In Praise of Running, In Praise of Not: My Longest Off Season Yet

My years living in the mountains in Colorado taught me the value of taking an annual off-season from running—and every fall since, I’ve tried to take a few months off from training and racing in order to give my body and mind a break. I redirect many of the hours I usually spend running to sleeping more, reading books, writing stories, cooking, journaling, and reconnecting with family and friends—especially those who don’t share my affinity for jogging around the mountains.

I credit this annual intermission with keeping me injury-free for the past decade, and unacquainted with burnout. This has been especially key in the past three years, during which I’ve dedicated more and more time to training, even as I have simultaneously piled on other life obligations as well.

Not that my off-seasons are all sunshine and rainbows! Typically, after a week or two of blissful post-race satisfaction, I tend to crash pretty hard mentally. I underestimate how much I rely on endorphins to keep me happy—how the compelling metaphors of running and training help me believe in myself in the rest of my life. Running is the closest thing in my life I’ve ever had to religion. (I even have a running playlist on Spotify I named “The Church of Chirico.”)

After all, when I nail a challenging workout before the rest of my day has even started, it gives me the confidence to also kick ass at work, at writing, at marriage, at parenting, at being a good friend and citizen and neighbor and friendly stranger to the humans I encounter in the world on a daily basis. I sometimes take that energy and mental health for granted during the year, the way that running builds me up and helps me be my best self. I forgot how much genuine joy I find in (busy) routine; how comfortable I am treating life not like a meditation mat, but like a jigsaw puzzle I’m trying to solve at 100 miles per hour.

I am not great at sitting still.

So usually, by mid November, I’m itching hard to lay down a race schedule for the next year and start training my ass off again. I’ve surprised myself this year by not feeling that tug at all.

My first inclination, of course, was to panic. To think that it’s finally happened—I’ve burnt out! Drat. My second inclination was to steamroll right over my ambivalence, sign up for some races and trust that the fire will rage again, as it always does the moment I’ve inked my name on a registrants list on Ultrasignup. My third inclination, though, was to do something completely crazy, and choose to take an entire year off from racing, instead of just a few months.

Questions immediately hit me like a tidal wave: Could I do that without going insane? Without sacrificing my identity as a runner? Without freaking out that I’m never going to race hard again? Will I still be happy?

I don’t have answers to any of those questions yet, but I have noticed that, at some point along the way, it seems that our trail/ultrarunning community began equating “being a runner” with “running races.” In fact, you can hear that attitude in my own tone in a blog entry I wrote five years ago entitled, “Is Ultrarunning—or Any Other Great Passion in Life—Sustainable?

But does someone have to race in order to count as a runner? Many of the runners I most look up to these days don’t run races. I never want to fall into the trap of thinking I’m only as good as my last race.

Don’t get me wrong; I love training hard and racing—but my thoughts on this have always been complicated. An early draft of my blog post on Cascade Crest this year contained a paragraph I wound up editing out at the time, because it seemed like it needed to just be its own blog post at a later stage. I guess this is that later stage. I wrote: I am not always confident that the time I have devoted to training these past few years is worth the sacrifices (sleep, time spent with loved ones, opportunity to pursue other passions like reading and writing). On the other hand, if it continues to hand me experiences like this one, provide lessons that spill over into the rest of my life, and connect me to all the people I’ve mentioned in this blog post + hundreds more I have met through this sport over the years, it’s hard to put a price tag on that.

I’m not burned out on running at all. Cascade in August left me more in love than ever with this wild sport, and plenty hungry to continue plumbing its depths (i.e., my own). Each year, thanks in large part to George’s tough love, encouragement and unwavering belief in me, I have discovered new levels of what I’m capable of. That’s immensely rewarding, and I have no desire to bid permanent adieu to that particular gift of running.

But maybe, at least for a while, I’m more interested in helping others experience that gift—most especially those who don’t think of themselves as runners (yet).

Two months ago, I started a beginner-friendly, social-pace lunchtime running club at my work—and it’s rapidly become a highlight of my work week. I love spending half an hour with people I might otherwise have never had an occasion to get to know. I love when they, in turn, invite other people to join the next week. I love spreading the running gospel.

Tuesday Run Club.

Meanwhile, my 15-year-old stepson, Jorge, signed up for cross-country this fall, and I’ve enjoyed attending his meets, watching him and his teammates work toward their goals all season, seeing them fall in love with running for many of the same reasons it romanced me when I was 15. Two weekends ago, his dad, brother, sister and I all cheered him on to a fourth-place debut at his first bona fide trail race, the Grand Ridge 5K, and it was awesome.

Jorge at his 5K.

I’ve taken my 11-year-old stepdaughter, Michelle, out trail running at Cougar or Tiger Mountain a few times now. We practice our vocabulary (I teach her SAT vocab; she teaches me Spanish words), taste-test various GU flavors, and take our sweet time covering the miles. I think it’s pretty much the best thing ever.

Running with Michelle.

A couple weeks ago, George and I ran into Jamie Gifford on Mount Si. Jamie’s a 15-time finisher of Cascade Crest, including two wins in 2004 and 2007—and even after being in this sport for three decades, he still loves running our backyard trails. He helped coach the XC team at Jorge’s high school a number of years ago. I want to be Jamie when I grow up! I was reminded, as I often am when I’m on Mount Si, of an essay by Martin J. Smith in a recent issue of Adventure Journal, titled “Home Stream: The joy of fishing the same stretch of water over and over.” In it, Smith wrote, Life’s treasures are all around us, within reach of those who have the time and patience simply to notice them. I intend to live here and fish until I die, and I sincerely believe I’ll die happy—even if I never again fish anywhere else. For me, repetition has become an act of exquisite memorization. Just as I find simple comfort in the faces of my wife and our children, I find it, too, in a perfect tongue of water that spills into a deep pool in the upper section not far from my back door.

Trails like Mount Si and Chirico are my (our) home streams—and if I spend a year running nowhere more exotic, I know that I will still be happy.

After I let the initial panic at the thought of not racing in 2020 settle, I felt a little flicker of excitement. I felt the valve release on the pressure I feel every fall to cram in all the writing projects I’ve put off all year because training took precedence over creative work; think of all the writing I could do with a whole year, instead of just a few months! I’m excited that my first book has just been published (it was written almost entirely during my three-month off-season in 2016), but for the past few years, I’ve been working on several other book projects as well. They are slow works in progress, though, because I’ve always made writing a lower priority than running. What if I flipped that switch for an entire year? Took the lessons I’ve learned from running (e.g., consistency = results) and applied them to my creative life?

Writing a book takes a lot of time. So does training for a 100-miler. Both are rewarding as hell.

Not that I necessarily want to replace a demanding physical regimen with a demanding mental one. Writing is f’ing hard, and again, maybe the point is: less 100mph jigsaw puzzle, more meditation mat. Maybe what I really need is a year of Netflix nights with my family. Of books and tea and my cat on my lap. Of cheering on Jorge at track and XC, Milton at basketball and strength training, and Michelle at gymnastics and flute and painting—and any of them at the occasional trail race of their own if they keep showing interest in that arena. Of continuing to grow my run club at work. Maybe what I really need is a year of getting lost again with George on silly, simple adventures in our backyard mountains. Our home stream.

I’m calling it my year of jogging, and I’m looking forward to it.