Is Fast Always Best?

In a few follow-up comments to my column last week some thoughtful readers called me out for asserting, in that column, that my best running days are behind me. These folks certainly understood that the spirit of what I was saying was that my fastest days are behind me, but they implored me to re-consider my position that fastest necessarily equates with best. So, of course, I’ve been thinking about this relentlessly on my runs this past week.

In an ultrarunning career that has spanned 15 years, I have been honored and humbled to share the trail with some great runners. Additionally, I’ve been fortunate to be at or near the front a few times. I’ll admit it, in my experience, there is nothing quite like the thrill of crossing the finish line first (or close to first J ) in a 100-mile race. That said, just because I don’t see myself doing that again in my running career does that necessarily mean my best running is behind me? Maybe. Maybe not.

In that context, I feel we need to get back to basics; in general, what is it that makes running good? And, specifically, what is a person’s best running? How do you define it? What does it look like? Is it one of those ephemeral things that cannot be defined but you know it when you see it, or feel it?

When people ask me to name my best runs I typically talk about the runs in which I was at or close to the front. I guess that’s just me. However, when I think about it a bit more deeply, what I remember most about those races is not where I was but, rather, how I felt. It just so happened that I was toward the front but in reality that didn’t really matter nor was it something that I really even noticed. In fact, in the case of the absolute single best run I have ever had, I remember the last three hours like some folks remember where they were when they heard Kennedy had been killed or exactly what they were doing on the horrific morning of September 11, 2001. It was one of those life-defining moments where everything else simply slips away.

The author racing Western States in 2009. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

When I look back on Western States 2005, it still feels like a dream in which I was floating outside my body and the running was simply happening to me. It was amazing, euphoric even. And it is perhaps experiences like that which makes a run feel “best” and, if that is indeed the case, then the commenters in last week’s column were spot on. Because regardless of my experience or anyone else’s, I have to believe that there is a still a “best” run waiting around the next bend in the trail. After all, we are all, inevitably going to get slower, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep getting better.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, California. Their new black IPA, Back in Black, provides a nice twist on the typical American IPA with rich, dark malts added to the standard hop character designed to provide a surprisingly smooth finish from a beer with a tough guy name. :-)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What have been your best runs?
  • When have you done your best running?
Andy Jones-Wilkins: finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.

View Comments (30)

  • To me, it seems quite simple: The best runner is the one having the most fun!

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  • I didn't start running ultra's till I was 57 yrs old so I've always been slow.....never have been fast and have no idea what that feels like and so just getting the simple pleasure out of the experience is a worthwhile goal in itself.With your attitude I suspect you have many wonderful'best'moments to come.

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  • I wonder if they aren't actually the same thing. The best runs are the ones that feel effortless, floating. That sensation occurs when you're moving fast, such that if you're a fast person in general, like AJW ... the best runs are also the ones where you're likely to be up front or near there.

    I get that effortless, floating feeling as well & crave the next time I'll feel it. But I'm slow, so it never involves winning anything.

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  • I thought my best run was when I broke 3hrs in the marathon 30 years ago. Then I got to run a 25km trail race with my son; no comparison.

    Sharing the running experience with my son will be tough to top; but I have 2 more sons and maybe grandkids in the future so who can say what I will define as the best running years?

    I think maybe in the end it will be the accumulation of all the runs that defines the experience; just as it is the entirety of a race that defines it rather that any one good or bad patch.

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  • Interesting to compare this post with the one over at http://danerunsalot.blogspot.com/ ("Faster is Better"). I agree with both posts, actually. I think faster is better and I also question whether fast is always best.

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  • Having started Ultras well past my prime, and not being fast anyway, I run for a differnt kind of place than first, second, third.

    I run for the chance to become immersed in the "place" of the trail.

    The specialness of the terrain, and the opportunity to experience it, are my only criteria for picking races and runs.

    My best days will never be behind me until I've run on All the best trails on earth.

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  • I did my best running in my mid-20's to early 30's....some of my best runs were the ones with friends or alone where I was able to sort out some real serious problems in my life. I didn't come back a better person, I came back with a different perspective on life and was able to change what needed to be change and/or accept things as they were.....on a less serious note, I love the first runs of a new season, being from the North, when winter breaks or those first few cold winter, snowy days!

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  • The best run is the one you have today. Yesterday is gone; tomorrow is not here. Be mindful and enjoy the run you have today and you will have a lot of "best" runs.

    Happy Trails!

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    • Unless you're injured today and "yesterday" (a few years back) you were a great runner, and tomorrow is not here but you have to sign up for future races and don't want to waste your time/money. Mindfulness is the key to something, but it is not always great for planning a race season...

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  • Per the definition of the word- choose your usage and you cover all perspectives. Mine is with usage 1 in relation to the "sport" of ultrarunning (and running in general) and usage 2 in relation to the "activity" of ultrarunning (and running in general). Usage 3 is not a common one here in the US but still offers a reasonable description for some.

