On Monday, Jason and I went out to our local hiking/walking trails for some exercise. These are the same trails where I learned how to run outdoors back in 2011 and where I ran some of my first unofficial 5ks. It’s a small area, but it has a good hill-heavy loop of 2.2 miles and a small loop of mild hills that’s 0.7 miles. The trails are mostly rocky and uneven, with swaths that flood out in rain and chunks with deep grooves, cracks, and runnels that you have to navigate around like old-style cobblestones. Not only do you get a workout from walking/running on hills, but you strengthen your ankles and abs on that kind of surface!
Back in 2011, when I first started running, my process was peculiar. I did C25K indoors and the run sections were in circles around my living room, so it was half running forward and half running in place. I only really discovered how oddly I was running during my first outdoor 5K, when I ran more up-and-down than forward, at a pace much slower than I could walk. After that 5K, I decided to redo C25K outdoors around the smaller loop at the trails. I’d spent well over a decade doing that more-jog-in-place-than-forward kind of run, though, so in order to break myself of the habit, I basically had to sprint my run sections with these long, leaping strides. Clearly, I wasn’t going to make it through ALL of the program by sprinting! It gave me a better feel for stride, though, and after awhile, I abandoned C25K and began adding run sections to the longer 2.2-mile loop at the park. Eventually I ran a full mile, and then a full 5K, and much later, longer distances.
I’m roughly at the same size as I began running in 2011, and I don’t want to go through the same kind of process. I don’t want my runs to be a heart-strain. Back in 2011-2013, almost all my runs had my heart rate in the 170s-180s, which is well above an aerobic level. I had a few good rare runs with my HR closer to the 150s, mostly toward the end when I learned how to run slower with good form. Recently I read about learning to run using heart rate rather than speed or distance to judge progress, and I really liked the idea. I don’t currently own any form of heart rate monitor, and the only way I can track distance or speed is with a walking app on my phone that is very basic and doesn’t do intervals or anything. Point being, if ever there was a good time to learn to run by feel rather than stats, it’s now.
On Monday, when Jason and I went out to the trails, we did two laps around the 0.7-mile loop. There’s a branch-off point that marks the rough halfway point of the loop, and most of the second half is on a very slight downhill. I decided to take the first step, and just start running at a pace that would be comfortable for my legs, heart, and lungs when the down(ish)hill section started, and go for as long as I was able. My pace was slow enough that Jason was able to keep up with me by speed-walking. Probably around 4mph or a 15-min mile pace, maybe even slower, I don’t know. And I don’t care. What I cared about was that the run was comfortable. And I ran all the way to the start of the second loop, roughly a third of a mile. What I cared about was that I could have continued longer, except that the beginning of the loop is a pretty steep hill, and that stressed my body too much to keep going. I stopped when my body started to feel stress. And over the second lap of the loop, I ran a few small sections in the first half, and then ran the entire second half again.
It felt great. Without an app or a heart rate monitor or a watch to track distance, speed, time, and effort, I could just GO without worrying. It didn’t matter that it was slow – it was running, and it was a lot longer than I expected to be able to run after MONTHS of not doing any running at all. It reminded me a lot of the only 10K I’ve ever done, which was probably my favorite run ever – slow pace (13:14/mi), HR and breath comfortable, first half run with a friend, second half with a delightful audiobook (The Chopin Manuscript). This is how I want to run again. Slow, comfortable, building strength over time until I can do the small hills as well as the downhill sections, and until I can run 5Ks again or longer, and without any fretting about pace and distance and personal records. This feels good.