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Awhile back on her "Magic Lessons" podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert said something that clicked with me in the moment and stayed with me ever since. She was talking to a photographer who wanted to branch into other creative fields after devoting years to taking photos. The photographer couldn’t figure out why she felt so compelled to move on from something she loved and did well. Elizabeth Gilbert put her finger on it and said “Mastery is boring.”

I was going through a running slump when I first heard this. After running consistently for nearly a year, I’d reached a lot of milestones: completed various races, improved my pacing, experienced increased fitness, etc. Something was starting to creep into my runs that threw me off guard because I hadn’t felt it before.

It was a sense of boredom. I was so tired of the streets in my neighborhood. I was tired of the familiar way my body moved from one mile to the next. I was tired of my worn-out music playlist. I’d hit so many goals (ran a mile under 7 minutes, ran a 5K under 23 minutes, ran a half marathon under 1:47) that I wasn’t sure what I was still working toward. I kept going, day after day, but I was starting to run alongside a little piece of dread.

Then I heard that line: mastery is boring. It made perfect sense to me. It’s not that I’ve mastered the art of running, but I’ve certainly mastered a certain type of running. So if I didn’t want to continue being bored, it was time to incorporate something new.

I’d been putting off hill runs for a while because, well, they’re incredibly challenging. There’s nothing comfortable about them. They force my mind and body into places I don’t necessarily want to go. Also, they slow me down. I can consistently run 7:30-7:45 miles on flat surfaces, but hills have me creeping along at an 8:30-9. Part of me was too proud to tackle something I knew would decrease my overall time so much.

But then I realized that was the whole point: to challenge myself. To push my body in a new way. To shake the feeling of stagnation. If I didn’t want to feel bored anymore, I had to do something that would take me out of my boring routine.

So I started doing hill runs. Big, fat, sweaty hill runs. Hill runs so hard, I had to go at a snail’s pace to tackle them. Hill runs that burned. Hill runs that caused sweat to pour down my face. Hill runs that, once completed, made me feel like a complete badass. I told myself there was only one rule: I could go as slow as I needed to go, but I could not stop running. No matter how big the hill, and no matter how long the run, I had to keep running.

So I ran. I ran slower than I’ve run in a long time. I crept along. I felt like my muscles were screaming. I felt like I might run out of breath. The physical demands prevented me from being able to think about anything else. I could only worry about putting one foot in front of another. Everything else, I knew, would work itself out.

On these runs, I started experiencing something I hadn’t felt in a while: joy. This wasn’t joy from accomplishing something difficult. This wasn’t joy from mastering a goal or winning a race. This was the joy of NOT being good at something but seeing myself get a little better each day. That’s how running was for me in the beginning: I wasn’t in the shape for it, I couldn’t go faster than a 12-minute mile, I always felt breathless, but I just kept going. Eventually, over time, I worked myself down to an 8-minute mile. I got better at breath control. I got better at everything.

And then I got bored.

But I’m not bored now. By incorporating hill runs into my regular routine, I remembered how it felt to push myself and have something to work toward. The best part about hills is knowing I’ll probably never master them. I’ll always have something to strive for. And I won’t be bored in the process. 

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