“You’re way tougher than me”

100 milesWhen you run outdoors, sooner or later, strangers shout things at you.

Most draw from the same shortlist of slogans. “Run, Forrest, Run!” and “Run like you stole something!” are favourites of folks keen to comment on neighbourhood goings-on from their front porch.

I rarely hear threats or insults, but when I do it’s a bit of a treat, because there’s some originality to them. There was the octogenarian who, eyeing me over in disgust as I jogged past him, scoffed: “Give it up, already. You’re too old for this shit.” And the wobbly cyclist who crashed his bike – and the two cases of empties he tried balancing on his handlebars to return to the Beer Store – a couple hundred yards up the road. When I caught up to him to see if he was OK, he made a fist and slurred “Watch where you’re going next time, or I’ll give ya this!”

Words of encouragement from fellow runners also stand out. They were especially welcome at this year’s Sulphur Springs Trail Race, where I took my first shot at finishing a 100-mile run.

One comment stood out among the many “good job”s and “keep it up”s. A guy who was tackling the 50-mile course saw by the colour of my race bib that I was running the 100-miler. “You’re way tougher than me,” he blurted breathlessly before racing off in the opposite direction.

I nodded in gratitude, but not in agreement. Although I’m taking on more challenging runs these days, I’m not nearly as tough a runner as I was 10 years ago, thank goodness. With any luck, 10 years from now, I’ll be softer still.

Back when I’d just finished my first couple of 5Ks and was looking to clock faster times, I figured my best shot at success was to focus on my goal and ignore everything else. Rather than take in the pre-race festivities and meet some of the other runners, I’d block out everything but the 180 beat-per-minute metronome ticking in my head, the tempo my feet would have to match on the course if I was going to hit my target time.

And it worked, sort of. By sticking with this strategy, I got tougher with each race, in that I developed a thicker callous to just about everything – pain, fellow competitors, pretty clouds, fun – that didn’t relate directly to my chip time.

But that kind of toughness didn’t do much for me. I got injured more frequently by trying to “push past the pain.” And more often than not I’d fall short of my goal anyways, which would get me down for weeks.

The first, perhaps most important way Buddhist practice shaped my running was by shining a light on the suffering that comes from holding too tightly to goals. Targets are fine, but in striving to hit them I’d hardened myself to a lot of the things about running that make it such a rich experience.

The guy who said “You’re way tougher than me” at Sulphur Springs was paying me a compliment, of course. I was grateful for his encouragement, but also for reminding me, unintentionally, how much better it feels to be soft and open to all aspects of a race.

If I were running Sulphur Springs 10 years ago, for example, I probably would have skipped the pre-race pasta dinner to get more sleep and better my odds of hitting a target time.

Because my wife and I stuck around at the supper, we got to hear some great stories and meet wonderful people like Jill, the vegan Star Wars loving airline pilot who split her salad with the local wildlife.

As for the race itself, I dropped out at 62.5 miles, realizing I wasn’t going to make the next time cutoff.

Ten years ago, DNFing would have left me in the dumps for months. Instead, being open and present for the gorgeous scenery and wildlife along the race course, the generosity and encouragement of volunteers, and the tough love of the race’s organizers (who practically made runners take a polygraph test before believing they were ready to drop out) helped make this year’s Sulphur Springs my favourite race yet.

Although I didn’t make it to 100 miles, I did end up going farther than I’ve ever run before, a nice affirmation that you can still make performance gains without clinging too tightly to a goal.

That sets the tone nicely for the two months of speed training before my next race, a 5K in September. I’ll certainly be working toward a target time, but not at the expense of the things that really make running worthwhile.