The best long runs are, in my opinion, a combination of a workout and a journey.
A long run is a journey in the most literal sense: If you travel 13 miles by foot, as I did Thursday morning, you are literally going somewhere. It’s also an adventure. Things go awry. Get lost on a 3-miler, and you can always backtrack. Get lost above the half-marathon mark, and you’ve got a problem to solve.
A long run is also a test requiring thought and mettle. Feel tired in the middle of a 30-minute tempo run, and you know you can finish by slowing up a bit. Feel spent in the middle of a 13-miler, and you’ve got some strategizing to do: When to walk? When to detour to find a CVS to buy more water when you haven’t come upon a water fountain as you’d expected to?
Then again, I’ve never felt the joy of accomplishment, or the giddy slap-happiness of hearing your favorite song during a particularly hard part of a long run, during an easy 30-minute jaunt.
These are all situations and realizations I encountered while running 13 miles, 10 of them on Sligo Creek Trail, early Thursday morning. The run felt ugly from the beginning, plodding and awkward, and every time I stopped at an intersection, I was deeply, deeply grateful when I came upon red lights. Plus, I planned to run 2.5 miles out on the trail, then run 5 miles in the other direction, backtracking 2.5 miles to get back to the start, where I’d stashed a water bottle. Problem is, the water is only helpful when you actually remember the right place to stop for it. I ran right by, and didn’t encounter a water fountain the entire way. (I learned later that day there’s a fountain literally a few feet away from my turnaround point. Awesome.).
So I was not only exhausted, but dehydrated, and I had all the doubts one has at this point of marathon training: If a 13-miler feels this bad, who am I kidding thinking I’ll be able to stand 26.2 of them at a faster pace? Should I have brought an energy gel? How weird would it be to dunk my whole body in the creek?
I got pretty depressed about how slow I felt, until I got slap-happy. To anyone who saw the skinny, awkward white girl exclaim, “That’s my JAM!” while running over a bridge over Sligo Creek: Don’t judge. “M-E-T-H-O-D Man” had just come on my iPod, and it was a really hard run.
When I got back to my apartment, anxious to dunk my body in an ice bath and write off yet another sluggish long run, I looked at my watch: Two hours even! This is good for me on any day, but especially on a day when my ego felt bruised by how awful the run felt. And then, I remembered how many times I called my friend Sarah while training for the Nashville Country Music Marathon in 2007, resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to run the race with her, after all, based on a really difficult long run.
She told me then that long runs aren’t supposed to be happily sprinted. They’re meant to be gotten through, with their sole purpose being to fool your brain into thinking your body can go just a little farther than it’s ever gone before every week. This is so true. I ran the marathon in 2007, and just like Sarah promised, it was nothing like a long run. Water and energy gels DID appear every few miles, the crowds DID cheer like I was an elite, and my body DID perform better than it ever had before.
A bonus: I felt pretty awesome right after my 13-miler, in stark contrast to the week before, when I suffered from some weird heat-exhaustion business for literally days after an 11-miler. Next week: 15! (Gulp!)