Reflecting on runs has become an at-least semi-annual tradition here for me. For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to run two half-marathons a year and the effort has been fruitful for me physically, mentally and spiritually – even as challenging as the races may be.
This fall I tried something a little different: not a half-marathon (13.1 miles) but a 15k (9.3 miles) trail run around a lake just miles north of my home in Mandan, ND. As has been the case for the last three consecutive runs in a row, my friend (and Taryn’s husband) Paul and his brother Patrick joined me. My wife Maggie also ran the race, feeling more inclined to do only 9.3 miles as opposed to joining me on 13.1 mile run.
Two weeks before the run, Maggie and I went for a 7 mile training run at the lake. As it has done many times before, the trail got the best of me that day. I’m used to training on a bike path or city streets, even ones with hills and valleys (yes, hills do exist in West Dakota). On road races you typically have a wide path, you can see for a while where you’re going, you can lose yourself in conversation, music, the crowds, you can get in your stride, zone out and just keep going.
When you’re on a single-track bike/hiking trail, things change. Up and down multiple hills, hairpin curves, with tree branches to dodge, roots to trip on and rocks to slip on, it becomes a much more demanding run. Your ankles and core need to stabilize your body, you’re constantly adjusting your stride for the down-hills (which are never long enough) and up-hills (which are always too long), your mind needs to continually and quickly process what its seeing ahead of you and translate that into sure footing and one of the worst mistakes you can make is looking too far ahead on the trail. Not only do you lose focus on the next step, which may result in a trip and fall, but you deceive yourself into how far you’ve come and how far you need to go yet. On the training run that day with my wife, I made all those mistakes and made it back to our van aching, pessimistic, and discouraged.
So for last week’s run, I resolved to not get too far ahead of myself, to enter into the moment and take each stride as exactly that: each stride. I had a goal to achieve, but I knew there’d be challenges along the way that needed to be overcome. It was a lot like the spiritual life: sometimes we get focused on some other great goal out there, in the distance, that we lose focus of the present. Sometimes I’ve found myself pondering something or working toward something truly good, but to the neglect of the things I ought to be doing, right now. When I make an idol out of the goal, I lose focus and stand a good chance of tripping or getting discouraged when I’m not getting there quickly enough for my liking. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals, but to keep them in perspective.
I focused on the trail for pretty much the whole run. Close to the end, I allowed myself a sneak peek towards the finish line. I saw that Paul (he took first in the men’s 39&under division) had just finished and I put a fist in the air and he acknowledged from across the valley with a wave back. A couple minutes later I rounded another bend and heard him and Patrick (2nd place, men’s 39U) shouting encouragement to me, a minute or two later I was running past them and Paul said, “pick it up, finish hard!” Patrick said, “you got this, its right around the bend.” I thought there was no way, but sure enough rounded the bend and saw the end within sprinting distance. I picked up my pace and finished the hardest I think I’ve finished any of my handful of races, also in what I felt was a great time. My wife finished a few minutes (2nd place, women’s 39U) behind me and Paul and Patrick joined us near the finish.
In some ways, the end came too soon. Engrossed with the next step the whole time I didn’t realize how close I was when I took that peek toward the finish line and perhaps that would have inspired me to push even harder and earlier toward the finish line. In other ways, my ankles and feet were certainly feeling the abuse of the trail and were relieved to be done.
Nonetheless, Paul and I visited about how good the run went and he mentioned, “I feel like I probably could have…” and he trailed off, looking back across the lake where we could see little dots signifying runners competing in the Half and Full marathons on different parts of the trail.
“Done the half?” I asked.
“Yeah, 13 would’ve been good” he replied.
I looked back, and thought of the trail, the hills, the roots, the rocks, and the effort, and I couldn’t help but agree.
Even a good run leaves room for improvement – but especially after finishing a good run, you keep coming back for more.