Chasing Bliss on the Longest Run
How running long miles can alter how you think
16.59 miles. This is officially my longest run to date. I've been following the Fleet Feet Carrboro/Durham full marathon training program, inching past the half marathon training distance with an additional mile each week on the long run. 14 miles was an iffy distance for a long distance PR - there has been the occasional half marathon race or training run that tracked a little long and flirted with fourteen. Fifteen miles was a definite distance PR but it didn't feel that substantial. But 16.59? When the watched screen popped up "New PR! Longest distance!" I grinned - indubitably, yes, that's my longest distance and I just crushed it.
The night before my long run it suddenly hit me what running 16 miles meant - 16 miles! Three hours of running! I posted on Facebook, "I just realized that I'm going to run for three hours tomorrow and now I'm in a mild panic 😱😱😱 #marathontraining #longrun" Plenty of people commented with encouraging words, cheering me on, and that is the beauty of a supportive community, because with them around me, supporting me, cheering me, I knew it was never real panic - just a healthy mix of anticipation, excitement, and a hint of nerves going out into the unknown.
Why run 16 miles? People keep asking me what race I'm training for, and the reality is - I don't have one. Sure, it seems a little silly to train for a marathon distance and not even get a medal for it, but for me running long distance has never been about the races or the hardware - it's about pushing myself, growing, and exploring. When I realized last season that training for a half marathon was becoming routine - even easy - I knew I had to somehow push myself to not plateau. I did not want to peak at 29: I have a whole lifetime to keep improving (or at least, realistically, a decade of still being able to build decent muscle) and so, to fight physical stagnation, I knew I needed to either run faster or farther.
Since I was mentoring a specific pace group from Fleet Feet that made my decision for me: I would try running farther. Besides, all fall I had felt that twinge of FOMO when other runners continued for the full marathon long run distances. 14 miles. 16 miles. 18 miles. 20 miles. Frequently I was jealous of the other runners in my group heading out for the full distance training. They had so many more hours of running ahead of them, but somehow they seemed happy. They always waved happily to the rest of us before turning and running on and I wondered what else they saw each long morning, what they talked about. I was curious about how they handled their nutrition and how their feet managed the constant battering, and what went through their minds.
What is your state of mind during a marathon? I know for me with the half marathon I enter a sort of meditative state - clearing my mind, feeling completely relaxed and in a rhythm. It's amazing what a shock running can be to our bodies. I've heard running can leave our bodies in a state of trauma. I've felt dazed and stupid after half marathon races, and even on a Tuesday night hill workout when someone asked me what 25+14 equaled, trying to figure out time for the repeats, I stared at her blankly, unable to do the simple math.
Running might make me stupider in the middle of a hard run with all that blood rushing out of my head and into my legs, but I think running overall keeps me mentally sharper - after all, studies have shown that exercise is the best medicine for mental acuity as we age. Better than crossword puzzles or brain games or red wine, exercise is the elixir for a sharp, youthful, creative mind, and I believe it. It gives me a sort of fresh mindset, as though all the blood I pumped hard through my brain and body were washing away all the cobwebs of stress, fear, and insecurity. A cleanse, as it were, and like a cleanse running can make you crabby, crampy, and prone to rush to a bathroom, but after the cleanse you're sure you feel better.
And if a half marathon is a partial cleanse, then I was so curious what it might be like running a full marathon. Will I get loopy? Will I get stupid and not be able to do simple math? Or will I find that clarity, sharpness, and acuity that I always seem to be chasing? I certainly wouldn't know until I tried.
So I suppose it's not any goal race that has me pushing my mileage, but a curiosity, even a greed. The Germans have it right - their word for "curiosity" is "Neugier" which is a compound of two words: "new" and "greed." My "newgreed" is driving me to conquer these distances, to explore both the physical and mental lengths of sixteen miles and perhaps even more. And the added distance is delivering on its allure. Today, at mile 9.15, just as all the half marathon participants turned back to the store, I turned down the other direction of the American Tobacco Trail, half-listening to a podcast and on the search for bliss.
Maybe I found it, or maybe I just found some rewarding chemical combination of endorphins and fatigue, but those miles disappeared beneath my feet. I let my mind wander, enjoying the solo run and finally seeing details that I've somehow otherwise overlooked: squirrels flicking their tails as they watched me lope by, familiar fellow runners passing from the opposite direction (or even the same direction sometimes), the feeling of asphalt beneath my toes, the pain that cropped up sporadically in a tired muscle fiber or the chafed skin under my sports bra that I zenfully acknowledged, assessed, and then let go.
I reached a curve in the trail where a few ashen tree trunks reached up to the cloudy sky, boughs tipped with orange and spring green and red buds, like paintbrushes poised over an upside-down canvas.
I came down the long line of storefronts back to Fleet Feet and raced my reflection in the shop windows. Have you ever noticed just how uneven strip mall windows are? The glass, being amorphous, ripples with patches of thick and thin glass, convex and concave undulations across the pane. In this reflection as I bobbed along in my slow and steady long run pace, it was like looking at myself in a funhouse mirror, growing and shrinking and constantly in flux. It was like seeing myself for what I really am - a constantly changing being, expanding, snapping back, bending, and exploring all the borders of my potential.