Running at your 'sexy pace'
Now that winter is (almost) here, I'm going to try running slow to run fast
A couple of years ago, I paid a visit to Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Ga., the home where author Flannery O’Connor lived for the last thirteen years of her life, and where she penned most of the short stories and novels that catapulted her to literary stardom back in the 1950s and 60s.
It was a warm, humid afternoon in late May, so I spent as much time as I could exploring the (now) air-conditioned home, where her typewriter sat next to her bed, as well as the crutches she used to walk after being stricken with lupus.
But I also spent time walking around the farm’s spacious, sloping front lawn and the backyard, where I found a big, old wooden barn topped with a rusting metal roof. After that, I walked out to the front yard, where a huge tree shaded the home’s front porch, the place O’Connor and her mother spent many an afternoon sitting outside to watch people passing by.
It was on that front porch that it hit me: this is the opening scene from her story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”:
“THE OLD WOMAN and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of…”
I walked down the front porch steps and across the yard, to the dirt road that passed by the front of her house. This was the place where Mr. Shiftlet walked by — or, the Mr. Shiftlet O’Connor saw in her mind’s eye, as the story slowly took shape in her imagination.
The road led to the back yard, so I followed it there. And that’s when I took another look at the barn — the same barn, I knew, where the pivotal scene in O’Connor’s 1955 story “Good Country People” takes place:
Nothing seemed to destroy the boy’s look of admiration. He gazed at her now as if the fantastic animal at the zoo had put its paw through the bars and given him a loving poke. She thought he looked as if he wanted to kiss her again and she walked on before he had the chance.
“Ain’t there somewheres we can sit down sometime?” he murmured, his voice softening toward the end of the sentence.
“In that barn,” she said.
They made for it rapidly as if it might slide away like a train. It was a large two-story barn, cook and dark inside. The boy pointed up the ladder that led into the loft and said, “It’s too bad we can’t go up there.”
“Why can’t we?” she asked.
I can’t quite explain why, but there was something about being in the place where O’Connor wrote — where she sat, observed, noodled, imagined — that made it clear how she came up with all her stories. She didn’t invent them from whole cloth; everything that surrounded her inspired her. The dirt roads, the dilapidated wooden buildings, the peacocks that lived at Andalusia — all of it was inspiration.
The same thing hit me earlier this week as my ten-year-old and I were watching The Man Who Invented Christmas, the 2017 movie about Charles Dickens and what compelled him to write his classic A Christmas Carol.
If you haven’t seen the movie, a quick synopsis: it is 1843, and Dickens is a few years removed from the huge success of his novel Oliver Twist. His three books since, however, have all been flops. Coupled with his spending habits and growing family — he’d father ten children in his lifetime — Dickens needs a hit. And soon.
So, he begins searching for ideas. Where does he look? At what’s right in front of him — the stories his nanny tells his children about a ghost that visits in the night; the plight of a sickly nephew, whose illness has stunted his growth; and the story of an old rich financier, whose business partner has recently died.
Of course, I can’t do it justice here — watch the movie to get the full effect. But I love the way it depicts Dickens, wandering around his world and finding inspiration everywhere he looks… probably because he takes the time to simply look. He notices, he observes. He takes it all in, absorbing it so he can create something entirely new.
As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the ways in which I probably don’t see all the things that surround me; I’m not taking the time to look, to pause, to observe in the way Dickens and O’Connor did with what they saw in their worlds.
Do I see what’s in front of me on the way to work? It’s hard to when you drive. And do I see what’s all around me on my runs — or am I focused on my watch, my pace, my splits?
That’s how I approached my last really long run; my eye was constantly looking down at how much time and how many miles I had left. Which is fine, but I think about everything I missed: the trees, the air, the birds, the people, the dogs walking by. What didn’t I see?
I think that’s why this recent essay in British GQ resonated with me so much when I read it earlier this week, a piece by the writer Phil Hilton about how we ought to embrace slow running — or, what he calls “sexy pace.” (Why it’s called “sexy pace” is beyond me, but I like it still!)
The main thrust of his essay is that most of us, most of the time, try to run entirely too fast. Now, if that works for you, that’s great. But so many runners get injured from doing this, it’s worth asking whether we all ought to slow down — especially when elite runners are doing it too:
“People can be fixated on times, distances and all the rest of it, but there is a beauty in running slow,” [Elliot Giles, a two-time European medalist who has competed at the Olympics] tells GQ, offering up a decent explanation of why it's important to take the term ‘sexy pace’ seriously. "I ran today and I was basically almost walking… I didn’t even bother wearing a watch. I’m in St. Moritz currently and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I just embraced what was happening around me. A slow run is my time to de-stress.”
Now, there’s a method to Giles’s madness, as he certainly aims to become faster. It’s just that he’s doing it by slowly building his foundation rather than pushing himself too hard, too fast, too often.
And when we do that — when we take the time to slow down, and observe everything around us, rather than focusing so much on our pace — we can enjoy running as a “a form of mobile meditation,” Hilton writes: “At the risk of sounding like someone who talks to trees, there is nothing like a comfortable 10K through a rural setting to remind you being alive is really excellent.”
Amen to that — and, right now is the perfect time of year to adopt that approach, when the leaves are almost all gone and winter is just a few short weeks away.
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running/life is going — and what you’re seeing in your world.