Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 19 Jan 2008 06:11:21 -0500

Pacing Patiently


(rerun from January 2002 RW)

Distance running is one sport that requires doing less than your best most of the time. That is, you hold back now so you can keep going later.

You can't run any early mile of a long race all-out, or you won't finish. You can't train your hardest every day without ever easing off or resting, or you won't last long.

Running far requires that you pace yourself. Take that word "pace," split it in half, add a few letters, and you have "patience." That's what pacing is, an exercise in patience.

Walking to the Portland Marathon start one year, I happened to pass a church. Chiseled in concrete on one wall was the line, "Run with patience the race set before you."

Someone more religious than I told me later that these words are Biblical, from Hebrews 12:1. All I knew at the time was how wisely they speak to runners, especially on marathon day.

A marathon demands patience, as gratification there is long delayed. The race doesn't start on race morning but months earlier with the decision to enter and the commitment to train. You spend more of the training days holding back than pushing ahead.

Even on marathon day the wait for your final reward is long, with many hours of running separating the start from the finish. The early miles feel too easy, but you restrain yourself then so the late miles won't seem unbearably hard.

Even while pacing yourself well, you almost surely will run into what the British call "bad patches." Your patience is put to its sternest test as you wade through and wait out the inevitable trouble spots -- injuries, illnesses, crises of energy and confidence -- that threatened to end your big effort too soon.

The lessons of pacing yourself patiently while training for and running marathons carries over to the race of your life -- the one that you hope will have no finish line except the ultimate one. Here the right pace is one you can maintain indefinitely, through the good years and the not so good.

One year in a longtime runner's life is like a mile in a marathon. You don't run the first mile in six minutes if you're planning to finish with an eight-minute average. And you don't push the pace too hard in any season or year if you still expect to be running strongly next year, or a decade or more down the road.

Either in races or in life, you can push hard for a short distance or back off for the long haul. Rare is the runner who can handle an intense pace for a long time.

In my fifth decade as a runner, the length and pace of runs are nothing to shout about. But I take certain pride in the longevity because it isn't always easy to maintain.

The year 2000 tested my patience more than any similar period had before. Without going into the gory details, I caught a long-lasting, strength-sapping illness that nearly erased all running for two months.

Finally recovered from that, I fell on a sidewalk and did slow-healing damage to a hip. Running never stopped for more than a day, but the runs themselves were never shorter or slower.

Here's where patience came into play. I couldn't rush recovery but had hold back, do what was possible and wait for better days ahead. Pace myself, in other words.

Taking a longterm view is most important during and right after a bad-patch period. The urge is to break through the trouble -- to pick up the pace and make up for lost time.

This is a time to stay within comfort-zone pace. Let progress come instead of trying futilely to hurry it.

The waiting isn't as hard as it might sound, as long as you see hope for eventual recovery. One bad day is an eye-blink in the life of a runner; it's like a few steps in a marathon. One bad month is but a marathoner's minute; one year, less than a mile.

Taking the long view of pace gives you patience, and with patience comes peace of mind. Fittingly that word "peace" is in Italian spelled p-a-c-e.

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