I started running three years ago, at the tender age of 25. Prior to this, I was a firm believer that running probably qualified as torture under most international treaties. Somewhere along the line, I decided that being able to run 5km was a “thing-that-I-ought-to-be-able-to-do,” and I hopped aboard the Couch-to-5k plan. It was a surprising success. I discovered that not only did I somehow enjoy running, I was actually kind of speedy. (I want to be clear, however, that I do NOT think being speedy is necessarily a “good” thing, or that being slow is a “bad” thing! It was just surprising to find that I was capable of running “fast” [which is itself a relative term!], when I had never before considered myself a runner, or even an athlete! Hmm, there might be fodder for another post in there…)
Anyways, 5km races led to 10km races which led to me running my first half marathon last May. It was the Toronto Women’s Half Marathon in Sunnybrook Park. I had trained well for it, and despite a huge hill at 17km, I finished with a time of 1:57:39, over two minutes under my goal time of 2 hours. Feeling confident after that race, I signed up for two more half marathons (within two weeks of each other!).
The first of those went well in some respects. I knocked two and a half minutes off my previous time. But the improvement came at a price: halfway through the race, I developed huge painful blisters on the sides of both my feet. I spent the last five kilometers stopping, talking to myself to in order to get myself running again, and gazing sadly at my GPS watch as my average pace got slower and slower. It was a very difficult race. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to dig deep and make the time that I did.
Two weeks was not enough time to recover (mentally, at least) from that experience. At the halfway point of the next race, I decided that I wasn’t yet ready for the pain that setting a new PR would entail. So I took it easy, and finished with a time eight minutes slower than the previous race.
This year, I signed up once again for the Toronto Women’s Half. I had lofty aspirations of smashing my previous PR, especially considering that this year there would be no giant hill at 17km. I found training plan and stuck to it as well as I could, confident that if I put in my miles, there was no way I could fail to get a new PR. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about running is that the progress, for me, has been so tangible. In general, the more I run, the faster I get, and the farther I can run.
In the spring, one of my very inspiring friends signed up for her first ultra-marathon (this woman is all kinds of amazing!), a 50km which also happened to be a trail race. Because I was going to cheer her on anyways, I decided at the last minute to sign up for the 15km distance. The race was called the “Seaton Soaker,” and it’s a fitting name: 2 km from the finish line (well, for the 15km and 25km runners – it’s the halfway point for the 50km runners) you have to cross a river! In your running shoes!
I approached that race differently than most races. It was a totally new experience. I hadn’t trained on trails before. Being just two weeks out from my goal race, I wasn’t really “racing” it. So I ran it with no goal time in mind, just happy to be out there supporting my friend and trying something new. I had a blast! Trail running is different in many ways from road running. There is more to think about, in terms of the terrain. At the same time, it’s somehow both relaxing and energizing to be running on a gorgeous day through trees and flowers and even rivers (which felt blessedly cool on the warm day). I came away from the race feeling refreshed.
Finally, race day arrived for the half marathon. Two of my friends also signed up for the race – and for both, it was going to be their first race of this distance. There was much to be excited about! I started out fast, after a less-than-graceful start wherein I ended up doubling back to make sure I had crossed the timing mats. It was already warm at 8am, and it was only getting hotter. With the long, cold winter we just had, I hadn’t been training in the heat. Naively, I thought that I could “bank” some time before it got even warmer. My 10km split was 51:43. If I had been able to keep that pace, I would have been on track for a sub-1:50 finish. Unfortunately, I started losing steam at kilometer 13. I could feel those big, ugly, painful blisters forming in the same spot as they had before. I was overheating. Everything hurt!
Maybe I was capable of pushing myself to a sub-1:55 finish, but that didn’t happen. I kept slowing down to walk, then convincing myself that “even running slowly is better than walking”. Finally, one second shy of 2:05, I crossed the finish line: a full ten minutes slower than my intended goal pace.
Although I was disappointed in my time, I still enjoyed the race, thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm of my friends who were running it for the first time. They both crossed the finish line with smiles on their faces. It’s impossible to feel anything but happiness when seeing that!
Now I’m sorting out my feelings about the race and thinking about what I want my relationship with running to be like in the future. Even though I am proud of myself for finishing the race, it still feels somehow like “failure”. It is strange to admit that, because even while I am disappointed in myself, I am legitimately proud and impressed by both of the friends who raced with me – one of whom ran a time that was extremely close to my own. Still, it’s disheartening to train for several months, only to fail to meet the goals that I set out for myself. I don’t want running to start to feel stressful in that way. So I think, for now – at least, for the rest of the year – I am going to take a break from running with goal times in mind, and instead focus on new experiences.
I will likely return to racing-for-personal-records. When I do, I know I need to train smarter. One thing I need to do is hit the weights. Strength conditioning was the one thing I neglected during my training this season, even though I know how important it is. I need to make time for it and commit to it.
After having such a great experience on my first trail race, I want to explore that community more. There is a 25km trail race in September which I am looking into. I’ve also signed up for my first triathlon (sprint distance) in July – I’m excited to have swimming and cycling in my schedule along with running! And finally, I have been toying with the idea of trying a full marathon. The idea terrifies me, but maybe that’s a good thing. And if I do it, it will be enough just to finish, no matter what the clock says.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.