Monday, April 5, 2010

The relativity of quality

The latest issue of Runner's World has an article featuring several "everyday-joe/jane" runners along with a description of their current self-initiated training programs and advice on how to improve them.

One of the female runners profiled is a pediatrician who puts in a crazy number of miles every week, including "easy" 2-3 mile runs squeezed in during her lunch hour or other odd blocks of free time during the day. RW's advice to her was to cut out those easy runs, terming them "junk miles" and for her to concentrate instead on the quality of her longer runs. According to the experts at RW, these relatively smaller distances do very little towards the goal of measurable improvement.

This made me pause. In her world, with her overall weekly mileage base, this may have been a sage piece of advice - but in my world, there's no such thing as junk miles.

Every time I make the decision to get out there and go for it, regardless of the distance, I am rewarded. Every single mile I put behind me is, in my opinion, another tiny little triumph in a long successive string of accomplishments. Every purposeful step I take that isn't walking - be it running, jogging or plodding - is another minute but tangible increase in the staying power of my lungs, heart and muscles. It's one more mile closer to being ready for Portland in October.

While I was reflecting about the content for this post, another thought occurred to me about the concept of junk miles and improvement: for those of us who run simply because it's something we love, why is there a relentless drive to continually improve on what we already know and do as if improvement was the only end to the means and nothing more? What's the real point in working to finish a 5K in 29 minutes versus 30 minutes, when once upon a time a 30 minute finish was perfectly adequate? Or even amazing? Will finishing that race in 29 minutes make one a better person? Will it somehow change one's destiny in life?

I suppose this is one of those philosophical questions whose only immediate response is something along the lines of "it!" The drive to outdo ourselves is strong; perhaps it's akin to one of those many and varied elements that define being human. But I strongly believe there comes a point where this drive must stop, or it will be stopped because it cannot go any further.

Eventually, we will discover there's no way the current world record for the mile can be broken. There will come a time where ultramarathoners will be forced to draw the line about how far one can push oneself at a sitting (unless you're Dean Karnazes, apparently.) Similar to elite runners, everyday joes and janes have their limits as well, based on a number of factors, and they too will need to identify the boundary beyond which it is simply impossible to traverse. The sky will indeed reveal itself as the limit, contrary to the idea of "inifinite reach" the phrase is commonly understood to represent.

This is somewhat extreme thinking, I know...but the application of such thinking with recreational runners like me ultimately translates into learning to simply be content with what one can do. A couple weeks ago, I thought differently, going on a bit of a rant to my online running friends about how discontent I was with consistent back-of-the-back-of-the-pack finishes and frustration with not being able to maintain sub-13 minutes miles for any serious length of time.

Fortunately for me, I spend a fair amount of time reflecting on things, and this has been a hot topic in my head for quite a while. I've finally accepted that there's no shame in acknowledging limits. This isn't to say improvement is bad, because increasing my speed and endurance means increasing my overall fitness, which is definitely a good thing. Besides, I am confident improvement will occur if I am consistent with my regimen. What this thinking does is refocus the energies normally spent on obsessing about improving back onto the one thing that gets most of us out on the road to begin with - the simple and life-affirming joy of running for running's sake.
And seriously -- there is no such thing as junk miles!!


Andrea Lewis-Polk said...

Very insightful! Enjoyed it.

Keep loggin' those 'junk miles' Julie. You're doin' great!

Alison said...

Wow, awesome post, it really resonated with me, still a newbie and everything counts but sometimes running is just fun, why would that be junk.

Jules said...

Hi Alison -


Hopefully it will still be fun even when the "newbie" phase has passed on... ;-)

When it stops becoming fun and mentally/physically fulfilling, I will probably stop...but I don't see that ever happening.