mine failed to see the trouble here.

"So run them all," she shrugged. I raised my eyebrows. "I don't mean like really run them all," she continued. "Run Clarksburg for real, and use the others as long runs. You know. Just run them for fun. Get the schwag."

And that's when it hit me, that that is precisely how she (and many other runners I know) differ from me. She can conceive of entering, paying for, and running a race just for the heck of it, just for the experience. I can't. It’s not that I don’t understand that plenty of runners run road races truly just for the experience and not to be competitive, even with themselves. For them, running a certain race is sort of like visiting an amusement park – sites, people-watching, a little adrenaline rush, but with the added bonus of knowing you did something active and healthy that day.

Again, I’m not knocking this – if it gets you out and moving, if you enjoy it and it makes you happy, then more power to you. It’s just not my thing. Running is not entertainment for me. When I look back on it now, I think this is why I wasn’t crazy about Rock N Roll San Jose. That race was more like an amusement park, geared towards folks mostly out to have fun and enjoy their Sunday (which is not to say that some of them aren’t very fast!). I, on the other hand, just wanted a certified time and a reasonable course.

For me, a race is a race and not anything else. If I want to go for a 13 mile "fun run," I can do that a lot closer to home for free. (Hell, at times, I do that most weekends.) What I’m paying for when I register for a road race is the privilege of running on a certified course with professional timing; if I don't run like I want to win, then I feel like I’m paying for a hunk of medal (good for me, I didn't get irreparably lost or forget to breathe) and a fancy shirt, and there are cheaper ways to get those things if that’s all you’re interested in.

I think about this sometimes when I meet or read about people who have become medal horses, running double-digit marathons and half marathons in a single year, just for the medals. I can’t say it doesn’t look impressive, all those boxes and shelves full of pretty glittering metal and festive-looking ribbon. But it does seem a little empty to me, because they are truly finisher’s medals. They can mean a lot, if you go into a race not entirely sure you’re going to finish. Once you’ve got a small museum going, though, what does racing for medals really mean anymore? If failing to complete the distance is no longer a concern, you’re basically just buying them.

I also like to think there’s something special about race day. It’s on the calendar for months; I plan and prepare for it, visualize how I’ll run it, rearrange parts of my life around it, and when it gets here and I’m standing on the starting line, I think my body knows where I am and what I’m about to do and what I have invested in this performance. I have a feeling that if those stimuli come around too often, it would cease to be as special and meaningful for me, and I also have a sneaking suspicion (though admittedly unfounded) that my body would stop responding with that extra little adrenaline rush that I get at the start of a race.

So I guess, for me, what it boils down to is quality over quantity. I think I’ll probably always opt for fewer races, in order to give each one the time and attention and first-rate effort it deserves. I’ll always opt for one really fast time in a season rather than four mediocre ones and a box of medals. I will never be the girl in the hot pink hoodie smiling broadly and throwing a thumbs up at the camera on the race course. I’ll never be part of the knot of chatting girlfriends jogging comfortably along. I’ll never be among the crowds rocking out to Blues Traveler (or whoever) at the post-race concert or posing heroically with my medal.

I’ll be the one lying awake the night before, running the course over and over again in my mind. I’ll be the one warming up alone a good mile away from the course, the one striding along on auto-pilot during the race with a zen-like look of utter concentration on my face and sprinting so hard for the finish that I’m not capable of standing or breathing properly for a good five minutes afterward. The one waiting quietly by myself for the official results, tossing my T-shirt and medal in the backseat, and driving away from the madness as quickly as possible. That’s the runner I am.

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