No need for speed: why slow running has its own joy

In his book Why We Run, ultramarathon runner and biologist Bernd Heinrich elaborates a theory of human evolution. Basically: running (fast) in pursuit of protein (antelopes) drove human evolution. If I’d been born into protohominid society I would have been naturally selected out of the gene pool. I also would have been hungry. I am a slow runner, ill-equipped to chase down my dinner.

Heinrich’s book is full of wonders – the section on how camels keep going in the heat is a cracker – but like most running gurus, he assumes that going faster is what it’s all about. This might be because he is a very decent runner himself. (He won the 1981 Chicago 100-kilometre ultramarathon and set a still-unbroken masters world record.)

Writers such as Heinrich who have only clocked one or two prestige event wins sometimes fancy themselves slow runners. For those of us at the back of the pack - the plodders, the hungover, the slowcoaches, the chatters, the injured, the unfit, the recovering, the hobbling, the steady, the untrained – that idea seems a little strange.

How slow are we talking? More tortoise than hare, I generally place somewhere in the second half of the field. Running a half marathon in around two hours is fine with me. I’d like to be able to run a little faster but it’s not a high priority. Given that I’ve been a regular runner for more than five years, I probably should have picked up the pace. But speeding up would require sprints and tempo runs - and I prefer long steady quiet runs. Very occasionally, I make an effort to run a bit faster for a few hundred metres. These half-hearted fartlek sessions are about as far as it goes.

Sometimes it is a little awkward to admit I’m not giving it my all. Heavily coded back-and-forths about event times are hard to dodge. Here’s how it starts:

Fast runner: So, what time did you run?

Me: Yeah, pretty slowly.

Fast runner: [Gazes expectantly.]

Me: Didn’t break any records.

Everyone talks down their time - that’s good form. Still, it’s embarrassing to confess that you didn’t run hard on the day, and that you’ve slacked off on the training. “Next time, eh?” I’m never quite certain whether I’m being assured that my average performance will pick up – or that my limited athletic ambitions will one day get a boost.

Maybe the problem is that I struggle to see my runs around the kaleidoscope foreshore of Sydney Harbour as training sessions. They’re just runs to me. I’m busy stretching my legs and taking in what’s around me. Bothersome interval workouts are easily trumped. I’ve gambolled by penguins taking a morning swim in the harbour! There are miniature daschunds to hurdle and many diversions on my regular routes, such as the intriguing contents of council clean up piles and the seasonal inflections of the gardens. I’ve completed loads of half-marathons and four full marathons - but I don’t really think of them as races either.

Dubious doctrines of self-discovery and improvement via hard training and committed exertion abound – and to run slowly flouts them. It may be that I’m missing the opportunity to become a better person by taking it easy. I’ve been spoilt, I suppose, by proximate and ample sources of protein. All that tofu in the fridge has dulled my primal instinct to run faster.

I love running – and it’s a pleasure that I can’t measure with a stopwatch. Why would I sacrifice this pleasure to speed, ambition and competition? If I worried about my times, I’d be miserable. I’m happy to leave breaking records and clocking impressive times to other runners. If it works for them, great. Me, I’ve got no appetite for antelope.

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