There are probably two types of endurance runners: those who run-walk-run and those who run without stopping.
Let me explain.
Yesterday, I completed my second marathon. I did not stop once--not to pee, not to stretch, and not to walk. I slowed down to drink Gatorade and water and to eat a couple of gel packs because it is actually really freaking hard to drink and run at the same time. At several points, I spilled Gatorade all over myself and probably on several runners in my vicinity. I also got energy gel on myself and had sticky hands for the last six miles of the race, which probably ended up being a good thing because it distracted me from the discomfort of my legs screaming at me and cramping with displeasure.
Anyway, I was shocked to see that even in the last two miles of the race, people were walking. I was a little angry that people were walking when we were so close to the finish line. Not this trick again, I thought.
The phenomenon of run-walk-running is not new to me; in high school cross country, I used to be infuriated by this because some people who adopted this strategy actually beat me in a few races. The truth is, the run-walk method actually works for some people, even if it seems like a newbie strategy or a way to cheat the system. In my mind, being a runner means running and not stopping. To me, the whole point of being a runner is to prove how far you can run in consecutive miles. But I realize now that this is not how everyone races and that it doesn't necessarily make me faster than those who stop for breaks.
I am trying to dig deeper to understand my rage over run-walkers. Yesterday, a man in a rainbow tutu kept passing me every twenty minutes or so. The tutu only made his strategy more infuriating to me--how dare a man flaunt his colorful tulle in my face and then stop to walk! Admittedly, at this point I was on mile 19 and my thoughts were irrational.
Let me back up a bit. When I race, I like to play games with myself. I pick runners around me who seem to be matching my pace and I decide one of two things: they are my buddies and we are going to race together, or they are in my way and must be passed. It's a harsh way of looking at things, but helps me to keep going.
Early on in the race, I chose a man who seemed to be matching my pace. He had a tribal tattoo on his ankle that made him easy to track. I don't know his name, but he looked like a David so let's call him that.
Well, David let me down. We were doing so well, David and I. He was clearly stronger at hills, but I was good at using the downturns to my advantage and I always caught up to him. I passed him on straightaways, and then he'd notice me and we'd fall back into pace again.
And then I lost him after 13 wonderful miles together. Wtf, David? Did you stop to drink some of the beer that those Drexel frat boys were handing out at the sidelines? Had I been living a lie and you were never really my pace soulmate to begin with? I tried forming new partnerships with other runners, but alas, none were as perfectly paced and I ultimately decided that tutu man was my best bet moving forward, even if he was a run-walker. I vowed that I would beat this man, but ultimately I didn't. Instead, I stuck to my strategy: no matter what, do. not. stop. Do. not. walk.
So who's in the right? Tutu man or me, the diehard runner who never stops? I used to think I was better than the run-walkers, but I realize I'm just lying to myself. They get shit done too, and they aren't being willy nilly about it. There is a strategy to taking breaks, but I am just too afraid that if I stop running, I won't start back up again. When I stop, I never fully regain the sense of accomplishment that I felt from non-stop running.
And therein lies the difference between run-walkers and runners: I might slow down, but I never stop. To me, this is more of an accomplishment than meeting my goal time or running pain-free. I ran 26.2 miles without a single break, and to me that's something to be proud of. But what if that's not the point of a marathon for a large percentage of runners? The act of walking (or in some cases, stopping completely) makes these run-walkers look weaker and less experienced, but maybe that is part of the strategy: take smart breaks that make others underestimate you. Although running is a very individual sport, make no mistake that we take stock of whom we're passing and who's passing us. Runners are competitive in a very individualistic way--we like to study each other's movements and patterns. We want to see when people peak and when they break. I felt strangely comforted when, in the first mile, some guys stopped to pee behind a dumpster, most likely from sheer nerves or naivete about the length of the Port-a-Potty lines prior to the race. I was not surprised when we lost several runners around the half-marathon mark. I admired runners wearing matching t-shirts and sticking together in solidarity, something that I've never been good at in my constant race against myself. It's these kinds of things that runners like to study. We want to know where our individual journeys intersect with others. We are curious how many of us like to think we're extreme, and what gets us to that point.
I used to be fearless about stopping. As teenagers, my cousin and I would go out late at night when we were down the shore (at the beach for you non-Jerseyites) and we'd lie down in the middle of the road just to see how long it would take before a car would come by and we'd be forced to move. This activity was thrilling to me--the act of totally surrendering to non-movement. How quickly could I get up in response to an oncoming vehicle? How soon would I notice a headlight in the distance when my eyes were turned towards the sky?
Now, I realize that there are different definitions of efficiency, and that to stop running entirely is one of them. Slow and steady doesn't always win the race. We've been lied to about how to finish the race and told that there's only one way. We've been told that to be runners, we must run. But they do not tell us that there are other ways, and that these ways still fit within the parameters of success. I'm not sure who "they," is, but let's just say it's the Man.
In the face of 25 mile an hour winds yesterday, I chose to run. Others walked. I hugged the curves, and recited a phrase I read in Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: "I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead." Machines do not slow down against wind resistance. Machines do not have muscles that cramp. Machines do not feel cold air slicing through their lungs. Machines do not stop until the job is done.
This mantra helped me to finish the race as a non-stop runner. But I wonder what helps run-walkers to start again. I am not as familiar with the mantras of those who have a different type of willpower from mine: the ability to flit in and out of resting and active states. I am, at the end of the day, a bit jealous of them. The man in the tutu seemed pretty pleased with himself, sashaying through the water stations while holding his Gatorade steady in his hand, not fearing that he'd spill a drop.