The last time I tried to race anything was in 2013.
It was the last year I qualified for Boston, and I ran two marathons that year, giving them both everything I had to make my time. I missed the first one by about a minute, and made it by about 20 seconds at the second one.
Ever since then, I just haven’t had any motivation to push myself that hard. I still run. I run all the time – and I’ve done a lot of trail races since then, sometimes placing accidentally because I was graced with a small field.
But for the most part, it’s been four years of junk miles, a few months off, some ultramarathons that involve a fair amount of hiking and a lot of just running because. Because I like to be outside. Because it makes me feel better. Because time spent in the woods is my favorite time. Because that’s how I hang out with my friends.
Because it’s what I do and who I am, and it has been for a long time.
And when people would talk about why they would run, those would be the reasons I would give. For a long time, it hasn’t been because I’m trying to get faster, or qualify, or place, or anything.
I’m just trying to survive out there, and when I make time to do that, I find a way to survive everywhere else in life. It isn’t as fatalistic as it sounds – it’s just the truth. Sometimes that’s what you’re trying to do, every day, the best you can.
You wake up and pack lunches for kids. You consider cleaning your kitchen and decide that sort of wiping down the counters and sweeping most of the floor without actually moving any chairs is good enough. Laundry clean and folded is almost as good as put away.
And a run after work in the rain where you go a few miles past where you intended, where you run completely in your head, completely alone, is the right kind of run. Or a sort of run and hike midmorning at Good Earth State Park. Or staring down the treadmill, again, while listening to Lucinda Williams.
It’s all life.
But on Saturday, I decided to run the Good Earth Trail Run, the second of three races in the trail series put on by the Sioux Falls Area Running Club. It’s the state park nearest my house, and I love it there. I wanted to be part of the inaugural race, and I wanted to support the club and Nathan Schwab, the race director who has been working really hard to get the series going.
Plus it was $20, as a club member, and I got a very cool buff and a glass from Wood Grain. No matter what happened out there, it was a good deal.
It was a crisp morning, and I ran into Rhonda Punt at the starting line. I know Rhonda from the Thursday night running club runs out at Good Earth, and because she was kind enough to let me feature her on this blog once. I know she’s in great shape, fresh off Boston this year, and solid. I thought we might be fairly evenly paced, and imagined us running together.
But you know how it goes at the starting line of a race: Every man for himself. I was there with a friend who was just doing the 3-mile, and he headed out and I let him go. I have done zero race training. Every time I’ve run at Good Earth for the past few months, I’ve hiked the hills instead of running them. I tell myself it’s good ultra training, but the truth is, I’m just lazy.
One of the folks I’ve featured on this blog commented one time that it was fine if you just run for fitness. I’ve been remembering that lately and trying not to beat myself up for not being somewhere in a training cycle or in racing shape. At the same time, I don’t want to get so lazy that I let that part of my former life pass me by. There’s a time and place for everything, right, and lately my time and place has been self-preservation.
Rhonda took off on the course, and I let her go. I started out slowly and just tried to maintain an even effort. It was some of the best advice I ever got about how to run hills: Instead of trying to maintain pace, just try to maintain effort, and I told myself that’s what I would do.
I wasn’t racing. I couldn’t. I’m not in shape to do it, even if I wanted to.
I got down the hill and began to run the loop at the bottom, and I passed someone. Passed someone coming up the hill again, felt good at the top as I ran the flats. I saw Rhonda ahead of me, and this is where I confess that I just wanted to catch her.
Because why not.
Because for the first time in a long time, I felt a burning desire to just run harder. I have no ability to back up the desire, but it felt good to even feel that spark. I spent the rest of the race about 100 feet behind her, never really able to gain on her. I lost sight of her around the corners toward the end, and it was tough to keep motivated when I wasn’t sure if she had pulled away, and as I became increasingly aware there was no way I would get her without some kind of obsessive push, and the spark in me wasn’t quite that hot.
I came through the top of the park, and a lightning strike lit up the sky around me, thunder clapped immediately, and a minute later it began to downpour.
I didn’t catch Rhonda, who went on to win her age group. I was far, far behind the winning women, solidly in the middle of the overall pack of runners. But I went up to her at the end anyway and thanked her.
It was fun to have someone to chase. Even better when it’s someone you like, so you aren’t annoyed when they beat you.
Nathan is doing a really good thing this year with the trail series. Next up is Newton Hills, the club’s longest running race, and then shortly after is the ultra at the same park. I love seeing trail running take off. It’s my favorite way to run.
But I’m grateful to be reminded there’s more to running than just an easy hour before or after work. That there’s more to me than some sort of aimless junk miles, a half-hearted attempt at keeping decent mileage, a resistance to tracking my pace.
Maybe I’m not where I used to be, and maybe I never will be again.
But I could probably be better than I am right now, and Saturday’s race reminded me sometimes it’s worth a shot.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.