I think it's already safe to say that this has been my best running year so far in terms of actually feeling like a runner. I'm still slow but now I'm slow and comfy rather than slow and gasping for breath. Sometimes I've even caught myself enjoying running up a hill.
There's no special reason for this new found runner-ness, no magic training regimes or nutritional supplements or motivational mantras have made the difference. And I haven't bought a Garmin. It is, I suppose, just the very gradual improvement that comes from running regularly over the last couple of years. This is all very nice except for one thing: I'm no longer always at the back of the pack.
I'd grown very used to being somewhere near last in every race, whereas now I find myself flirting with the slower middle class and reaching the finish with, or sometimes in front of, people who I've always thought of as much speedier than me. I know you're supposed to be pleased when your times get better. On the CoolRunning Australia forums it sometimes seems that the only topic of conversation is one's Personal Best Time and the endless quest to lower it, but I've never felt much affinity with this. I've always been more interested in how much I enjoyed a run rather than how long it took me. And since I started running to manage depression, the last thing I wanted to do was obsess about time targets, race placings and Continuous Improvement.
At the recent Sri Chinmoy Centennial Park half-marathon I finished in a bit under 1hr 55min - the first time I'd run the distance in less than two hours. I've absolutely no idea why I ran that well, especially since I woke up feeling particularly sluggish and unathletic. But during the run everything seemed to come together and it felt good to push a bit harder than I normally do. Afterwards however, I felt distinctly uncomfortable about people commenting on my time and suggesting I'd have to change my running name from 'slowmo' to something else.
John Bingham, author of one of my favourite running books 'The Courage To Start', wrote about this same discomfort. Despite years of deliberately run-walking at a leisurely pace in his races, based on the notion that more time means more fun, he found himself getting faster. For someone who had made a living out of his public image as a very slow but happy runner, no longer being at the back of the pack was something of an identity crisis.
Where is all this leading ? I don't know yet. Running takes one onto surprising and unknown paths inwardly as much as it does outwardly.