I’m shifting gears this week and instead of writing about travel learnings, personal musings and stories, I’m focusing on a hobby: running. If you had just asked me a week ago, I’d deny running was a hobby of mine. Hobbies are something you like, not something you dread. Hobbies bring you joy and value, not pain and discomfort. In short, until last night, I had hated it.
I have had a long relationship with running, likely having peaked sometime at the ripe athletic age of 16 and then sliding downhill ever since. Yes, I’ve run a marathon (twice if you count a 2007 Ironman), but I haven’t enjoyed it since I was in high school over fifteen years ago. Flash forward a decade and a half, and my most excited runs were ones to really delicious restaurants in San Francisco or to catch my flight.
Despite having competed in three seasons of competitive running as a teenager every year (and even being the captain of those teams, shockingly), I abandoned the sport when I left for college after I discovered cycling. For years after, cycling was my favorite hobby and a sport that took me racing across the country, making friends from all over the world, and even granting me the lucky opportunity to coach two collegiate teams filled with talented and wonderful people. I trained, raced and had the best time of my life, happily putting in 15+ hour training weeks through frigid winters in Connecticut and New York, wet soppy miles in London, and making up for it all in the glorious sunshine and mountains of California.
But in 2015, I made a conscientious decision to focus on a new, exciting and demanding job, one that would take me around the country several times a month and one where I was working more from an airport or Uber/Lyft than from an office. The bike, with its high maintenance equipment, always made me feel disappointed each time I rode – slower, exhausted and stretched for time. The old climbs of California that I had once loved and looked forward to greeting lost their magic.
But instead of the reasonable decision to finding a new, less time consuming athletic endeavor, I became a complete couch potato and convinced myself it was enjoyable. I ran, cycled or moved maybe once every one to two weeks and had more weeks of no activity than ones with any activity (compared to training 5-7 days a week in past years). Then one year ago, a few friends signed up for a hellaciously hilly trail running race in Pacifica, California. I was going to attend to support my Company, who actually enjoyed running and had entered the race months earlier. The night before the race, however, my Company made the tactical decision to stay out drinking with a friend instead of going to bed early. I joked that I’d enter the race – just to make fun of him if he felt badly because of his pre-race decision (I am very supportive). I kept true to my promise, through all 10 kilometers and every rocky steep, terrible hill. I threw up three times and swore three-dozen times but somehow, magically, by some sick twist of the universe, ended up 3rd in my age group and 6 minutes ahead of my Company who said after he finished, “You are so cray cray!”. Races are funny like that. Objectively I know at this point in my life, they mean nothing other than getting together with a group of friends, making new friends, and trying to set a goal for yourself in a supportive, though obviously competitive, environment. I rationally know this, but somehow when I enter a race, the excitement overwhelms me and I can’t help but try so obsessively hard as to throw up three times (sorry for the person behind me)!
The Montara Coast Trail race reminded me once more how fun competition could be. I was determined to take better care of myself. Running, with its efficiency – throw a pair of shoes into the suitcase and you can do it just about anywhere – was the top choice even though each jog felt painstakingly slow and boring compared to the bike. Also, my own body – with my heavy and strong quads and hamstrings – was still conditioned for the bike rather than to carry my own body weight. Despite this, in 2018, I made the resolution of doing some running, at the very least gaining enough fitness to not hate it.
How have I done so far? I was slipping for the earlier half of 2018, sliding back into my couch potato, eat-too-much-pizza and have-too-many-drinks-with-bourbon ways but tactically entered the Big Sur 11-mile race, a beautifully hilly coastal race right on California Route 1 with live music. I trained the best I could. It was pitiful (I barely broke double digit TOTAL number of runs in the 4 months leading up to it). Once again, the mysterious race gods gave me the race-day crazy that fueled a pace of 8:19min/mi (including a few stops to take pictures and chat with my Company) which was 2 solid minutes/mi faster than my less-than-stellar 3 mile “training” runs during work lunches.
So with all this history in mind and in June when I began traveling, I decided to keep my resolution. I would tour each new place I’m in with runs. So far, even through the craggy, rocky caldera of Santorini, I have discovered and enjoyed the most breathtaking bays, mountains and trails by foot and with a heart rate at threshold. I have jogged through ancient temples in Athens and across historic parks in Sevilla. In Bologna, food capital of Italy, I ran after big lunches to make room for dinner smelling the fresh tortellini, mortadella and parmigiano (yes, this was actually a tactic – even the waiter suggested it!). Even in the furnace of Andalusia, I heard the songs of flamenco through the hillsides of Granada while slogging my way slowly through gnarly forested trails, discovering hillside caves I would have missed otherwise. And finally, in the hilly wine country of southern Germany, bordering Switzerland and France, I found my own running legs again, which had been lost sometime between 2004 and 2007. They’re still slow, but I can enjoy them now.
In the heat of July and August, I would leave an hour before sundown – allowing the trails to get me lost into some unknown, undiscovered beauty in the hillsides I longingly looked at all day – and go deeper into the forest, uncovering wine paths, farms and berry brambles. Last night, during one of these runs, my mind wandered in many directions. I thought about my family, friends, the gratefulness for what I have in my life so far, and the long way I still need to go to achieve my own potential. I soaked in the beauty of the sunset. My legs took me through a birch forest, across a ridge, past a picnic at the top of a hill, through small towns one street long (where every single person looking at this Asian-American running, soaked and lathered in sweat psychotically exercising during an unprecedented heat wave, must have had some confusion), and back again. My hellos to passer-bys were filled with gutentag, grietse, and bonsoir. But never, not once, did I think the entire time: I don’t like this, my legs hurt, this is boring, or, I’m so slow.
Having been a competitive athlete for a while and quite geeky by nature, I’m still a little obsessed with numbers.
- Resting HR is 46-47; this is the same as the extreme couch potato days.
- About 2 months ago, when I began trying to run more regularly, my Garmin Forerunner 235 said my VO2 max was 44 ml/kg/min. Now it is at 50. I’m curious to see how much higher it’ll go before leveling off.
- I couldn’t do more than 12 mi/week in June. Now I think I can do 30 mi/week fairly easily.
- In training, anything over 4 miles felt really painful. Now, it’s at about 7mi.
- I don’t plan on entering any races yet, but I’d like to compare race times (maybe a half-marathon to compare to the Big Sur times and see if I can go faster than ~8:20 min/mi).