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Running does not have to be an achievement journey (Guest post)

by Stacey Ritz

If you had told me one year ago that I would run a 5K race this summer, I would have laughed in your face. But on Saturday, I ran the Burlington Butter Tart 5K.

Got my race bib on, waiting by the lake for the start.
(alt-text: a woman wearing a blue hat and a black “Slow AF Run Club” tank top with a red numbered running bib pinned to it, with Lake Ontario in the background)

I have never been a natural athlete. As a kid, I remember resenting the Canada Fitness Award Program, where I don’t think I was ever able to meet the Bronze standard for anything; in fact, the Program was discontinued in 1992 because it was viewed as “discouraging to those who needed the most encouragement,” which reflects my experience of it to a tee. The worst part was when we’d be sent outside to run a lap around the school perimeter. I always seemed to get a stitch in my side, and was always one of the very slowest ones (and sometimes dead last). All of my memories about running as a kid involve shame, embarrassment, physical discomfort, and envy of the kids who seemed to lope effortlessly around the school.

I tried running again during grad school, when many people in my lab were running. I found a training plan in a magazine for non-runners to get to a 30-minute sustained run in 10 weeks and decided to give it a try, absolutely determined that I would not quit before completing the plan. My friends assured me that by then I’d love it, but that didn’t happen. In week 10 I went out 3 times and ran for 30m as scheduled, but hated every bloody second of it, and I got home, took my running shoes off, and never put them on again. I figured I had given running a fair shot, and it just wasn’t for me.

So what on earth made me take it up again 25 years later? In early October 2022, I met a friend for dinner at a conference, and she told me that she had recently started running using the Peloton app, and was really loving it. Now, my sisters-in-law had been singing the praises of the Peloton app for quite some time, but they are both exercise lovers by nature, so their endorsement didn’t do much to convince me. But when my friend told me that she, too, had previously hated running, and using the Peloton app and springing for a good pair of running shoes had changed her mind, I decided to give it a try. She sent me a 60-day free trial for the app, and I went home and I bought a pair of Hoka running shoes.

I started by going out once a week, Saturday mornings, using the Peloton Outdoor walk/run workouts. I think part of my ultimate success was the pure dumb luck of having selected exactly the right workout for someone who was a true beginner. One of the things I find frustrating about the Peloton app is that it doesn’t provide much info about the detailed structure of their outdoor running workouts, so I was fortunate to have chosen one that had short running intervals (30 to 60s) separated by a couple of minutes walking. If I had chosen one marked “beginner” that had 3- or 4-minute running intervals, I think I likely would have quit; it was a few months before I could sustain 3 minutes of slow running comfortably.

By February, I had been going out consistently every week, and one day, to my great surprise, I discovered I was actually looking forward to my next run. In March, once the days had started to get longer and it was still light out when I got home from work, I started going out a couple of additional times on weeknights as well. In April, I happened across an advertisement for the Burlington Butter Tart 5K (where you get a butter tart at the end), and the idea amused me so much that I signed up for it.

Running this time around has been an interesting and thought-provoking journey for me. I had a particularly significant a-ha moment in February when I was out for a run and thought “I wonder how long it will be before I can just run continuously without taking walking breaks,” and then, my next thought: “it literally doesn’t matter if I never get any better at this. Even if I do walk/run intervals forever, even if I don’t extend the length of my running intervals, even if I never get any faster, it doesn’t matter at all.” That was an utterly transformative moment for me, and I’m still feeling the reverberations of it.

We are often such an achievement-oriented culture that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that we have to always be moving toward a goal of some kind to make our efforts worthwhile: to run faster, run longer, lose weight, whatever the achievement is that is supposed to motivate us. For me, rejecting that achievement mindset was paradoxically motivating: just getting out there and moving at any pace is worthwhile. I like the way I feel after a run; although I’ve never experienced the classic ‘runner’s high’ (even many elite athletes don’t, and there may even be a link between depression and not getting a runner’s high), I do get a diffuse sensation of a sort of spaciousness in my body for up to a day or so afterward that feels really good.  I also enjoy the little ritual I’ve built around my runs. And I feel positive about making a good investment in my health: I don’t give a rat’s ass about losing weight anymore, but I know that building stronger bones and muscles will be a valuable asset to me as I age (I turn 50 next year).One of the things that was helpful to me was following some non-archetypal runners on Instagram (I’m a particularly big fan of Sandra at @bigfit_i_run and Martinus at @300poundsandrunning), who helped affirm that there is nothing wrong with being a slow runner, and that running with walking breaks (also sometimes called jeffing) is a totally legit way of being a runner. In fact, a growing amount of research shows that running slower has some specific benefits that aren’t associated with more intense workouts.

During the race on Saturday, I completed most of it by alternating between 90s of slow running and 30s of walking. I can run for longer intervals than that now, but I tend to run a lot more slowly when I’m tackling longer stretches, so that 90s/30s strategy actually improves my overall pace. However, when I came around the final corner and could see the balloon arch finishing line in the distance, I pushed myself to run as hard as I could for the last 600m or so. In my head I felt like Usain Bolt, but the video my son took proves that I was really moving at what can only be generously called a hurried jog. I finished the race in 42m 53s. There are plenty of people who would not be even remotely impressed with that time (the winner of the race finished in 16m and change), but I didn’t do it to impress anyone.

Although I’m glad to have done it, I don’t think I’m going to run another 5K any time soon. One of the things I realized while preparing for this 5K race was that I don’t actually like running for more than 25 or 30 minutes at a stretch; I persisted with the 5K distance because I was determined not to back out of the race, but now that it’s done, I think I’ll go back to doing 20 or 30 minute outings. I also found that when I was preparing for this specific event, I tended to slip back into the goal-oriented mindset (maybe I can finish in under 40 minutes, if I train more maybe I can do the whole thing without taking any walking breaks) that my February insight had helped me escape from. Now that the race is done, I’m really looking forward to going back to that headspace where getting ‘better’ doesn’t matter.

Crossing the finish line at the Burlington Butter Tart 5K. In my head, I felt like I was sprinting at top speed, but video footage proves that it is more of a sort-of-hurried jog.

(alt-text: 4 runners approaching the finish line of a race, marked by a yellow, beige and brown balloon arch. 3 of the runners are blurred out to protect their privacy; the author is wearing black shorts, a black “Slow AF Run Club” tank top, and a blue hat.)

Stacey Ritz is a faculty member at McMaster University in Hamilton, crossword fan, and is a strong contender as the Canadian record-holder for most repeated viewings of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

post-5K.jpg:  Sinking my teeth into the race’s namesake after the finish.
(alt-text: a woman wearing a blue hat taking the first bite of a butter tart)

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