Running is a roller coaster.
When I first started running regularly, I was a junior in college and I ran 27 laps of the indoor track at Quinnipiac University. 3 miles. I never timed myself.
My next encounter with running was as a graduate student at Baruch College where I consistently ran 3 miles on the treadmill at a 6.0 speed. 10 minute miles. I didn't think I was capable of going any faster.
That is until I started attending weekly social group runs around New York City. My fear of losing the group and being left behind translated into running faster than I knew I could. It also convinced me that treadmills are the absolute worst.
Much like a roller coaster, the initial ascent is slow, shaky and stressful. Looking back, I don't even know how many miles it took until I was able to comfortably run 9 minute miles, and eventually, miles in the upper 8's. There were bumps along the way - achy body parts that needed to be iced and stretched, stressful days leading up to that first half marathon where I just wanted it to be over and done with or to never happen at all. A lot of that has to do with the fact that if we're using the top of the ascent as a symbol for race day - you have no idea what to expect.
You can read statistics of the roller coaster you're on - height, material it's built from, top speed, biggest drop. Just like runners read race recaps of those who ran the race before them. You can study altitude charts and figure out where in your race it will feel like you're climbing Harlem Hill. But until you're at the race, running it, you just don't know what you're in for.
Working up to a 5K, a 10K etc. is the hard part. It takes time. It builds up anticipation.
And just like a roller coaster, the descent is the reason that you do it. The weightless feeling of joy and invincibility is what we hope running will feel like on race day. We hope the moments of psyching ourselves out, stressing about every little detail, those aches and pains we felt so acutely on the slow climb to the top all fall away.
We throw our heads back and scream out - "THIS IS SO SCARY BUT SO MUCH FUN!" "MY LEGS HATE ME BUT I DID IT!" "I'M GOING TO THROW UP BUT IT'S FINE!"
After a drop like that, after a race like that - you need some time to soak it all in. The track leading you back to the unloading area of a roller roaster is the recovery time. If you're anything like me, that time includes a lot of relaxing and deep breathing.
During the days after a race, I tend to let go a little bit in terms of my healthy eating, drinking, sleeping and exercise habits. The effort of the race, the intensity of the roller coaster, determines how much time I need to decompress.
But without a doubt, eventually, I'm ready for that next big thrill ride. Once you ride Superman, you know that eventually you need to put on your big girl pants and go for Kingda Ka. Finished your first half? You knew the day you'd sign up for a marathon was inevitable.
It's important to take the time you need to feel ready for the next challenge. Unfortunately, while you take the time to feel mentally prepared, your physical preparedness takes a hit fairly quickly.
You finished that half marathon with an 8:30 pace, so how come when the safety bar comes down and you start making your way back up to the top of the newest coaster, you're running 9:30 miles and it all feels so hard and scary again?
That's what we as runners, and brave humans do. We are to willing submit ourselves to hard work and uncomfortableness because we know what it feels like to reach that crest.
If we want to take the metaphor one step further, within The World of Running amusement park you have some other common attractions.
The Ferris Wheel is like yoga and stretching. You usually forget about it, can't be bothered to take a second to slow down with so many other exciting things around. But when you finally do it, the view from the top reminds you of the bigger picture. In full bind when you finally feel that hip flexor relax, you're grateful for the tortuously slow and boring yoga class you dragged yourself to.
The tilt-a-whirl is foam rolling because you have a total love-hate relationship with it. It works. As a ride, it succeeds in getting your adrenaline pumping. As injury relief, it succeeds in breaking up knots and releasing tension. But as a ride AND as injury relief - damn does it hurt! I think we all know the feeling of being crammed in a tilt-a-whirl with people who seem 200 pounds heavier than you. When you spin left, it's great. When you spin right, the life is being squeezed out of you. When you lay on the foam roller and crack your back - ahh, sweet relief. When you roll over that knot-ridden hamstring - Sweet Jesus!
Every amusement park is different - a different layout, a different strategy for making the most of your day there. Every race is different - different workout plans, different paces, different amounts of hill work.
And though there's a world full of races and a world full of roller coasters and amusement parks - sometimes it's nice to go back to ones we've loved in the past and experience it all over again.
Especially if the line is short or the entrance fees are low.