On Slowing Down

This is not a post railing against the fast-paced and out-of-control world we live in, railing against everyone always on phones or obsessing over glowing rectangles. (Although goodness knows I love Neil Postman.) It is, rather, about my efforts learning to run more slowly to get myself faster.

I didn’t really enjoy running until I started dating, got engaged to, and eventually married, a runner. Living in Portland, Oregon, where I could run outside all year round surely increased my love for the activity.

But it hasn’t been until this year that I started learning how to run at different paces. Prior to this year, I would normally run at whatever pace, not considering it much (except running faster, and certainly never to run at a slower pace). To my uninformed and immature running brain, running slowly on purpose was a silly idea. And certainly, the idea that I could use slow runs to improve my speed (for races) felt counterintuitive at best, absurd at worst.

Yet, in January when I began training for a 10-K (my first race in nearly 6 years), I decided to “try” what the training plan referred to as “easy runs.” The explanation said that I needed to be able to speak in full sentences. Because I always run by myself, I had no idea what this would mean for me once I tried it. At first, it felt to my body as though I might as well have walked instead. How could this be running? It felt as though I were cheating somehow, in some way.

I’m six months into learning how to run “easy” (defined for me as close to 11:00/mile pace). Now I’m starting to believe in and experience the main reason for doing slow runs: to give my body a rest from and to prepare for harder workouts that I still enjoy more. Those 20-minute tempo runs (at race pace). Those 1/4 mile repeats (sometimes 6, sometimes 8) alternating running 1/4 mile with jogging a 1/4 mile.

I should mention that around that same time I started running slowly, I also decided to stop wearing my ear buds. Partly for safety, partly for something different. I still play music softly on my my iPhone speaker, listening to my go-to background ambient music, Hammock, on shuffle while the MapMyRun informs me every 1/4 mile of my overall pace, which on the “easy” days I try to sustain at that 11:00/mile pace.

It’s a learning process. But I am noticing more around me. Hearing more around me. So many birds singing, squawking, yammering. And I’m at a better pace to take it all in.

On Running

From 7th-10th grade, I ran the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races in track because the other two spring sports (golf and baseball) were beyond my ability. Which is not to say that I was a good runner those four years. Rather, I was average or below average. I never placed in junior-high meets. And in 9th and 10th grade, I earned a “point” maybe once or twice. I improved enough by my sophomore year–getting a 5:20 in the 1,600 meter–to earn the “Most-Improved Runner” trophy. Because I loved running so much, I didn’t even sign up for track my junior and senior years. During my track years, I never ran on the weekends, never ran in the summer. I ran at practice; I ran at meets. That was more than enough for me.

In college, I tried running a few times but never succeeded more than a time or two before giving up on any kind of regimen. If I were going to exercise, it was always, always, always basketball. Then two weeks left in my senior year, I started dating Amy (a girl who in junior high and high school ran both track and cross country). We started running together. (I couldn’t keep up with her.) A few months into our relationship, we trained for a 10-k and ran it together.

Two years later we were married, and in that time I began running more regularly. I was in my M.F.A. program and running offset the amount of time I spent reading and writing. This timespan was when my love for running developed, the physical activity (mostly on a treadmill because this was in Northwestern Minnesota) a way of enduring the weather.

Later still, we ran another 10-k in Astoria, Oregon, a year later ran in the Hood-to-Coast relay (the world’s largest relay race), and a year after that, ran the Portland marathon together. I wanted to run another marathon after that; Amy didn’t. So I did run two more marathons: Omaha, Nebraska, and Brookings, South Dakota.

I love running now. Why? It’s solitary. My mind can wander. I can work through a poem, a story, an essay. I can plan a class session. I can pray.

Why? I’m only competing against myself. It’s efficient calorie-burning.

Why? As with writing and teaching, when I’m running, I feel as though I’m doing what I’m called to do, grateful for the movement. Even though I will earn no “points.” Even though I will earn no “prizes” (only the finisher’s medals and shirts).

Why? There is a joy and delight that I cannot experience in any other way.

Those are reasons why my ideal day begins with a run.