All runners eventually get asked the question: "Why do you run?". The question often is asked by someone who's thinking about starting. Sometimes it is asked by a person like I once was–someone who truly doesn't understand the act of running, let alone the sport. Most runners have their own answer to "Why do you run?". Their responses usually have to do with how running makes them feel or look or think. Some enjoy the solitude of running, while others appreciate the social aspects. The answer often tells you more about the person than about running.
As I was thinking about why I run, a nonrunning friend asked me a question that was far more difficult to answer. His question? How do you know how fast to run? That stopped me dead in my tracks. I had no idea.
I remembered a quote by author Robert Pirsig. He wrote: "Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself".
Recalling that quote, I thought about the formal dictates of my pace. Where am I in my year? Am I logging base miles or honing my skills for a particular race? Am I doing my long, slow run or a tempo run today? I quickly realized none of these factors had anything to do with how fast I run.
In the early stages of my running, the answer to "How fast?" was easy. I always ran as fast as I could–every time I put on my shoes. I thought that was what runners did. As I was able to run faster, I did. All of the time. It was as if I was afraid that overnight I would forget how to run.
I used to worry about how fast I ran. I calculated the exact pace needed to run as far as I could in the time I had. If I had only an hour, I ran as fast as possible to cover as many miles as possible–as if by running more miles I would be more of a runner.
As I began to understand more about myself and about running, my answer to "How fast?" changed. Now I find that I run as fast as I need to. Like Pirsig on the mountain, I've found that how fast I run is somewhere between restlessness and exhaustion.
The point of equilibrium – of balance – between restlessness and exhaustion is there every day, but not always at the same place. It is dictated more by my state of mind than my state of fitness. Some days I need to run with great effort to achieve the balance. I need to feel my lungs burn and my legs ache in order to be at peace.
Other days I just need to run the miles – to move forward at whatever pace. I need to feel my body in motion and know that every step is carrying me away from people and responsibilities. I need to keep putting one foot in front of the other simply to prove to myself that I can. I need to know I am in control of my pace and, for that moment, my life.
I never seem to know for sure how fast I'll have to run on any given day to achieve that equilibrium. Despite a detailed training plan and goals and races, most days it comes down to looking inside and asking my soul how fast we both need to run today.
Like so many other lessons I've learned from running, I'm beginning to see that this equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion can be achieved in my nonrunning life as well. I'm beginning to understand that I don't need to test my emotional limits every day. I'm beginning to look inside myself for the emotional pace I need that day.
Now, when I'm asked why I run, the answer comes quickly. I run because it is through running that I find answers to many of the other questions in my life. I run to have a place that serves as my emotional laboratory. I run to perform the emotional experiments that will lead me to the answers.
And I run as fast as necessary to find those answers.
Waddle on, friends.