How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Run

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

I used to run in pursuit of race results. Not for fitness. And certainly not for fun.

First, I should clarify: I wasn't a pro. I wasn't even that fast. I just acted like I was, prioritizing my training over everything. The local trail racing scene in my hometown of Minneapolis was low-hanging fruit a decade ago, and I trained to win or podium at those races with joyless devotion.

I used to turn down invitations to run with a friend or a group if it meant I'd have to adjust a training plan written beforehand. When I did run with others, I'd frequently add mileage before or after.

Once, after a short run at a friend's bachelor party, I dipped out the back to run pre-prescribed hill sprints, sneaking off to do them because explaining what I was doing would be awkward and skipping it would be unthinkable. (It turns out disappearing to run farther without warning was, in my friends' eyes, also a little weird.)

I used to obsess over distance and vert. I don't just mean I wanted to hit daily and weekly goals - I mean I'd run around the trailhead parking lot to make sure I hit 20 miles on the dot. I mean I learned exactly how far over ".0" I needed to run to avoid the dreaded ".99" when I uploaded it. (On my Suunto, it was 0.02; my Apple Watch, 0.08; my Soleus, 0.23.) Once, when I uploaded a bike ride and it reported 4,999 feet of vert, I nearly threw my phone through the window.

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At times, I could be a bit of a nightmare to run with. Once, a friend visiting from out of town wanted to run 5 miles. But I wanted to run 10, so I told him we were running 5, then took him on a 10-mile loop with no bailout points. (He started walking in protest near the end. I think we're still friends - he let me speak at his wedding a couple years later.)

A different time, that same friend and I went camping on Minnesota's north shore with the intention of running up Eagle Mountain - the highest point in the state - the next day. But rain came through, our tent leaked, and we were soaked, shivering, and in no condition to run. I made him do it with me anyway. When we got to the top, it was completely socked in, the famous viewpoint covered by a white sheet of clouds. (Maybe that was a step too far - he didn't come to my wedding.)

For several years, every step I ran, whether a workout or a recovery run, was in the pursuit of improvement. I may well have been on the road to disownment by my family and friends. But somewhere along the line, I snapped out of it.

How?

Ironically, the single biggest thing that changed my outlook was moving to a mid-sized town backed by spectacular mountains that were rife with trails - perfect for extremely serious training, on paper. But it had the opposite effect.

I moved there to work for a running shoe brand. You'd think living and breathing running all day, every day, would fuel my passion for it. You'd be wrong, though. The challenges got bigger - and my perspective widened with them.

When I arrived in Santa Barbara, I pictured myself becoming a super-fit mountain athlete on the challenging trails that were, almost literally, out my back door. But I quickly found that, man, these trails are really challenging. I've written before about how difficult running in the Santa Ynez mountains can be.

That dramatic terrain lent itself to epic days out with incredible views. The system of front- and backcountry trails made for some mouthwatering linkups. But it was all so steep. And slow-moving. And hot and sunny. (I'm a ginger from the Upper Midwest.) The conditions made recovery tougher, so it became overwhelming to try and hit mileage goals out there. It was normal to be out for four or five hours, tag a couple peaks, and have less than 20 miles to show for it.

Rough going, if you're the sort of person who runs back and forth in front of your house to make sure you hit exact mileage.

So I had a choice: I could use even more of my free time and energy to ensure I stuck to my old training ways. Or, I could loosen my grip. (Especially since I was nowhere near being a pro athlete.) In a rare moment of clarity, I realized - if I'm not having fun, what's the point?

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So I adapted. One weekend, I planned a run based not on mileage, but on tagging a summit. The next weekend, I planned a two-summit run, then one with two plus a saddle for the most aesthetically-pleasing Strava map. The mileage wasn't always high, but these were long days out. I even initiated a three-man excursion to connect the front-country's three most prominent peaks in one go - and didn't get mad when we got off-course, bushwhacked through poison oak and came perilously close to running out of water. For nearly five hours of trouble? 15 well-earned miles.

I embraced the adventure - the time on my feet, the vast emptiness of Los Padres National Forest, the definition of "epic" as something other than long and fast, and the very real sense of risk in the backcountry. I didn't quite learn to stop and smell the roses, but I learned to enjoy running with friends, especially when one of them had a wild idea about running slowly via headlamp at night, or linking point A to point B via the ridgeline, mileage be damned.

If I'm not having fun, what's the point?

Some other stuff happened, too: That running shoe gig? Well, it was still a 9-to-5 desk job, which can put a damper on training. And it turned out when my job revolved around running, I wanted to use my free time to stay a little more well-rounded.

I also got a little older. I got injured a little more than I used to. Hard efforts started to come in at a pace I'd once considered a recovery run. In the interest of running as long as possible, I dialed back my mileage. This happens to everyone, so it was nice that it coincided with a new outlook and a new playground, rather than precipitating an identity crisis.

In my hard-charging days, I loved seeing my times improve, and I loved winning on the rare occasion it happened. But I realized it's dangerous to depend on those things for happiness, or to be unwilling to redefine what "winning" and "improving" mean to you, because an injury or plain-old time means that eventually your raw speed will plateau, perhaps even regress. You can adjust your goals - some people stay motivated by age-group competition even when their PRs are behind them - or you can learn to enjoy running every day, rather than seeing running as a means to a worthy end.

I don't fret over pace. I'm just happy to be out there.

Our journeys for improvement never stop, but we can find things to improve other than how fast we've run a given distance. In my case, I improved my navigation skills, hydration and nutrition, and frequency of sunscreen reapplication. I also improved my mood. Maybe not as sexy as a 50-mile PR, but it's something to hang my hat on.

I've traded a white-whale fixation on future results for day-to-day enjoyment. I think they're both noble in their own right, and I don't regret my old approach, but I know it wouldn't work for me now. These days, I try and enjoy the act of running, rather than exclusively enjoying "having run," as Brendan Leonard coined it.

When I run now, I'll stop and put my hands on my hips at a cool overlook, like in all those marketing photos you see. I won't roll my eyes if someone wants to take a group photo. (Well, I will, but I won't verbally protest, too.) I'll pet all the very good dogs I encounter. I'll run with people when I'm invited to. I'll get coffee afterward, even if it means we cut a couple miles off for time constraints. I don't fret over pace. I'm just happy to be out there.

I still sometimes run back and forth in front of my house to hit an even mileage, though. That's one habit you'll have to pry from my sticky, GU-covered fingers.

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