During this time without races, I’ve been talking to a lot of runners and thinking a lot about motivation. With the familiar guideposts of group runs, bucket list races, official clocks, and medals gone, how do we mark the calendar’s passing or give meaning to our miles?
Personally, I would argue that we never really needed those things at all. So many of our defining moments as runners are tied to arbitrarily defined distances and finish lines of other people’s making. We train to complete our first half marathon or win our age group at the local 5K. But more valuable than any medal is the knowledge that you control your own life and values, and you can conjure peace, stillness, empowerment, competitive fire, or whatever it is you run for, from within. Even with podiums canceled (for now), you can still capture that epic win. It’s something I like to call a Personal Victory.
A personal victory is a unique finish line that every runner can create for themselves. You take a look at the things that make you unique as a person and as a runner, think about a run or a challenge that sparks joy or, if you’re me, scares you a little bit, and give yourself a mission. Something more personal, more creative, and less defined by someone else’s clock than, say, breaking your old high school track PR.
If running really is all about exploring and unlocking your own capabilities, I say race toward a finish line only you can cross. (Especially when there are no opportunities to line up against anyone else.) That’s the point of personal victories and why I love them so much—and why I recently took on my own personal victory challenge in the hopes of inspiring you to do the same.
In my case, running long distances has always been less about the physical ground covered and more about the chance to break from the ordinary, put everything else on pause, and allow my mind to travel. Sure, a 15- or 20-mile run is a long way to go, but to me, honestly, it’s almost like a mental vacation. My personal victory would have to allow me to celebrate that.
As I said before, I’m also the kind of person who believes any goal worth pursuing had better be at least a little bit scary. And there are few things that scare me more than the mile. Running a mile as fast as you can is an exercise in focus, channeling intensity, and enduring pain. Pretty much the opposite of my tranquil, daydreamy long runs.
My personal victory would combine these two sides of my running personality: I would run my fastest mile, but do it within an epic long run across New York City in homage to its canceled marathon, my (and surely many other NYC runners’) favorite day of the year.
The classic mile race consists of four laps (400 meters each) on the track. My mile would as well, but with a twist. Each lap would be run on one of four different tracks spread out from West Harlem to Brooklyn, and I would have to run from one track to the next, in legs of varying length from around five to 15 miles. All together, I’d travel nearly a marathon distance. At the end of it, I would add up my 400-meter splits to see if I had indeed run my fastest mile somewhere within that makeshift marathon.
Is that a bit of a ridiculous way to run a mile? Maybe. If my splits did add up to a mile PR, would that still count? Maybe. Does it matter? It’s my personal victory—the validity of my feat lies strictly within myself and my own willingness to accept the challenge and opportunity I create.
I knew I was capable of speed, but was I mentally strong enough to endure the pain of running 400 meters at mile pace, then running slow and steady for an hour or two or more, then jolting into another fast-as-you-can 400, then repeating that process two more times? Victory would be attained by answering the question.
I mapped out a route that would traverse the iconic training grounds of the New York City running scene, from the Hudson River Greenway to the East River Park, to Red Hook and the marathon route-adjacent McCarren Park.
My mile started at Riverbank State Park in upper Manhattan. I laced up a springy new pair of Brooks Levitate 4s, and that first 400 was all fresh legs and excited spirit. I floated my way around the oval, barely noticing that I was hammering PR pace because I was so excited for the journey to come. The run to my second lap at the beloved East River Park was a casual 13 miles; I’d finish a half marathon before I had finished half a mile, at least according to the made up rules of this challenge.
Still, I enjoyed it. Much of the run was along the Hudson River, a route that was made for auto-pilot and scenery chewing. By the time I had made my way from there, across the Midtown grid, and down to the East River Park not far from my apartment on the Lower East Side, I was filled with a joyful sense of appreciation and gratitude. I ran that second 400 with even more excitement than the first and with that came just as much speed. My first two splits were identical. And here is where my struggles began.
Bridge crossings are an NYC runner’s rite of passage, so of course I stuck one smack dab in the middle of this challenge. I’d have to literally and figuratively get over the hump to begin to see the finish line.
My journey across the Manhattan Bridge and down through Northwest Brooklyn to my third lap at the Red Hook Track was anything but a mental vacation. The miles felt harder, which made me doubt myself, which made the miles feel even harder. The cycle fed itself, the snowball grew, and I was pushing it uphill. When I finally arrived at the start line for lap number three, I had to reframe my thoughts. I remembered the finish line I was chasing. My finish line. I clocked another split: identical to the first two.
Finally, I was in the homestretch, into Williamsburg and the darkness. Just a little more than 25 challenging miles later, I reached deep for one last lap. Slightly slower than my first three, but my fastest, longest mile in the books. A personal victory.
Of course, creating a PV challenge doesn’t guarantee success. At least not on its own. What it does guarantee is an opportunity to prove something to yourself. The chance to endure hardships, to struggle, to work through moments of doubt, and to come through on the other side a stronger runner and person, more capable than you were before.
There is no trophy for a personal victory, no post-race glory, no official timekeeper, no confetti or medal. There is, however, a newfound sense of what is possible. Personal victories show us that no matter what is happening in the world around us or on our own running journey, there are no limits but the ones we set for ourselves.