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Maybe it just feels good to keep it interesting by running like a maniac every once in a while? (Illustration: Brendan Leonard)
Semi-Rad

Running Is a Metaphor. Until You Hurt Your Foot.

I am pretty sure no runner who has consistently won races approaches their training in this way

timeline illustration from left: Goof off, suddenly decide to try hard, try hard
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One day a while back, I was out on a run, thinking about nothing in particular, just enjoying moving through the world, looking at trees, getting my heart rate up a little bit, and I decided I was going to try to run the final mile in less than 7 minutes and 30 seconds.

I know, this isn’t particularly fast, but it’s quite a bit faster than my usual running pace, and when that last mile crosses approximately 18 streets, one of which is very busy at rush hour and pretty much impossible to cross, it’s a bit more difficult to clock a fast mile. It is, however, easy to look like a maniac, zigzagging across streets and frantically running weird patterns around city blocks while commuters sit in their cars and hopefully don’t notice me.

I cut corners on turns, suddenly changed direction if there was any chance I would have to wait for a car to cross in front of me, legged out way longer strides than usual and way more quickly, panted heavily, looked more like someone running from the police than someone running to catch a bus, and wondered if I might injure myself with this effort. The next day, I had a new, weird pain in one of my feet, which turned out, in fact, to be a minor injury. So I had to ask myself: was it worth it, obtaining the glory of one “fast” mile after running five or so not-that-fast miles?

I mean, I guess “glory” might be kind of a strong word for the feeling of looking at my Strava later and seeing that I did attain a completely arbitrary goal I just made up near the end of my run. Maybe “kind of fun” would be more accurate than, say, “glorious.” So, yeah, it was kind of fun. But then my foot hurt, so it was also not that smart.

This is not the first time I’ve done something like this. I did it at the end of a 100-kilometer race last fall, frantically charging uphill like I was on my way to defuse a ticking time bomb, running the final mile in just under ten minutes after running the previous 60-ish miles in 12 hours and 50 minutes, some of that time basically lollygagging, in comparison.

I did it one time on the bike path near my parents’ house in Iowa, deciding two miles into a run that it was the perfect occasion to try to run my fastest 10K on Strava. At the end, I sprinted past their house, arms and legs pumping, glancing at my watch every couple seconds to see the exact moment when it ticked 6.2 miles, at which point I squeezed the button to stop it, sure I had just beaten my record. And then my watch did that thing where it rounds down .01 miles when it uploads to Strava, so I did not beat my personal 10K record. If Strava logged your fastest time running 6.19 miles, or 9.96 kilometers, I think I would have nailed it.

If I were to create a metaphorical timeline depicting my thinking using two movie references from the late 1990s, it might look like this:

timeline illustration from left: The Big Lebowski, Prefontaine
(Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

I am pretty sure no runner who has consistently won races approaches their training in this way. I myself embrace less of a competitive philosophy when it comes to running—or maybe “focused” is a better word. Actually, “unambitious” is probably the most accurate. Maybe this quote from Kurt Vonnegut sums it up best:

“Let me tell you: we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody ever tell you any different.” —Kurt Vonnegut, speaking at Case Western Reserve University, February 2, 2004

I don’t have an explanation for why I do this—or maybe why “we” do this, if other people do it? I don’t know where it comes from, this sudden surge of motivation to start trying a little harder for absolutely no reason. And even when I’m doing it, half the time I’m telling myself, “This is dumb.”

I don’t know if running is some sort of metaphor for life/the human struggle/another week of “I just need to get through this week.” But if it is, maybe it just feels good to keep it interesting by running like a maniac every once in a while? As long as no one gets hurt, including me.

Brendan Leonard’s new book, Have Fun Out There or Not: The Semi-Rad Running Essays, is available now.

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