“Do I still look like a runner?”

 (Written while in a running rut six months after a PR @ the 2010 Philadelphia Marathon)

I keep thinking of what Steve Prefontaine asked his girlfriend (at least the way it was portrayed in the movie “Prefontaine”):   “Do I still look like a runner?”  Now here was the most famous US runner of his time asking such an insecure question.   Obviously, I’m no “PRE” but I ask my wife Jill this question all the time, especially when I am in a running rut.  Yes, I am lost in Rutville.

Some have asked:  “How the heck can you be in a rut?  You just ran your fastest marathon!!”   The truth is, running can be cyclical.    It is difficult to maintain the same intensity throughout the year, and throughout your “running life.”   There are lots of peaks and valleys.   The peaks are tremendously wonderful, while the valleys are tough to shake.

For me, the valleys have sometimes occurred after an intense period of success.  There were many successes for me last fall (my fastest 5k as an adult, my fastest half marathon, and my fastest marathon). Cue the rut: a cold, harsh winter, a hip injury, a transition in employment….life.   The insecurity settles in, and the question arises again:  “Do I still look like a runner?”  No matter what successes we have as runners, doubt can creep into our consciousness once in a while.

Of course, ruts have also occurred after failures  There was the Bonk during my first marathon, in which I went from having a goal of 3:10 to having a goal of “finishing” to having a goal of simply “surviving.”  Second, while I broke three hours last year, it was my fourth attempt.  There were three failures prior to that.

Failure to achieve a running goal can lead to obsessive doubt.  For me, to continue running after a perceived failure, I had to find some kind of positive in each race in which I failed.  In my “bonk” race, my thought was “Hey at least I finally finished.”   For my failed sub-three hour races, two out of three were PR’s, and for the third race, let’s just say the temperature was above 70 degrees.

So here I am in Rutville.   I know I won’t reside here forever.  It is temporary, and I am not pressuring myself to crank up the intensity yet.   I still run regularly, but I don’t wear my watch during every run.

It has been almost six months since my last race.   I have not gone this long without racing since I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time.  I’ll just chalk that particular rut up to the “Post-Boston Blues.”  After all, many of us tend to think of Boston as the pinnacle running goal.  After that it was “now what?”

As runners, we often need worlds to conquer to stay motivated.  We usually need goals.  Sometimes, in order to remain a runner, we need to be dissatisfied with our performance in some way.  It is a progression that can go something like this: Goal 1: Run a half marathon.  Check.  Now what?  Goal 2: Run a marathon.  Check.  Now what?  Goal 3: Qualify for Boston…Qualify for Boston at Boston…Run a Sub 3-hr marathon…and so on…

This is just one example. The “Now what?” can be different for every runner, but it is a question that keeps us hungry to run.

At times, I think somewhere in-between the peaks and valleys is the place to be.  I’ll call it the gentle “rolling hills” of our running lives.     Maybe it’s better to sometimes have a less-intense race goal; to be able to take off our watches once in a while…and “simply run.”  My friend Bob seems to have this mentality, and I admire it.  He rarely races, but runs almost every day.  He “simply runs.”  My intensity about running is often in conflict with this mentality, but I’ve learned to take a step back once in a while before running forward with the next racing goal.

I hope I will ask myself “Now what?” again soon.  As far as the other question: “Do I still look like a runner?”   Hmm, does it matter?   Maybe the question should be: “Do I still feel like a runner?”

Epilogue (10/1/11):  If you’re ever in a running rut, one possible cure is to attend a race as a spectator.   If you’re not coming out of your skin out of a desire to run the race, maybe you’re not ready yet.   If you are coming out of your skin, maybe it’s time to sign up for a race again.   I was a spectator at my wife’s 5K today, and I was coming out of my skin.  Maybe I will move out of Rutville soon.


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