The long run: Sometimes strong makes you fast but not always.

Get to the fire hydrant. That’s all I had to do. I set my sights on the bright red bugger set on the side of the road just as the grade of the hill started to get painful. Once there, I could pause my watch and take a gel with water. As long as I ran to that fire hydrant I could hike up the hill instead of run up it — a bargain I made with myself. That made Mile 17 the slowest, by far, of my 18-mile long run on Sunday. But the long run isn’t about pace. Or rather, it’s not supposed to be about pace. Some will tell you it’s about time on your feet. Others that it’s a chance to practice race-day nutrition and give clothing and equipment a trial run. That’s all true. But I find there’s a much more important aspect of the long run.

The mind game.

I need the miles. Oh yes, I need the miles. I need to make sure my stomach can still take Vanilla Bean Gu energy gels every 45 minutes without doing backflips. I need to practice how much liquid I can drink at water stops before I get sloshy stomach. I need that painful reminder that yes, Amy, you DO need to apply something to prevent sports bra chaffing or else this whole expedition will get extremely uncomfortable.

But deeper than that, I need the opportunity to practice my mental game.

Recently I caught an episode of an endurance sports podcast where two women were explaining that nothing takes you to deep places in your soul like an ultra. You just don’t get there with shorter distances, they said. Maybe for them. Not for me. While I secretly am an aspiring ultra runner, I don’t need 50K to rip open my soul. Nor do I think that is the only way to get to those places — to face yourself, your fears, your dreams, your deepest part of yourself. For some people, a mile may push their limits. Others may discover their own strength, courage and doubt in a 5K. Some find it in speed. Others in distance. Where you find it makes you unique. The fact that we all face that at some point is what brings us together.

So back to my 18-miler.

IMG_3469 (1)The first 8 miles felt glorious. I held a pace that felt easy and comfortable. I resisted the urge to go faster. This was a long run — my longest since running the Hatfield and McCoy Marathon last June. I needed miles not speed. Also, I knew the route I selected — from my house on Lake Ontario to my parents’ house in Lockport — included a few hills in the last six miles. I needed to keep myself in check.¬†The first few rollers weren’t that bad, then came a long, gradual climb. I approached it this way: Pay attention to my body. How does it really feel? Do I need to fast walk? Or is it my mind that’s tired? At this point it was my mind and as I crested the hill, I took a sip of Gatorade and a quick photo of the waymarker because waymarkers are cool.

The last four miles were hard. There’s no way around it. To get from the Erie Canal to my parents’ house required going from Lowertown to High Street and the topography is exactly as the names imply. I allowed myself to hike up Market Street. I’ve run up this hill many times before, but it was the 17th mile of my long run, I was getting warm and my body said “fast hike.” Also, I figured it was good to practice fast hiking in a long run and not just throw it in during a race. But I needed to be OK with this mentally. I needed to make peace with it. Because part of me thought I should run up the hill. But a wiser part of me understood that it wasn’t about how fast I finished but about how strong I finished. There’s a distinction between the two. Sometimes strong makes you fast but not always.

If running is a journey, then there are bound to be obstacles in the way. On this long run, it was the elevation gain over the last six miles. As much as I would like my performance to reflect the work I’ve put in to my fitness and running, I had to confront the possibility that the two — performance and work — won’t always mesh. I had another opportunity to see and feel and experience that the outcome doesn’t define the journey — and face that during the run. What can I do right now? That’s what I asked myself in the moment. Because what I can do in that moment is the only thing that’s truly available to me. And if I give the question some breathing room, I can see that there are worlds of options in that moment. I just never took the time to consider them all.

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Post long-run pancakes because of course.