How to Run 1500 Miles Without Trying

I collapsed on the sidewalk, shaking. My legs (biped betrayers) quivered in an apparent endothermic reaction as the humidity liquified my muscles into jello. I'm only a few miles from home but I'm mentally fatigued and physically drained as if the last drop of my will sank with me to the pavement. Over a span of roughly 2-1/2 years, I have run 1,498 miles. I'm two miles from hitting 1,500 and this is the first time I've collapsed. Today's run was to be an average four-miler, no big deal to most runners, yet I can't even finish. What happened? Why now?

Think ... think. You can't quit now. You've got to finish this. You never intended to run 1,498 miles, surely you can run two more. How did all this happen? How did you do it before? Think to forty pounds ago, what got you here? Not flat on your back, but how in the hell did you, the non-athlete, run nearly 1,500 miles?

My mind, the only thing racing at the moment, scans my memory for the different ways I stayed on task. If I can summon what kept me here for 1,498, I might be able to finish the two. Scrambling, I come up with five. Five fundamentals for the foolhardy non-athlete who, frankly, just doesn't know any better:

Tracking Mini-Wins

Forty pounds ago, my blood pressure was flailing and my stress level was … aspirational. So, I started walking. That's it. I never intended to run. Ever. I started walking on a large, expensive coat hangar (known in some homes as a "treadmill"). Taking the tired cliché "crawl before you walk" almost literal, I drug my lugubrious frame onto the sidewalk that leads nowhere and began my roly-poly pilgrimage, drenched in sweat and resentment. Driven to near madness by the monotony, I eventually started jogging (with intermittent walking). Me. Jogging. It was like one's first experience in an airplane at lift off minus the speed, finesse, and general enthusiasm but very similar in its white knuckle response. One mile became two, two miles became three, and inch by inch, plod by plod, I continued punishing my loitering carcass until I posted a mini-win. It's then that I started tracking all mini-wins. Mini-wins are the daily and weekly mile log. Nike's app enabled me to do this with ease, it became my strongest ally, my ablest running partner. The technology became my interim coach. You've done this before, you can do it again ... If you run just two more miles, you'll hit eight miles this week! For a couch potato, tracking mini-wins was the true champion of my running experience. It was a rare week when I didn't try to outpace what I did the previous week by simply tacking on one mini-win, one more block, one more mile. The breadcrumbs of my progression fueled my drive. If there were an angel and devil on my shoulder, the devil was self-criticism; the angel, history. History has a palliative effect on criticism. Glancing at my previous history, I gain the assurance: I have done it before, I can do it again.

Tiny Tasks

Mini-wins aren't fail-safe, sometimes the tick of tiny tasks can complete your entire trek home. They can be landmark tasks: I'm going to run to that tree then I'll walk for a half mile. They can be minimal tasks: Today, I'm just going to walk, I'm just going to get out there, I don't have to run but I have to keep moving. They can be sub-par tasks: I'm just going to try and finish with an 11:30 time, I'm not trying to win, I'm just trying to finish. They can be ambitious tasks: I'm going to knock a minute off my four mile average. Tiny tasks are imperative for a distance runner, they are wingman to a life of flight. The cumulative total of tiny tasks complete a marathon, a lifetime. Collectively, they form a bulwark against the assault of self-doubt. My mind is always teeming with self-doubt. The voices wouldn't begin only when I started running, they murmured when I woke up in the morning, when I couldn't walk because my muscles were rivers of lava. They whispered when I got home from work, as I started lacing up my running shoes, "who cares if you run today?". When I drove through the running park full of pretty people who could actually run (and not merely shift weight swiftly as it seemed all I could muster), the voice would say, "you don't look like that. You look like a slug; at best, a slug that just got salted." Self doubt was enthroned in my mind and it seemed its reign would never end. Tiny tasks slay the self-loathing dragon, one subtle stroke at a time. Ultimately, our fulfilled dreams in any endeavor are the sum total of our tiny tasks.

Chasing Sunsets

It rarely fails. I get home, throw on my gear, (feeling slightly confidant), I start running and within seconds my body assaults my mind: You idiot! This is stupid! It's painful! Turn around and go home! The barrage continues solidly for the first mile and the convincing voice drones on. Each time the assault begins, I look for beauty. I, personally, run for solitude and beauty. It can be as simple as a landscape, a field, a flower, the highway as it disappears into the horizon. I particularly love sunsets. Point me in the direction of a setting sun and I have a purpose for pounding pavement (or, in my case, dirt roads). The first five minutes of any run are the danger zone, the optimum time for quitting, the threshold on which my aluminum will can cater. If I can just get through the first five minutes, I can run for forty-five. I push my flat-footed, torpid mass forward for just a few more and swallow the bitter irony of killing myself to stay alive. Getting beyond the first mile or the first five minutes is akin to coaxing my heart down from a precipice and regaining my sanity. To help with this, I constantly look for beauty. I time my runs (if I can help it) to coincide with the sunrise. "If I can reach that hill in time, I can witness a beautiful sunrise". Sometimes, I'll take my camera or just use my iphone and post my runs on Instagram. Photographers take photowalks, I take photoruns. Chasing sunsets keeps me consistent. Even mid-run, when I want to quit, I'll take an alternate path so I can coincide with a hill, a unique view, a tree, anything to keep me running. One of my biggest lessons learned as a runner was to not always be a runner. Caught up in the insanity of always trying to best myself, I was missing the entire experience. I gave myself permission to stop and take several pictures of a windmill or a flower. If it cost me time and I averaged a 12 minute mile run, who cares? If I'm running toward something, I'm at least running.