    Best: superlative of good

    1. excelling all others

    2. most productive of good : offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction

    3. most, largest

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  • Reminds me of this:

    "You are a very fast flier, aren't you?"

    "I . . . I enjoy speed," Jonathan said, taken aback but proud that the Elder gull had noticed.

    "You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn't flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn't have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there."

    -Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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    • +1

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    • In a perfect world, perfect speed exists. In our imperfect world, we can't touch heaven, so we must strive for excellence. Trying to bliss out by "just being" is not an option for humans, unfortunately.

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    • I'm with you, Chris.

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  • I'm enjoying running more, and running longer distances, since I've stopped running with a timer. I think this year's Dallas Marathon will be my favorite because I'm going to run the marathon route on Saturday, and then volunteer the race at an aid station on Sunday.

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  • "there is nothing quite like the thrill of crossing the finish line first in a 100-mile race" .... so true!..... see you next week at UROC AJW! :)

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  • My best 100 was my first finish of the HURT 100. I did it in 35:50, minutes away from a DNF. It was my best because it was my hardest, it was the HURT where I had to dig the deepest, fight the hardest, and where I hurt the most. It was the race the took me low, and refused to let my climb high. I fought that course every step of the way and didn't even believe I could finish in time over the last 20 miles. But I didn't give in, I kept trying, and pushed through each barrier that came along. There is nothing sweeter than beating your own doubts and weaknesses; and crossing that line at 35:50 was one of the best moments of my ultra career. I finished last, and slowest that year, but nobody had a more meaningful race than I. ....Fast is a gift, and enjoy it while you can, but don't let yourself give up when the fates take that gift away. Frustration and hardship are also gifts if you meet them head on, and realize the finish line is still out there, still waiting to be crossed. That's when ultra running becomes ultra endurance.

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  • I agree that the most memorable runs aren't necessarily the fastest or most impressive ones. Sometimes a training run with no pressure in the mountains is the most fun, but that rare race when things click and speed feels natural and sustainable (but definitely not effortless) does take some beating. 2 end of the spectrum in terms of effort, but both equally important for making running enjoyable and satisfying.

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    • SW, when you gonna come visit Park City again?! ;-)

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  • many categories of best and they are very different.

    best finish: in a race. This often depends on who else shows up and how they run, as for most of us there is always someone faster that may not have started.

    OK you won, but Mo Farah or someone else would have killed you had they come so be humble. If you only run to win you will have a short career.

    best pace: fastest time, personal best or record. These are normally very dependent on age and condition level. But if you change the route and distance you can always set a personal best over that new course. Even in the standard distances there is no limit on this and you always think back and remember moments where you slacked off and could have gone faster. That can either be empowering, knowing you can go even faster next time, or depressing knowing that even if you set a world record you can go back and will have to train better/harder/more to go faster.

    best effort: you know when you have tried your hardest. Often no correlation with pace or finish place. You can always sometimes expect to be able to give your best no matter your age or condition level. Some of my best efforts were in workouts or even races when I was sick, weak or injured, older It felt much harder and good but the damn watch led me to believe it was not good. Now I know better.

    best feel: runs that are just effortless. You just feel good, smooth, in the groove, in the zone, fast, light, strong, powerful, like you can do anything. Warning that best feel does not always equate to fast. You can always sometimes expect to feel good at any age or no matter your condition level. Even if you get older, stiffer, injured, slower and out of shape you occaisionally get fleeting glimpses of effortless running. And you remember when you tried hard, ran fast, and placed well. And your mind likes what it feels and you are tricked into thinking that anything is still possible, so you continue to run.

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    • Spot on. And, for me, I have found that SOMETIMES pushing my hardest in a race does not make for the best race, but when I go very hard (meaning not killing myself) I enjoy the experience more. Sure, at the finish I know (and accept) that I could have gone faster if I'd pushed my limits to the extreme, but then I don't get as much joy out of the run itself. Running long can be one of life's golden tickets, but you don't get the ticket at the end of the run, you get it during the run. Love is much the same: enjoy it in the moment.

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  • The best run is always the one I'm doing right now... and after that.... the next one.

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  • Running is simply fantastic when you're on one of those days that everything seems to connect and feels effortless. I wish I could agree with everyone who says that their current run or today's run is always the best run. I've been in the middle of runs and was just waiting for it to be over because I was struggling so much, and I have finished with a couple runs where I said to myself I wish I had not done that.

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  • It would be hard to argue that whoever wins the race somehow did not have the "best" race. But I am constantly in awe of experienced, "older" runners who crank out strong 100 mile finishes over and over, running relatively even splits and finishing in comfort. Wisdom and humility go a long, long way toward finding fulfillment in racing.

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  • If you are a pro and your livelihood depends on being fast, fast is best. If not, it is just whatever makes the hobby most enjoyable.

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    • my wife was just telling me the same thing ;)

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