Saturday after Saturday, my long run was the same routine.
I had managed to turn what is actually a gorgeous run — Santa Rosa Road in east Ventura County — into a rather joyless exercise that always boiled down to cold, hard numbers.
How many miles? At what pace?
I did these runs alone, and too often I was oblivious to the pastoral scenery along the way.
These runs were for one purpose only: building blocks for my next competitive marathon.
Years later, I can see that I was missing the point of the long run rather badly. I was reminded vividly of that last year, when in a six-week stretch I ran the Los Angeles, Boston and Big Sur marathons — with each race representing a different reason why I now take so much pleasure in the long run.
— I run long to nurture friendships.
— I run long to be a part of and to compete with the vast running community.
— I run long to be outside reveling in our planet's splendor.
In Los Angeles last March, I paced my Moorpark buddy, Steve, whose goal was to break four hours. He didn't quite make it. He will next time.
Steve is part of our unofficial long run club, which meets almost every Saturday morning to take one of our favorite trail runs in the Santa Monica Mountains.
For 10 years, my running buddies Jake and John, Louise and Craig, Luann and Chris and others who have come and gone are fantastic reasons for setting the alarm for 5:38 a.m. on Saturday.
I cherish my long runs, usually 14-20 miles, with them. These friendships have gone beyond running, but it is the long run that binds us. That is what my L.A. Marathon was about — showing up for my friend.
On April 20 in Boston, which I ran for the seventh consecutive time, the feeling was different. Boston is where I go to bond with other runners and to be embraced by a city that loves runners. The bombing of 2013, and the resolve and strength that Boston, its volunteers and this nation's runners showed in coming back in 2014 cemented the city's status as running's hub.
I also come to Boston to compete. Everybody's so fast in Boston, and that competitive challenge stirs this runner's soul.
I'll keep coming back to Boston as long as I can qualify. I'm signed up for Boston 2016 and I qualified for Boston 2017 with a 3:22 in St. George, Utah, in October.
Boston is, by most measures, the best long run in the world. But the prettiest marathon in the United States is in Big Sur, held each year either six or 13 days after Boston. With the course set along California's majestic Highway 1, the Big Sur Marathon is so breathtakingly beautiful that people keep coming back to run it despite its horrible hills and notoriously nasty head winds.
Running Big Sur is a reminder to be fully present, to open your eyes wide, to take off your headphones, to ignore the Garmin (for a few minutes, anyway) and be grateful for natural treasures too often taken for granted. I turned 60 last October. If my life were a long run, I could be at Mile 18 or so. That's a point where, depending on one's fitness, muscles can begin to ache and mental focus can unravel a bit.
My experience with the long run, though, has taught me a few things: Surround yourself with good friends, be grateful for the ability to keep moving forward, embrace the beauty of the world around you, and you can make it to the end with a smile on your face.
After all, age is just another number, and for me, numbers no longer tell the story of the long run.