I’ve been distance running in some capacity since I was 12-years-old. It started the summer before my seventh grade year when I was preparing to join the middle school cross country team and would run laps of my parent’s yard while my dad stood in the driveway with a stopwatch, recording my mile time. Now, it looks like following a specific training plan for an upcoming December marathon.
As part of my training, each Sunday, I go on a long run of increasing distance. When you are running 16, 17, 18+ miles, in one morning, you start to optimize. For a morning pre-work run, I’m casual about what playlist I have on and what shirt I’m wearing. For long runs? I’m hyper-strategic. I know what underwear and sports bra I’m going to wear to avoid chafing, which socks will help my feet feel the most supported, and of course what combination of podcasts and playlist will keep me engaged and encouraged as I spend hours in the park.
My preferred long run strategy is an out and back. For a twenty miler, then, it means running 10 miles out in any particular direction, turning around (usually awkwardly), and running 10 right back. You can zone out, relax into your headphones, and focus on your form. Easy. I like knowing where there are water fountains to refill my running bottle, where the cleanest public restrooms are, and at what mile points I should tap into my supply of gummies and gels.
But a recent long run had me throwing all this organization out the window and reminding me why I fell in love with running in the first place and that is this simple fact—running is play.
The first time I ran 17 miles from my boyfriend’s home, I found an out-and-back that was more-or-less fine. I noted one water bottle fill-up spot and though I wasn’t thrilled with the hillyness, I was pleased I’d found a way to make a long run work from there. A week later, I had an 18 miler and I set out from his home that morning, imagining I would take the same tried-and-true path that I knew.
I set off that morning with a playlist of fun songs that is perpetually downloaded to my phone and found myself smiling and laughing over the hills until I reached an intersection. To turn left was to follow the path I knew was reliable and sidewalk friendly. But then I felt that tickle in the back of my brain nudging me gently, ah, but what if you turn right?
So right I went, careening down a hill with no idea where it might lead—praying I wouldn’t regret the incline on the return. I veered into a park where teenagers were playing soccer and children were swinging at the jungle gym. I tossed out any notion of “out and back” and looped that park until I was dizzy because you see running is not just play, running is exploring—not just what the human body can do but what lies around this corner or up a street or beyond that bridge.
I stopped thinking about where the sidewalk would end and started appreciating that I still had one beneath me. And when it did inevitably give way to bramble, I turned around and found a new path to follow.
There is something, surely, good about a reliable and predictable path. And there are certainly times when it does our mind solace to run in this way. I’ve become a smarter, safer, and holistically better athlete because I know how to take care of myself while training. But I hope I never get so lost in the practicality of a thing that I forget why I started.
I hope I always remember that crazy sock day at cross country practice never hurt anyone. That singing on a run only makes our lungs stronger. That each time I lace up my shoes I carry the life and love and memories from my teammates. That, at the end of the day, I am so lucky to have the opportunity to play.