Running, I love you. Take Me Back, I'm in it for the Long Run. (Not Much Distance, Part II)

Click here to read Part I, Not Much Distance Left to Run - How a Marathon Killed My Love of Running.

Yesterday I asked running to give me a second chance. I know I spent some time with the sofa but, you know, we were on a break.

Why run?

When I was 15 I decided to run cross-country in the inter-school athletics. With most other 15-year-olds busy being teenagers, there wasn’t a lot of competition and I made it through to the state finals. On the bus on the way there, the coach (i.e. the PE teacher who arrived late at that planning meeting) told me, “You should end every race feeling like you can’t run anymore.” Then he added, “And hey, have fun out there!”

Those two things seem mutually exclusive to me. Running until I can run no further goes against my body’s natural instinct to conserve energy in case of emergency. It wouldn’t be in the interest of my own survival to be able to accidentally use up all my energy – which means it has to be a deliberate act, requiring considerable concentration. If I make that choice, my body will  assume that I am accepting the risks of absolute energy depletion because doing so is its last hope for survival.  I mean, why else would I do it?  None of this sounds like too much fun.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t do this in the interest of competitive sport, or even in the interest of a personal sense of achievement. I’m sure most runners’ lives are not under the kind of constant threat that would put them at risk if they experienced temporary exhausting of energy reserves. I’m just saying that under those circumstances, a runner’s body will probably assume she’s being chased, and it’s not likely to allow pause for reflection on the joy in that moment.

Valued LivingThere are a lot of different reasons to run. I started running for emotional and social reasons, and recently I have been making myself miserable by prioritising achievement, improvement and competition instead. I already have those three values covered in my life with work, writing, and my relationship, respectively. When I added running to that list, I did so at the cost of other values that are also important.

In my CBT sessions for low mood and depression, I encourage people to experiment with readdressing how they fill their time, and to plan in activities that are in line with values that are important to them. The focus is on those areas where there are large discrepancies between the importance of the value, and the effort given to that value. We don’t have endless reserves of time and energy, and there are some things that just need to be done, but we can choose to direct what we have left towards areas of our life that are truly important to us. Doing so can lift mood, build confidence and improve self-esteem.

Valued Living

This week’s experiment involved using the Edinburgh Half-Marathon to test out a number of changes to the way I run.  I wanted to find out if this could help restore balance to my investment in my core values.

The Experiment

Here’s what I did differently, and the impact of each action.

I didn’t wear a watch.  No watch, no time goal.

Positive impact Right from the start I felt a lot less pressure. I could enjoy the anticipation in the start pens without having to worry about finding and keeping a GPS signal. I avoided the time and stress it takes on the run trying to calculate pace, estimate finishing times and recalibrate. I started to believe genuinely that it didn’t matter how long it took (within reason – this was an experiment, not a lobotomy.) It also felt nice to be able to loan my running watch to my friend who was running the full marathon.

Negative impact When a race is going well, seeing a piece of technology back that up is pretty exciting. When it’s going well.

I wore my glasses.  I usually don’t wear my glasses because I predict that they will fall off my face and get crushed, the fuss of which would slow me down.

Positive impact Holy crap, Edinburgh is beautiful.

Negative impact None.

I didn’t wick.  Instead of my usual technical fabrics, I wore a bright orange tank top that I love.

Positive impact It felt like I was taking the race less seriously, and that felt good.

Negative impact Cotton is undoubtedly less comfortable after two hours of exercise. I think I’ll go back to fancy running tops for long distances.

I wore a running skirt with short shorts.  I have worn this running skirt once before. It comes with little shorts underneath, but when I first wore it I further protected the crowds from my upper thighs by also wearing a second, longer pair of compression shorts. Yesterday I wore the skirt with just the little shorts, as Salomon intended.

Positive impact No one sneezed in the glare from my legs or told me to cover up. As soon as I joined the runners at the starting line, I realised I have no reason to protect the world from my thighs when I’m running.

Negative impact I may not need longer shorts to protect other people from my thighs but, as it turns out, I very much need longer shorts to protect my thighs from my thighs. As soon as I started running, the shorts decided that they would prefer to take the shape of regular underwear, and no amount of adjusting would coax them to stay down where they had started from. My legs are not designed for this. There was no relief until the finish line, when I made a beeline for the first aid tent and collected some Vaseline. I am still suffering. Wearing short shorts was a big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.

