Taking Running Seriously Again

Renewing my commitment to suffering

I’ve gotten back to running lately. In this post, I’ll explore my past experiences and figure out where I’m going.

The Past

Sometime in 2014, probably around April, I was gifted a few pairs of running shoes, and I figured that I should put them to good use. I still vaguely remember my first few runs in those shoes: like countless others, I ran way too fast and felt the consequences. Regardless, something clicked and running became something special to me. I started using the Nike+ running app which acted as a GPS tracker, followed one of its training plans, and saw lots of progress. Running was addicting!

Eventually, I bought a basic GPS running watch so that I could run without my phone, and started tracking my workouts on Strava. Here’s the first activity I have on record.

You can’t see my pace above, but I literally gasped when I saw this tonight—I was running 7:10 miles 6 years ago as a beginner. I’ll admit that this is a pretty short run, but I’m surprised regardless.

A month and a half later, I ran a sub-2 hour half marathon on vacation in Mexico.

Fun fact: I got super lost on this run! Had I known where I was going, my time might have been even better. Before I pulled off that spontaneous half, my goal had been to run the half marathon at the Manitoba Marathon 6 months later. But with that milestone already hit, I did the next logical thing: the full marathon.

My first marathon remains one of the proudest accomplishments of my life so far. Not just because I finished, or got a time that I was pleased with, but because I worked my ass off for it. In the four months that led up to that race, I completed 69 training runs, including a 1:40 half marathon that I’ve not beat since. I remember waking up early just about every morning to run around the same country blocks, down the same mind-numbing gravel roads, over and over—there’s really not much variety in Anola. I can say with utter certainty that since then, I have never come close to that level of dedication and discipline for anything.

After that marathon, I lowered my mileage significantly, mostly just running for fun now and then. School was starting to get more demanding, so I had less time on my hands. At the beginning of 2016, I decided that it was time to get back into shape for that year’s Manitoba Marathon in June. I piled on mileage way too fast, and promptly injured myself. I don’t remember exactly what my injury was, but it caused a lot of pain in the arch of my right foot and from what I remember of my research at the time, the best cure was to stop running for a while. So I abandoned my 2016 marathon goal and laid low some more. I tried to run now and then to see if things had improved, but they hadn’t.

That slump lasted until about the end of summer, when I started to run casually again with minimal pain. Around November, I decided that I wanted to run an ultramarathon, and signed up for the 100K race of the 2017 Spruce Woods Ultra, set for May. From November to January I trained like crazy in the cold and snow, running 40-50 miles per week. By February, I was feeling burnt out, all but stopped training, and changed my registration from 100K to 50K. Near the end of March, I realized that I needed to get my shit together and pulled off a monster 60 mile week. At that point, I think I came to the conclusion that I only needed to maintain the fitness I already had to put in a decent race, so I trained pretty casually from then until race day.

I accomplished both of my goals: finish the race, and run 50K in less than 6 hours. Unfortunately, the course was long and my actual finish time was 10 minutes over, but I choose to ignore that.

Not long after I finished that race, I realized that the 2017 Manitoba Marathon was just a month away, and I figured that I should be able to put in a decent performance after having finished a more challenging race. I only did a handful of runs in the month leading up, as I’d basically decided to coast on my existing fitness and run the marathon mostly for fun.

I actually did a lot better than I thought I would! I was really close to beating my 2015 time, but I hit a wall at mile 24 and wasn’t able to hold on to my pace. Despite that, I was pretty satisfied since I hadn’t trained with any consistency.

Everything went downhill from there.

School got really demanding, and no matter how many times I tried to get back into a running routine, it just never happened. There was a handful of runs during university terms, another handful around Cambridge during an internship in the UK, a month-long stint of run-commuting during an internship downtown, but nothing serious. One of my runs in April 2018 is titled “Time to get back into marathon shape!", but that never happened. That run was during exam season, which was immediately followed by a really busy internship, so I feel at least partially justified in my laziness. At the very least, in this roughly 2-year-long period, I rode my bike a fair bit and played soccer, so I wasn’t totally out of shape—just mostly.

At some point, I made all my runs private on Strava, meaning no one could see my activities. I did this for mostly the same reason that I don’t have Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. accounts: to break out of the serotonin-seeking feedback loop that comes from people sending you “likes” (in Strava’s case, “kudos”). But at the same time, I just didn’t want people to see how little I was running. In retrospect, this was definitely a mistake, since participating in Strava’s social network is actually a decent motivator, as is seeing your data nicely analyzed.

Shortly after I finished university, I moved to Bangkok where I tried to run now and then, but running in Bangkok really sucks unless you live near a park and can run in the morning, which I did not and could not (unless I wanted to wake up before sunrise). And so my sedentariness continued until I returned home.

The point of this post is not to boast my accomplishments or lament my decline; I think that looking back is important to figure out how I got to where I am now.

