I often think about possible blog topics during distance runs. Near the beginning of a recent run, I pondered what I wanted to write about next. I was doing an out-and-back run to a lighthouse near my parents’ summer cottage on Lake Erie.
I have done this run countless times. My tradition is to run right up to the lighthouse, touch it, and immediately turn around and run back home. Out-and-back runs can be tough, especially right after the turnaround point, knowing you still have half of the run still ahead of you. I could easily have stopped at the lighthouse, stretched, and taken a break on the beautiful, rocky waterfront. No one was there to judge me, or coach me, or tell me to keep going. Something inside me always tells me to keep going.
As fatigue set in on my way back from the lighthouse, I pondered this idea further.
How many times in my life have I ever stopped during a run? Very few.
I’ve had to stop at city intersections many times. I hate doing that. I prefer running in locations where I don’t have to wait for lights to change or traffic to clear. I’ve stopped a few times to go to the bathroom. That’s simply annoying. I stopped one time during a fartlek run because I took the beginning of the workout too fast, and I started to cramp up. I had to stop and stretch for a few minutes. I’ve stopped maybe two or three times during summer runs when I felt overheated. I recall a time in high school when I had a really intense charlie horse in my calf during a cool-down following an interval workout. I vividly remember falling on the track, yelping from the intense pain of my cramping gastrocnemius. Sometimes when I run during my team’s practices I have to stop if coaching is involved. My athletes come before my running. I’m sure there are a few other times I have stopped for various reasons, but the number of times I have stopped are few.
Does this make me a freak?
I wonder why I have to scold my athletes all the time for walking during distance runs, but I’ve barely walked in all my years of running. Of course I think about how good it would feel to stop for a few moments when I am really hurting during a hard run. I guess I can compare giving in to the temptation of walking to eating candy. For a few moments, it makes you feel great. Almost euphoric. Then afterwards, I think to myself, “Why did I just eat that entire pack of Starbursts in a matter of minutes?” Then the guilt sets in. If I allowed myself to walk whenever I felt tired, I would never improve. I wouldn’t have the mental strength it takes to get through those long runs and those tough races. Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at dealing with the discomfort of longer runs, and I attribute that to not giving in to the fatigue and not indulging in walking every time I wanted to stop. Those moments are fleeting. And when the moment passes, I am so thankful I didn’t give in. I feel proud that I pushed through it.
I hate stopping in the middle of a run for various reasons. First of all, I lose my rhythm. Once I get into a groove, I don’t want to stop. I get my running mojo going, and my pace stays pretty consistent. If I am in the middle of a good run and have to stop at a light, I lose focus. Second, my muscles tend to tighten up when I stop. I am more aware of the lactic acid and fatigue in my muscles. Sometimes I’ll even cramp up waiting for that green light-up guy to appear on the cross walk. Third, I feel like I have cheated myself out of an opportunity to get physically and mentally stronger. Maybe it is my ego or pride talking, but I want to make the most out of every training run. That includes dealing with the fatigue, and not ever giving myself an out when I get tired. I want to keep my heart rate up the entire run and make my cardiovascular system as strong as possible. I think the mental edge is sometimes even more important than the physical benefit of running the entire time.
I’m not saying walking is bad for runners. The Jeff Galloway run-walk-run training system has been around since the 1970’s, and many people swear by it, especially those new to distance running or new to marathon training. There are occasions when my own athletes walk. For example, my new cross country athletes often do a run-walk-run strategy if they have difficulty running the entire distance during the first 2-3 weeks of their training. This gives them time to adapt to a new physical activity. Sometimes my athletes do a combination walk-jog recovery on interval workouts. But on longer distance runs, I expect my experienced athletes to run the entire time, whether they are running recovery, tempo, or quality pace. The most important reason for doing this is improving with mental toughness.
Obviously there are times when I stop: heart rate is too high, acute pain, muscle cramps, overheating, dehydration, and restroom emergencies. I know my limits, and of course I stop if I need to. But other than these extenuating circumstances, I will keep going.
I like the personal challenge of covering the distance without stopping. Maybe I am a freak, but I’ve made a pact with myself that I will keep going. I will keep that promise as long as I’m able to run. The small victory of completing a run without stopping is sweeter than any candy.