I skipped the final pre-run toilet stop.   In many areas of my life I am paranoid that I will be without a toilet in my moment of need. I take several precautions to avoid this. Yesterday I went once before I left the flat, and then avoided the portaloos completely.

Positive impact It added to the laid-back feeling – I could afford to stop and use a toilet on the way if I needed to. I didn’t need to.

Negative impact I kept thinking about whether I needed the toilet or not. I wanted to stop at every toilet stop just in case.

I ran based on how I was feeling.  Nothing was pre-decided. I checked in on how I was feeling every now and then, but mostly just ran.

Positive impact I was much kinder to myself than I usually am during a race. If I noticed I was going slower than usual, I just noticed and kept going, instead of pushing myself or trying to make up for it. I enjoyed rolling with the course, going faster downhill and slower uphill.

Negative impact I’m sure I slowed down a lot at times, especially when I was distracted by scenery or fancy dress. But for yesterday, that wasn’t really a negative.

I wasted time and energy.   I didn’t try to run the straightest line between two points, I ran on the grass for a while, I held back and waited in a bottleneck, I slowed down to enjoy the view.

Positive impact It was a really enjoyable run.

Negative impact I wasn’t running at maximum efficiency. Again, not really a negative for yesterday.

I didn’t carry emergency supplies.  My pockets are usually filled with sweets, gels, band-aids, and tissues.

Positive impact I wasn’t weighed down with supplies and I didn’t have to take time to think about whether and when I should use said supplies.

Negative impact If I’d needed it, I would have been annoyed that I didn’t have it. If I’m realistic, I’ve never needed a band-aid or tissue en route, and for a half-marathon I’ve only eaten sweets and gels because I had them there to eat. Most courses provide some form of energy, and even if they didn't, I'm almost certain I would still manage to survive.

I skipped the energy stations.  This was not deliberate. I didn’t find out until afterwards that I had missed two rounds of energy gels before finally grabbing one at the 11 mile mark.

Positive impact I wasn’t thinking about whether I needed more energy or not.

Negative impact I don’t know that there was any. I was slightly irritated at the end that I’d missed the gels, but this was less because I needed them and more because I thought that me missing it was an indication of poor signage by the organizers - because, what if I had needed them?  I didn't, but what if I had?

I took sweets from strangers.  Tins of sweets.  Total strangers.

Positive impact Feeling like I’m part of something bigger than myself.

Negative impact None that I know of. So far.

I engaged with the crowds.  High-fives for the kids, waves to horn-tooting cars, thank yous to cheering spectators and clapping for the charity volunteers.

Positive impact I felt connected to these people – how incredible are they to stand out and cheer for complete strangers?!

Negative impact None.

I focused for the final mile.  This is where I would normally distract myself to get through to the finish line. Instead I focused on what I was doing, how far I’d run and how strong I felt.

Positive impact I think I may have actually sped up. I also felt good about what I was doing.  I thought about how different this was from my first half marathon five years ago, and how much easier it seemed now.

Negative impact Maybe just a little bit teary as I came down the final stretch...

I lied about my personal best.   This was not a conscious decision and I still don’t quite understand why I did it. Just past the finish line I was speaking to a woman who was trying to work out how close she’d come to her personal best. I told her she had a great time for her personal best, and when she asked me what mine was, I flat out lied to her. I told her it was five minutes slower than it actually was, and one minute faster than hers. Why, why, why would I do that?

Positive impact I don’t know!

Negative impact I felt like a complete idiot afterwards. I still do when I think about it.

I didn’t optimize my nutrition.  Specifically, I had a glass of wine with dinner the night before the race, and immediately after, I sat in the sun with this:

Half marathon medal

Positive impact It was just nice.

Negative impact None.

I had a great weekend. I enjoyed the run, I felt an affinity with the other runners, I was touched by the cheering crowd, I bonded with my friend over her marathon effort, and for three days I completely switched off from the week’s work. I’d say that’s a result.

There was one major challenge with this experiment. Every now and then a thought would pop into my head that if I could let go of caring about the result, relax and enjoy myself instead of focusing on finishing times, then maybe, just maybe, I’d actually run faster. Apparently some things can’t be switched off completely.

In the end, it took me exactly the amount of time it took me. Exactly.

Getting here wasn't easy.  Here's how I did that bit: 42K to Couch to 5K – The Competing Motivations Training Plan That Got Me Running Less 

© Cognitive Behave Yourself, 2013.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full credit is given to Jane Gregory with a link to the original material.  For CBT in North-West London please visit