The Present

Now I’m home, out of school, and employed remotely with no commute and no set work hours. I’m all out of excuses! So I’ve decided that it’s time to take running seriously again.

When I came home at the end of March, I ran casually, feeling things out to slowly get myself back into shape and rediscover my love of running. I didn’t even wear my watch because I didn’t want to see how slowly I was moving. Fast forward a few months, and I’ve just wrapped up a 43 mile week with a 17.5 mile long run!

To be fair, I hit a wall around mile 14 after I climbed some sandy hills along the river and had to walk quite a bit from then on, but I’m no less proud of this entire week.

I still have a lot of work to do before I’m able to comfortably run the distances I used to be capable of, but I’m on the right track. Speed is another matter—I’m a fair bit slower than I used to be—but I’m quite confident that I’ll get it back if I stay consistent. After all, I never trained specifically to get faster in the past, I just ran a lot.

The Future

While it’s great that running has regained its novelty for me, I recognize that novelty, by definition, doesn’t last. So it’s important to find other ways of motivating myself! Obviously, enjoying the action of running is decent motivation, but I can’t pretend to enjoy every run. Now and then, I spend hours in a cave of self-pity, cursing the weather, wondering why my legs hurt so much, and wishing I was back home.

The next most obvious form of motivation is racing. It’s never been something I paid much attention to, to this day I’ve only entered 4 races. But races provide both something to look forward to and something to push yourself for. No matter how much you enjoy running, it’s hard to get over a plateau if you have no reason to get better. So when they stop being canceled all the time, I plan on entering some shorter races now and then to keep myself striving to improve.

Another great form of motivation is, as I alluded to earlier, Strava! I’m back to sharing my runs, and I look forward to seeing my mileage and pace trend upwards (hopefully without a steep drop indicative of an overtraining injury). It’s also nice to see what other people are up to, and while comparing yourself to others on social media tends to be damaging, I love seeing people post insanely long and fast runs—it makes me think “one day I’ll do that, too”.

And just in case that still isn’t enough motivation, let’s set some goals! I’ve come up with some short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals, although the further-out ones are really just spitballing. Hopefully one day I’ll look back at this and laugh at how pessimistic I was.

Within 3 Months

These goals don’t require much specific training, I basically just need to keep running for the next couple of months.

  • Run 24 miles on my 24th birthday. That’s in just over a month, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic considering that I covered almost 18 today. Even if I were to stay at that distance for the next 4 weeks, I think that would put me in a good place to do 24. Maybe I can make this a yearly thing—there are tons of old people running ultras, so it ought to be doable as long as I don’t live too long (in fact, this might just assure that I don’t).
  • Run a marathon in October. That’s when the rescheduled Manitoba Marathon is set to happen, but even if it’s canceled I still want to run the distance. If I can do 24 miles a month prior, this shouldn’t be pushing it too hard.

Within 2 Years

These ones are mostly about getting fast enough that I can stop being jealous of my 2015 self, but not so fast that I’ll need to commit to tons of speed work.

  • Run an 18 minute 5K. This is a minute faster than my PR from 2015, but that was indoors so it’s probably faster than what I was actually capable of at the time. Besides that run, I’ve never really tried to achieve a good 5K time. I’m setting the bar somewhat high considering that I don’t have much interest in training for such a short distance, but I think the speed should come naturally as I pile on mileage.
  • Run a 40 minute 10K. My fastest 10K is 46:26… as part of my 1:39 half marathon PR. So I feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement here. Similar to the 5K goal, I don’t want to focus on this distance too much, I’m hoping that the fitness will come with mileage.
  • Run a 1:30 half marathon. This one is pretty lofty given the time frame, but I don’t think it’s totally unrealistic given my existing half marathon PR. We’ll call it a stretch goal.

Within My Lifetime

These are both extremely tough, but they are, in my opinion, the two achievements that let you say you’ve “made it” as an amateur marathoner/ultramarathoner.

  • Run a 100 mile ultra. The 100 mile race is more or less the holy grail of ultra running. There exist plenty of even crazier races, but they’re pretty niche. I’m not formally including it in the goal, but I’d like to do it in less than 24 hours.
  • Run a 3 hour marathon. Really, I just want to run in iconic races like Boston, London, etc., but I have to qualify first. I anticipate that this will be the hardest goal of all to hit; a 3 hour marathon requires a 6:52/mile average pace. It’s hard to explain how crazy that is, the only runs of mine that I can think of faster than that are my 1 mile and 5K PRs. It’s also the same pace as my half marathon goal, but with twice the distance.

Hopefully, these goals can keep me striving towards something for the foreseeable future.

In summary, I’m glad that I’ve rediscovered the passion that I had when I first started running, and I hope that I’ll soon rediscover the fitness that I had at that time, too.