Putting the pedal to the metal
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 22 March 2021
The other evening I set off on what I thought was going to be a steady 6-mile run, and without warning I just started running quite hard, right from the off. OK, I thought to myself, it’s a nice, crisp evening, my legs feel good, let’s just roll with it. Maybe I’ll do the first three miles hard, and then turn around and jog back.
But as I reached the turning point, I didn’t feel like slowing down. In fact, as I made the turn, I started to push on harder. You might almost say I surged. And it felt great. Fun, even. Everything whizzed past much more quickly at this speed. My feet had to be quicker. I wasn’t simply running by the scenery, admiring it, I was charging through it. Everything became part of my run, every dip in the trail, every tree root, every twist of the path. It all had to be dealt with at speed.
The last mile really started to burn, but I’d committed now in my mind to push to the end. I just about managed it.
Afterwards, I realised that, in part, it was nostalgia that had been pushing me on. As a child, a teenager, every run I did was a burn-up. So there was something about that sense of charging through the trees, pushing the pace harder and harder, the evening air burning my lungs, that brought back happy memories from those long-ago days of youthful energy.
That made me realise that I do sometimes feel a bit childish when I run hard like that. In the same way that adults go on walks, while the children run around climbing on trees and rocks, adults over 40 are supposed to jog, not run by like a madman.
If, on one of my hard runs, I come to a narrow section, or a gate, say, and people are standing around talking, or just ambling along, it feels immature and slightly crazed to try to rush by them. So I slow down and act like I’m happy to jog on the spot for a moment. I try not to sound too out of breath or hurried, so they can see that I’m just a regular old adult trying to stay fit - and not some man-child racing along at sub-6-minute/mile pace, and desperate to get back to it so could you bloody well move out of the goddam way please!
Hill sessions are the worst. I try to find the most secluded hill I can. What sane adult runs up and down the same hill repeatedly. Funnily enough, I’m fine doing it with my running club. That doesn’t seem mad. In fact, training with the running club seems to legitimise all forms of running quickly and rushing by people at top speed - and I can’t wait for my local club sessions to be allowed to restart. But to do something like hill repeats on my own? People will think that I’m some sort of deluded oddball who thinks he's training for the Olympics or something.
If I pass someone halfway up a hill, and then again on the way back down, and then, if they’re really dawdling, yet again on the way back up, I feel a bit silly. I almost want to apologise. Sorry, I’m still chasing dreams of running fast at my age, I know, pathetic. I just really enjoy the burn, the feeling of strength it gives me afterwards, the happy glow of satisfaction. I know, I know, sad old git.
I was once running the last section of a 5K race in a local park in Exeter, giving it everything, straining every sinew to run under 18 minutes, and I heard two teenage girls walking by and one looked at me and then said to her friend: “God, some of them are taking it very serious.”
Yep, that put me in my place. In fact, it may be that comment that still haunts me now, every time I’m running unnecessarily fast.
In his book Running Free, Richard Askwith talks about how over time runners evolve through different stages of running. The young buck, who is eager to compete, chasing times, eventually evolves into the older runner who just enjoys running for the love of it. Times no longer matter, and it is just about getting outside and being in nature, feeling the movement, the sense of freedom.
I know what he means. And yet, I find running quickly and running slowly are two distinct experiences. And I enjoy them both. I love a slow run through a beautiful landscape, taking in the smells, stopping to drink it all in, feeling the easy motion, the freedom of my own self-propelled movement.
But I also love the thrill of the chase - whether it’s a race, or chasing down times or fitness. And I don’t only love it on trails, but sometimes, (whisper it), I just want a nice empty road to let loose on, to feel the legs turning quicker and quicker, surging faster and faster, and then checking my watch afterwards and finding that I just nailed a 5:20 mile - as I did this week on a 1-mile rep. The quiet satisfaction of those numbers still gives me a warm little boost. Is that childish? Is that just nostalgia? Am I still trying, desperately, like a middle-aged man in a leather jacket and a convertible, to cling on to my youth somehow?
It’s an interesting question, but you know what, I don’t mind. I have learned to chill out and enjoy running for its own sake over the last 10 years, taking in the scenery, running slowly, exploring the trails, and for that I’m grateful. But I’m quite content with the fact that also, sometimes, just sometimes, I still like to hammer it.