My Existential Running Crisis


I ran a half marathon last weekend.

It was, I’m a little surprised to say, my first half marathon since October 2014.

I registered for the Beach & Bay Half way back in December because the early bird fee was relatively cheap. It was one of those “flat and fast” courses, along the Mission Beach boardwalk and around Mission Bay, and I thought, hey, maybe it’s time for a new PR. I had ordered a Compete training journal and I was making grand plans to get back into racing and reach a new level of strength and fitness in 2017.

I’m not entirely sure what’s been happening with my running this year. For the past few years, really. Oh, I’ve been running. I’ve even been running hard from time to time. I decided I wanted to get familiar enough with Mission Trails Regional Park that I could drive to any park trailhead and just start running and make up a route as I go and not get lost in the park.

(If you’ve ever been to Mission Trails beyond Cowles Mountain, you know that their trail maps and wayfinding signs are kind of a huge joke. I once mildly panicked when I got there to run 6 miles and realized my phone was already down to 20% because I rely heavily on my AllTrails app to keep me from getting hopelessly lost.)

And yet, it felt like my running/training wasn’t really building to anything. I’d have a great week where I nailed all my workouts and mileage goals and the next week I’d get out for three or four runs, maybe, and run barely 15 miles. I wasn’t building a strong base or tracking improvement or following any sort of structure. And then all of a sudden it was the beginning of April and I was like oh shit, that half is less than two months away and I haven’t run more than 8 miles at once all year.

Also on April 4th, I registered for Wharf to Wharf for the first time since 2012 and was a little surprised that I got in.

Suddenly, my focus flew from the half marathon to the end of July. To bagpipes and high school marching bands playing Jimmy Buffett songs. To six miles instead of 13. To a race with no expo whatsoever, one that mails bibs to all participants in advance and hands out cotton t-shirts to finishers after the race (one of the many things that make me roll my eyes is when race shirts that are handed out before the race say “FINISHER” on them. Like, there will be a handful of people who go to the expo but then don’t show up race day for whatever reason. Or will show up but won’t be able to actually finish the race. If you’re gonna wear a shirt that says “FINISHER” you should have actually finished).

I hadn’t even done any double-digit long runs and I was already resenting them. I wanted to run intervals and focus on speedwork, not slog along for 10-12 miles on a Sunday morning. I eyed my road shoes suspiciously and grinned when I laced up my trail shoes. I took Onyx on runs that were partly boulder-scrambling, jeopardizing my whole race with a potential sprained ankle or worse. I pushed my way through a couple “long” runs in late April/early May, but my heart wasn’t in them.

So I showed up at the start line Saturday morning feeling ambivalent. I didn’t want to just take it easy and phone it in, but I knew I wasn’t in shape to go for my original sub-1:45 goal. My options, as I saw them, were to start with the 1:45 pace group and see how long I could hold on, or to just run by feel and see what happened.

Now, I hate sounding like a bitchy buzzkill, but there’s a lot about road races today that just really don’t work for me. Mainly the whole “let’s make this a fun party!” atmosphere. I think it comes from running cross country and track in high school, where races were races, and I miss that. We didn’t care about getting PRs as much as beating someone from another school. We might be playing music on our own, but the people with the loudspeakers were yelling at us to line up because our heat was next, not exhorting us to “make some noise!” and “high-five the person next to you!”

I’m sorry, but 6:30 in the morning is just way too early to be that damn psyched about anything.

I found the 1:45 pacers and stood behind them, wishing—for literally the first time ever since moving here—the May Gray had stuck around a few more days. Corral 1 wasn’t too crowded and it seemed like, for once, people were respecting the corral system. My Garmin found a satellite almost immediately and finally we were off.

Almost immediately, I knew that 1:45 was nowhere near where I’d be finishing. The pace felt controlled but far from easy, and if I know one thing about distance pacing, it’s that the first couple miles should feel ridiculously slow because all the adrenaline and people around you can make a pace that’s 30 seconds per mile too fast feel like a breeze.

When I checked my watch, I was sort of encouraged but also annoyed to see that the pacers were holding at a 7:45 – 7:50 pace, not the 8:00/mile pace they should be at. Give it a few miles and see if they ease up, I told myself. Try to stay with them until mile 5 or so.

