Monday, June 11, 2012

Not a half-marathon, but a very small challenge

When my friend Nicole asked me a couple of months ago whether I’d like to train for a half-marathon with her, I thought about it, but not for very long.

I knew it would be a good challenge for me. It would knock me out of the general complacency I’ve developed as a runner: yes, I do this official streak thing where I run a mile or more every day and have for almost five years now, but it’s been a while since I tried something that really made me push my limits.

And I knew I could probably succeed, if I followed her training schedule. Back in 2003, for a period of about six months, I did a 13-mile run once a week. That was almost a decade ago, but I think I still have the capacity for it.

Moreover, even going beyond the questions of whether I had or could develop the physical ability to run a 13-mile race, the idea of doing this supported my belief in setting goals and challenges of all kinds for oneself. Much about my life has grown comfortable recently, and for that I’m grateful: with my work, my household, my personal relationships, much has seemed blessedly easy lately. Maybe it was time to push the envelope, to find a new way to make myself stretch beyond my comfort zone.

Yet after thinking all of these thoughts fairly briefly, I said no. I admitted that I really just didn’t feel like pushing myself to run a lot longer than I was accustomed to, and I didn’t want to put in the time that training would consume, either. Even if my daily life isn’t overly taxing these days, it’s busy, and I didn’t want to take on something that would eat up the minutes and hours of peaceful weekend mornings.

Still, as Nicole updated me weekly on her training, I felt twinges of envy. Nicole considered herself a beginner when she started occasionally running with me; it was with me that she first ran four miles, five miles, six miles, and she gave me credit for motivating her by example to do it. Now she was surpassing my mileage every weekend.

But I still didn’t want to do it, even though I was a little disappointed in myself for feeling that way. It would be a great time to take on a training challenge, an ideal time to push my body to new physiological and athletic benchmarks. Building up to do something new like a half-marathon would probably give me all kinds of new insights and modes of self-awareness, I suspected. And yet I just didn’t want to do the running, to make myself be out on the road for more than an hour at a stretch, to test myself anew week after week, in preparation for a single event in July that I might possibly not even be able to complete when the time came.

I resigned myself to the fact that sometimes we’re ready to take on a new challenge and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes, despite being able to see so vividly the possible advantages of setting out on a conquest, it’s the right time not for new conquests but for accepting self-imposed limits, for admitting that time and comfort are more important priorities at the moment than conquering personal frontiers.

So yesterday morning I set out on an easy four-mile run. I just wanted to enjoy the peaceful sunny Sunday morning, not work hard. Four miles would be a breeze, I knew. Easy, enjoyable, relaxing.

Nearly two miles in, though, I saw Nicole running toward me. I knew it was her nine-mile day; without meaning to, I’d been keeping track of her training schedule in my mind and remembering what week she was up to each Sunday.

If I turned back at the two-mile mark as planned, I wouldn’t even be running half her distance.

And just realizing that was enough to motivate me to add on an extra mile. Five miles is still not a big deal, but at least I was pushing myself beyond what I’d planned to do, and that felt good.

I ran five miles and savored every moment of it. So I suppose in the end, the lesson is that both parts are true. Yes, it’s okay to admit when you just feel like resting on your laurels and not taking on new challenges: going with what’s comfortable and easy once in a while instead of feeling forever compelled to overcome new hurdles is a reasonable choice.

And yet it’s also good to find challenges wherever and whenever you can, and take the opportunities that come along.

Running five miles isn’t particularly difficult for me, but the salient fact was that I’d set out for four. Running five instead was pushing myself just a little bit, and feeling motivated by someone else’s hard work to try to do likewise.

It’s no half-marathon, but it was a good way for me to put in just a little extra effort on a sunny Sunday morning, and a good way to remind myself that sometimes, just a little is all you need.

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