A goal without a goal

A couple of weeks ago, I texted my coach to ask how long I should plan to run for my longest run that week. In previous weeks, I’d been sent out for anywhere between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours, so I was anticipating a response somewhere in the middle. Her text said, “Aim for 3.” The last time I ran for three hours, I thought, I was wearing shorts and applying body glide instead of fleece-lined layers. I’d have to wake up before 4 AM to get this done on a Friday morning without then being late for day care drop-off and work. The weather prediction was for clear skies and 10 degrees or so, with a real feel of -1.

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Even so, the idea of getting up before 4 AM on a Friday, pulling on multiple layers, and running for three hours gave me a little tingle of anticipation. For the rest of the week, I felt a giddy pull towards Friday. I texted my coach just one last time to ask whether she wanted me to remove the heart rate cap and run slightly harder for the middle section of the run (the words “aim for 3” were, I knew, intentionally non-specific). Her reply: “what do you feel like doing?”

It’s a question she asks from time to time, and I used to worry about giving the right answer, thinking she must be looking for something. Should I say I want to do the harder thing so she’ll think I’m tough? Should I say I just want easy effort so she’ll know I’m disciplined? She doesn’t want the right answer; she wants the true answer. She would not be asking if she didn’t think that now is actually a perfect time to ask myself what I feel like doing. I’m not planning any races. I’m not courting any big goals, and I don’t have a wish list for this year in running, except to have another year as good as last year (and I recognize that part of what made last year great was my lack of big shiny goals). Right now, I just like doing the work, and I don’t feel like I need to “see” tangible results in the form of numbers that assure me that the work is working. It’s a pretty enviable place to be, from a mental standpoint. Case in point: my coach tells me to aim for three hours on my long run, and I don’t ask why; I just get excited. With no race ahead of me, no expectation of any sort of performance on the horizon, I don’t need a three hour run to mean anything or predict the future. I get to enjoy the mystery.

That first big rise from just before mile 4 to just before mile 4 is Gray Street in Arlington.

That first big rise from just before mile 4 to just before mile 4 is Gray Street in Arlington.

When nothing has to mean anything, it feels like there are no limits. The route I chose for my 3-hour run took me all the way up to the top of Arlington Heights, because honestly I just wanted to see what it would be like. Would it be fun? Would it be unbearable? Would I have to walk? How steep would it be, really? I used to look up Gray Street from Pleasant Street, if I were ever running in that direction, and think to myself, “Nope.” From the bottom, Gray Street looks like a straight shot to the sky. You can’t see the top; you can barely see the top of the first huge rise (and there are three, of which the first is the smallest). Even in times of peak fitness, hills that steep used to scare me. On the many occasions that I’ve gone running in my parents’ neighborhood, in nearby Belmont, I’ve avoided Arlington Heights like it was Mordor. Heart rate cap or no heart rate cap, I have never been fit enough to approach those hills with anything resembling calm. It wasn’t that I was calm about them this time, either; they are objectively scary, and I knew there was no way they wouldn’t be challenging to climb. The feeling-in-chief, though, was one of curiosity. How was this going to go?

The mental state I am trying to describe is one of surrender. Surrender to the huge hill; it’s not going to get any smaller, so either run up it or don’t. Surrender to the three-hour run; it’s just a really, really long run, which doesn’t have to mean anything except that you get to have a really nice big cup of coffee and hot shower after. Surrender to the work; as MK likes to say, it don’t need you to like it, it needs to get done. I’m starting to think that I could carry this attitude all the way to the start line of a marathon this year. I’ve been wary of setting that particular intention; I’ve so enjoyed not caring about measuring my fitness and assessing it on any level. The last time I ran a marathon, I had really big hopes for the number on the finish clock, and I didn’t get what I wanted. I am not ready to set myself up for that again. I’m starting to believe that maybe I can approach the marathon with a similar balance of excitement and relaxation. Curious about the outcome instead of determined to mold it to my expectations. What would this be like? I don’t know that I’ve ever trained for a marathon with anything approaching calm, but maybe this time I can do it.

There may be no truer answer to the question “What do you feel like doing?” than my Google search history, and right now, it’s pointing me towards a fall marathon, within driving distance, relatively low cost and unlikely to sell out before race week. Unless, of course, the New York City lottery decides to favor me. Either way, there’s a start line somewhere out there for me.