I ran my first half marathon yesterday. I didn’t train for it in any calculated way, and I didn’t really plan it. After work, I checked Google Maps for the approximate distance of my route, closed my laptop, and started running. And although I left open the possibility of cutting a shorter loop, or turning around early, in the end I just kept running the whole 13 miles, just like I thought I knew I could.
I should say that I don’t really consider myself a runner, at least not in the serious, competitive sense. But there’s an amazing network of trails that fan out into the forest that surrounds the small town where I live, and in the past few months I have taken to going for occasional jogs just to get out into the woods and be among the trees and the mosses and the bears and the frogs and the slugs.
When’s the last time you decided to go for a run? Did it go something like this?: You pull on your sneakers and set out at what feels like a casual jogging pace. Within a minute, you’re panting. After five, you’re in pain, struggling to force yourself to continue, which you do, for another minute or two, until you finally relent and slow to a walk. Your knees are starting to hurt already, anyway. You should probably stick to lower-impact sports like walking, hiking, biking, or swimming, you tell yourself, certain that this is sound physical health advice.
I’ve been there many, many times. Lots of people will tell you that running a long distance is very serious and involves training plans and special gear and nutritional supplements and coaching and hard work and suffering. But it doesn’t need to, and here’s the secret: Run slow. Run ridiculously, comically slow.
The first time I tried it, it was a bit of an experiment. I remembered the scene in Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, where the author’s running coach tells him that his slow runs are too fast, and his fast runs are too slow. The key, with the slow running, is to train your body to use fat instead of carbs as fuel, since this is where you want to be in an endurance run. If you’re breathing too hard to carry on a normal conversation, you’re going too fast.
I wondered: If I slowed my pace down to the slowest possible gait that still resembles a run, how far could I go? With this in mind, I took that casual jogging pace and dialed it right down, maybe by 50 percent. It felt absolutely silly — not so much a run but a sort-of bouncy march. I could speed-walk faster (I checked). Thankfully, there was no one within sight on the trail that day (there rarely is), otherwise I likely would have immediately sped back up for fear of looking the fool.
My shin muscles started to burn almost instantly as my body adjusted to the new, awkward gait. But my breath and my heart stayed calm. And my shins tired but did not fail me. I ran farther without stopping than I thought I could — down the trail to the trestle bridge over the river and back, a distance of maybe five miles.
I had previously set a one-day-maybe sort of goal of running a loop of trail that I sometimes walk, a distance of about eight miles. The first time I tried it, running slow, I ran the whole thing, and made it home with energy to spare.
After settling into that awkward, slow pace, it starts to not feel so awkward and slow anymore. Suddenly, you feel like those older people you see running laps at the gym — slow but strong and efficient, like they could just keep running forever. And you feel like you could just run forever, too. Before you know it, you don’t just feel like you’re running faster, but you actually are running faster. You slowly ramp back up, almost all the way to that casual jog that would have been impossible to maintain had you started there in the first place.
The most elite athletes in the world know something of this feeling. It’s called running negative splits, and it means starting out slightly behind your average pace, and ramping up over the course of the run. Most people know nothing besides starting out fast and then crashing, but most running records are set doing the opposite.
A lot of online forums will advise beginning runners to adopt some sort of walk/run training regimen to work up to running longer and longer distances. This is probably fine advice, especially if you are working towards a time-based goal (you won’t run faster if you don’t practice running faster).
But maybe start by running slow. There’s nothing more discouraging than the feeling that you are spent and need to walk, and there’s nothing more encouraging than the feeling that you could keep running forever if you felt like it. Running slow has the added benefit of being very low-impact, allowing you to gradually grow stronger so that your joints can handle bigger hits.
Despite being somewhat derisive towards gym bums and fitness geeks for most of my adult life, I have found outdoor exercise to genuinely be the cure-all that scientific study after scientific study shows it to be. A short run can dissolve the tension in my shoulders and neck, melt my anxiety, eliminate my craving for a beer to relax after work, give me more energy to tackle physical and mental tasks, make me more pleasant to be around, and improve my sleep. I do it not for the promise of a better body tomorrow, but because it makes me love the body that I live in today.
I don’t know if I ran exactly a half marathon, and I don’t know exactly how long it took me. My best guess is two hours, 45 minutes. I won’t win any medals with that time, but I’d also make the cut-off time for most non-elite races. I guess I could go faster, but mostly I just want to go farther. I want to push that boundary of what it means to run forever. Could I do a marathon? A double marathon? A hundred miles? More? Somehow, it all seems within the realm of possibility, and that’s a pretty good place to start.
All of this is not to say that running a half marathon is easy, and that anyone could do it with little or no training. I came into this experiment a reasonably fit, able-bodied 29-year-old who regularly enjoys multi-hour walks, hikes, and bike rides, and so this particular goal wasn’t too far from my grasp.
If running is beyond your current reach, or not your thing, I would urge you to find an activity you enjoy, and to give yourself permission to go slow. It only feels silly for a minute, and then it feels pretty damn amazing.