Tune for Ton

An avowed music junkie, I put my formerly fast food double-down skills to work on all the music I could get my hands on. Music is the real prime mover. Music aficionados will often speak of the rapturous effect of music, how it can transport the listener to entire worlds unseen. Sometimes, music is literally a transport, a cargo carrier conveying gangly, heavy loads. Transported by playlists (ye olde mix tape on octane), I exhausted every artist in my music library from alpha to zeta. Music is my muse. A haunting melody, simple orchestral moments like the sonorous sound of nature in full effect, or a poem read by one of my favorite poets, it all comprises a respite from the frenetic pace of living. Like most people, I'm a busy person and I rarely have the time for retreat. I made running a micro-retreat by always stock piling songs and books and poems to listen to. After 250+ hours running, it sometimes means I've plumbed the depths of my purchased playlists but thanks to Spotify, music is a never ending reservoir. A premium Spotify account is $10 per month, this is cheaper and more enjoyable than Prinivil or Zestril or any other blood pressure medication and it means I don't have to drink the dregs of my purchased music collection. (You're close to the gates of hell when you have to listen to the soundtrack from Xanadu or the entire Culture Club collection on a searing blacktop highway, five miles from home in sweltering heat). When I hit the wall (I hit many walls), I return to my favorite playlists or my 185 BPM playlist. Music at 185 BPM is the perfect pace (according to the experts). In the early days of my running, I found playlists at 165 BPM then progressed to 170, 175, 180, until I learned that 185 is optimal. It means taking short strides. It's an ugly cadence for a non-athlete but it works (and is less painful). I know I actually look like Granny when I'm running, but in my mind, I'm cranking like Rocky Balboa up those concrete steps. If I falter, I put on the 185 playlist, finish my run, and pump my spindly arms in victory. It's no raw egg diet, nor cold meat punching bag but it works, it helps me finish when everything in me wants to quit. Music is an ally who keeps me in tempo with my goals. The professional runners tell you not to run with music, it affects your running; not running with music affects my living, so, I push play and keep running.

Be an Underachiever

"Don't overdo it. Underdo it. You aren't running because you are in a hurry to get somewhere". [1] Competitiveness drives some to excellence. Competitiveness drains others, leaving them to collapse in maudlin tears. I'm of the latter group, the weeping ones. All too often (this is small of me) I quit when I can't be the absolute best. A buddy and I once used the Nike app to push each other and track our "fastest times", "longest distances". It almost destroyed running for me. It was the millionth time I was tempted to quit but the first time I seriously considered forfeiting all together. The surprising part? I was winning most of the time but the competition killed my enthusiasm. Many people I know run for the social aspect, their buddies keep them accountable and provide a challenge and a distraction. I'm not trying to hang with my peers or best them in any way, I'm merely trying to be better than myself (a tall order in and of itself). And sometimes, to just finish for the day, I don't focus on beating a time, I don't focus on putting in more miles than last week, I don't worry about being better, I center on under-doing it. If I under-do it, I'll at least do it. Under-doing it keeps me from quitting.

In Jr. High and Highschool, I developed a strong aversion to running. When the athletes (those who actually made the track team) were practicing, the coach would send those of us who didn't make the team (pitiful wretches) onto a mini-bataan march across a circuitous cross-country path that, if run correctly, would keep us busy for exactly the amount of time it took to fill up the class period. (Convenient for a coach who didn't want to babysit reprobates). Our minds brewing in a pool of pissy attitude, we stumbled amid irrigated fields, cutting our own trail of tears across acres of torture. At the school I attended, you were forced to try out for sports. Many of us practically volunteered our cut from sports by exerting minimal effort during tryouts. We wanted to accelerate our "release" only to discover we would be conscripted to run long distances (damn irony, such a bitter brew). The coach, in his characteristic, innocuously evil humor would point his crooked finger toward the horizon every day and say, "go chase that pink elephant, boys" and we would go hunting in hundred degree heat for an elusive pachyderm until our lungs were close to combustion from our ill-fated safari. (Geniuses we were; athletes we were not).

That pathetic thirteen year old and his overweight forty year old self would both cackle riotously if I were to tell them they would someday run 1,498 miles. I believed then, as I'm tempted to believe now, that it is supposed to be easy. That the glorious athletes and the pretty people do it because it becomes easy to them and they enjoy it. It's a lie. Though it becomes slightly easier, it's never easy. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield published a manual for artists that may as well be a guidebook for runners. One gem I polish frequently is this:

The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist. - Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

I'm no runner. If I am, I'm certainly no dread-free runner. I never set out to run 1,500 miles. Never. If I had, I would have quit 1,498 miles ago. Running had it's own learning curve and I learned that what I loved most were the fringe benefits. Most of my runs weren't euphoric, but were interspersed with enough euphoria to keep me chasing sunsets. I relished the pleasure of competing with only myself and I learned that I didn't need to become an athlete, I only needed to do what worked for me.

Back at mile 1,498: Confident as a newborn calf, I wobble to my feet. My legs are still shaking, my equilibrium is on a carousal, but I think, I can do this. I find my 185 BPM playlist. I glance at last week's mini-win. I look for the next tiny task, a small landmark in the distance. I lift my eyes toward the setting sun.

I finish 1,500 miles.


[1] The Zen of Running, Fred Rohe