A race is by definition competitive. But the millions of people who enter weekend running races around the world are not competitive runners. And that can set up many of us for disappointment.
You name the distance -- 5k, 10k, 10-mile, half-marathon or marathon. It's the same. The first time we run to see if we can do it. After that, most of us run to see if we can do it faster.
We know we won't finish with the true race leaders. No matter. We might do well measured against our age-group peers. Or, perhaps even more attainable, we can choose to compete against ourselves and maybe notch a PR.
Ah, the wonderful personal record -- sometimes known as a PB or personal best. It usually represents an individual's fastest time in a particular race or over a particular distance. A personal record seems like such a great idea. If you can't beat other people, at least you can beat yourself.
And it is fun. As long as you keep achieving new PRs. The first time you fail to do it, however, there can be a sense of defeat.
Yes, you just ran for almost two hours, covering the once truly-impressive distance of 13.1 miles, but since you were two minutes slower than your best time, it can feel like failure.
All of which leads me to a story of an epiphany I had while running the Carlsbad Half-Marathon last month under uncharacteristically-leaden skies. (Carlsbad's just north of San Diego.)
My legs, feeling remarkably unleaden, managed to keep me with my target group (pacing for a 1:45 finish) over the first seven miles. Todd, my cheerful pacer, effortlessly lead a group of about 20 of us.
But at mile eight, I started to fall behind. Todd urged me to stay with him and not to "fall too far back." Another runner told me if I hadn't been singing -- "Love is but a song we sing / Fear's the way we die" -- earlier in the race, I wouldn't be breathing so hard now. (Confession: I tend to goof around a bit on the course. Running by spectators and shouting "More cow bell!" is a favorite silly behavior.)
Oh, I wanted to keep up with my pace group. A time of 1:45 was my goal (though even that would not have been a PR). Still, I could feel my legs growing as heavy as the skies.
So I let it go. I eased off the pace. Got my breathing back under control. And the epiphany struck: I don't need to run at any particular pace or register any particular time. All I need to do is run at the speed of fun.
The idea was so good I said it again as I covered the Carlsbad waterfront: Run at the speed of fun. It sounded as good as it felt.
But for me, the new idea did not mean slowing to a snail's pace. I like running hard. I like doing my best. I take inspiration from Rene Descartes and declare proudly, "I sweat, therefore I am."
So I still pushed it coming home -- knowing I would be slower than my goal, but still enjoying the race as much as possible.
That's the secret of the idea. Running at the speed of fun is completely relative. Each runner gets to define "fun" for him or herself.
When we tailor fun to our own sensibilities, enjoyment is suddenly easy. And always within reach. Whether we notch a PR or not.
The official photographers for the race democratically churned out sweaty portraits of almost all 7,000 runners. In one of those photos, I am running about mile six and smiling broadly. Next to me, a younger guy runs with a yellow headband, black glasses and a no-moustache beard. He looks stern and focused. He also looks like he is not running at the speed of fun.
(For the record, he kicked my butt in the race -- so far ahead of me, I didn't see him cross the finish line.)
Anyway, I looked at the photo and I had another thought: We all should seek to notch PFRs in every race we enter. What's a PFR? Glad you asked. PFR stands for Personal Fun Record. (I just made it up, which may be why I like it so much.)
A PFR is easily achievable in any race by any runner, as long as you have fun.
So take note. I hereby give you permission to go for a PFR in your next race -- and never feel disappointed in your time again. By the way, as you go for the PFR, remember that it may have unexpected positive effects.
Even though I was seriously tired at the end of the Carlsbad race, I had enough energy to do my trademark "airplaning" down the last 100 yards to the finish. (Think of a soccer player reveling after scoring a goal.) My running with arms outstretched may strike some folks as utterly ludicrous as I was celebrating a 758th place finish. But the spectators I swooped over to for high-fives responded with raucous cheers (and cowbell ringing). So it felt good. And fun.
And when I looked at the photos of my finish -- which, yes, looked ridiculous ( I almost crashed while airplaning) -- I noticed the woman in front of me had broken into a broad smile.
So while notching my own PFR, I maybe contributed a little to hers.
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