I started to drop back at mile 3. That was how long it took for us to get on the nice, flat boardwalk path—before then we were on roads, which I hate because the slight slant tends to jack up my hips or knee. I was irritated at the pacers and generally questioning all my life choices and settled in for a long run up the boardwalk with plenty of time to think.

(Side note: this was only the second time I’ve run with a pace group. The first time, in the Carlsbad Marathon in 2015, it was a fantastic experience not only because it’s so much easier to just follow someone and run without having to constantly check your pace, but also because the women leading that group talked to us, encouraged us, shared tips, and really showed that they cared about how we all finished. In this race, the pacers just ran together silently. If you’ve run with a lot of pace groups, or led them yourself, what tends to be normal? Does it just depend on the race or the pacers?)

I thought about what I want out of running, out of competing.

I thought about why I still feel this need to run road races and go after PRs, especially in half and full marathons, when I’m so much happier running trails and shorter races.

I thought about how truthfully, I’d rather be running around Lake Hodges or through Penasquitos Canyon or Rose Canyon with Onyx than up the boardwalk with thousands of other runners, most of whom with blaring headphones.

Was that just because I knew, once again, I hadn’t trained well enough to expect a “good” result? And why have I never truly had a “successful” training cycle for anything longer than a 10K? Is it because deep down, training and running that way isn’t what I really want? Why do I still want to race? Can I be happy and fulfilled as a runner without these benchmarks showing me how good I am at certain times? Would I be able to keep pushing myself to run faster and harder if I didn’t have a start line to get to? Or would I settle into week after 15-20 mile week of easy runs? Would it be so bad if I did?

I know I want to get stronger and faster and fitter. I want to lose a couple pounds and tone up some muscles, but more than that…I know I’m running out of time, fast, to reach my peak physical ability (at nearly 31, I’m probably already past that potential peak). But I still want to find out what I’m capable of. I feel like I haven’t really pushed myself physically since I tried desperately to PR in the mile when I was a senior in high school. I’ve kept running and I’ve kinda sorta stayed in shape, more or less, since then, but I’ve always felt like, if I really tried, if I gave it my all, if I really pushed myself, I could reach some higher level of strength and fitness.

Also, my goal is to still be out there running races in 60+ years, God willing, so I want to lay the groundwork now for a long and active life. No canes or walkers or nursing homes for me.

I know that I feel alive on trails and they serve me in a way that roads just don’t.

I know that while I hate the time leading up to speedwork, I love the feeling afterward. Even if the feeling afterward is almost throwing up and feeling slightly dizzy.

I know that as much as I prefer running to any other form of exercise, yoga and strength training need to be regular and significant parts of my fitness routine.

I know that I want to focus less on the longer distances and more on speed. I think the 10K might be my happy distance, the perfect combination of endurance and speed and guts. I know I would love to see a 5K PR that starts with 1 instead of 2, but that would most likely involve lots and lots of road racing instead of time on the dirt so maybe I’m more ehhh on that? We’ll see.

I don’t know how or when or where or what I want to race. I currently have about six tabs open to different races for later this year—all trail races (and one beach race on packed sand), none longer than 15K. When I got home on Saturday, I told husband, “don’t let me sign up for any more road races and no half or full marathons for at least a year.” I’ve got Wharf to Wharf and another half marathon next April (again, suckered in by the “cheap” early bird registration fee. And it’s in SLO, one of my happy places). I will add at least two more trail races this year.

When it comes to training, I’m trying to find some structure to my weeks, especially for the next two months leading to Wharf to Wharf, without going all in on a regimented training plan (which never works for me; I tend to rebel against prescribed tempo runs and long runs at precisely X pace).

I’m trying to get to at least two studio yoga classes each week and adding a couple home practice sessions.

I’m trying to find a simple yet effective strength training routine that I’ll actually do on a regular basis. I have a year subscription to Grokker because they had a 50%-off sale around Christmas and I’ve been trying different videos and instructors and series/challenges. My favorites so far, if you’re also on Grokker, are Kelly Lee’s HIIT Club series, but doing those every single day isn’t sustainable.

I’m trying to figure out what running and competing means to me and what goals will make me happiest and proudest to pursue. And I’m going to keep running while I figure that out.