19th November 2004. It was a chilly Friday-lunchtime run, just over a week before the Leeds Abbey Dash 10k. That was when The Thought first properly hit me; but it settled very deeply. By the long Sunday run, I had accepted it almost with a sense of relief, of having arrived somewhere.
I had to stop hurting myself. I had to follow – properly – that No1 piece of advice in all the books and articles: listen to your body. When I listened, mine was telling me “Please stop, you keep hurting me!”
So we had a good long talk, me and my body, and I made a conscious decision: I made a solemn promise to my body that after this race I would not hurt it like that any more. My first emotion at the time was one of loss, that I would no longer be improving, no longer be getting faster or going further, not racing with the same intensity. My PBs would be frozen, and I would have to speak of them in the past tense.
Over an extended period, what I learnt evolved into The Art of Running Slowly. By 2010 my running log spreadsheet had been renamed “TARS.xls” and my running had fundamentally changed.
Simply, the Art of Running Slowly is an acceptance that you do not need to always be quicker than before; that you do not always have to be running the fastest you can.
This can mean having to jettison the principles that have always underpinned your running. It relies on a different motivation: that instead of having to run your fastest, you run simply for the joy of running, for the act of running in its own right. But once you discover this, TARS has some profound benefits.
And now, with the wisdom of a few more years, I feel that TARS has been a blessing, a gift.
Firstly, I will be able to continue running for longer.
Had I continued to push harder and keep injuring myself, ultimately that must inevitably have resulted in some serious problem which would have forced me to stop. Instead, having turned fifty last year I am in good shape: my tally so far is five Marathons, and thirty-four Half-Marathons. Of those, one marathon and thirteen halves have been since that November day, and I am convinced that I would not have been able to do those without TARS.
Secondly, I can run further.
Running more gently means that (even apart from the less frequent injuries) there is less wear-and-tear, less fatigue, that you burn energy less quickly. Hardly rocket science but once you accept it, the dividend can be dramatic and unexpectedly rewarding. In fact, it becomes self-fulfilling: by running more moderately you keep going longer, and as a result your endurance progressively increases, so in a short time you can keep going longer, and so it repeats and builds. Ten, twelve, fourteen-mile runs become normal; and with that, the choice and flexibility of routes become wider, and you can reach and combine more of those special places.
Thirdly, quite simply, I enjoy the runs more.
There is less pain. Also, I never have that disappointment of being outside my target-time. I am more aware of my surroundings and take in more of the scenery, the weather, the nature and the landscape. I can improvise and run wherever I want to, just because I fancy it, without being dictated to by a programme. On race days I can take in more of the atmosphere and event and circuit. There is a much more immediate and rather liberating sensation of the act of running in itself. Frequently, with the lower level of intensity, I have extended periods of cruising along almost without effort, with a smoother form, legs and body and heart and lungs all perfectly in balance.
TARS is as much a shift of mind as it is of body. I think there is a specific point, where you understand that you are inevitably getting older, and see clearly that there is only one direction for that to go. You notice that you have to work harder to achieve what you did before, that you respond less quickly, that the wear-and-tear is building up and injuries clear less readily.
Fundamentally, TARS stems from the moment when you accept that you do not always have to run faster than last time; that you do not have to keep pushing to go faster, further, always driving for another mile, or a minute off your time. Once you have crossed that line, it is liberating.
TARS does not mean that you have to drop your established running regime, whatever that is for you: stretches, gym, yoga, heat/cold, careful diet and rehydration are all just as important as ever. And you can still combine pace runs, threshold, fartlek, hills, reps, easy days and recovery runs… just take the pace down a notch or two.
TARS does not guarantee that you will suddenly become injury-free. Something in your body can still “go” without warning; and you can still turn your ankle in the woods. But there is an added benefit that when an injury does hit you, TARS can put enjoyment into the gradual build-up of the recovery, instead of it inevitably being a frustrating trial.
Nor does TARS mean that you have to give up the motivation and the thrill of taking part in events, with all the training, build-up, anticipation and enjoyment on the day. In fact, you can enjoy the day more because you are not punishing yourself so much. All it means is that instead of allowing the day to be dominated by a fixed target-time (which would no doubt have to be faster than the last) you moderate your targets to what is realistic and sensible for you, now.
In my case, that would mean a half-marathon in the 100-minute or 1:45 range, instead of pushing for sub-90. But do the sums: 10-15 minutes overall is a minute-a-mile, and the difference between a 7:00- and 8:00-minute-mile is immense. Your natural pace may be faster or slower than mine, but that doesn’t matter – the arithmetic and its effects will be the same.
Times are still important but the difference is that under TARS they are a signpost to how you are going, instead of the be-all-and-end-all of the run. You run at a pace that feels right and see how the time works out, instead of setting a fixed time and hurting yourself to hit it (or worse, hurting yourself and still missing it). You can still have a quick run, you can still be pleased at the time and analyse the splits, and you can still be proud of the distance or race result. But it’s not the time, it’s the run, and the joy of the running, that counts.
So, through the Art of Running Slowly you can continue to run for longer, you can run further, and you can enjoy it more. Can’t say fairer than that!