The other day, when I was telling a friend about an epic 34-mile run I had done over the weekend, she asked, “So what is it that you’re not training for?” To her, the idea that I would go out on that kind of run just for the heck of it was incomprehensible. I guess that for her, the purpose of running is to get fit for an upcoming race. As I think about that concept, it occurs to me that many runners feel that way. They seem to view their running as stepping stones from one race to the next.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at an event and after finishing, before the sweat has even dried, been asked, “So what’s next?” Sometimes runners will ask this question before the race, at the pre-race dinner or even at the starting line! I get the sense that in their minds they have already moved beyond the race that is occurring today, the one they have been training for and focusing on for weeks or months, to the next challenge. When I respond that I don’t know, they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. There are even more questions when I’m volunteering or crewing at a race –Why aren’t you running? Are you injured? What are you training for?

I’m as goal-oriented as the next gal, but I believe that when we get overly caught up in future plans, something gets lost. We lose the moment, the here-and-now, and therefore, the essence of running.

I recently stumbled across an old copy of The Zen of Running. Published in 1974, it is all you’d expect it to be – full of new age peace-and-love-and-harmony. Something you’d be more likely to find on a spiritual guru’s bookshelf than that of a serious runner. If I took it to a Tuesday night workout, I’d be laughed off the track. Yet there are some nuggets of truth in there. Hearing the author, Fred Rohe’, describe running as a joyful activity, “running free and easy, loping loosely and lightly – dancing!” I am reminded about the importance of being fully present for every run. I try to embrace each run as if it could be my last, not as a chore, something to trudge through, but as a gift.

Similarly, a race is something to be cherished. I remember years ago, after a big victory, many people asked me, “What’s next?” What challenge would I take on? What record would I try to crush? In short, what was the next step in proving my dominance and establishing myself among the nation’s elite? One friend, however, gave me some of the most sage advice I’ve ever received. He told me simply to savor this experience, not to think ahead. He knew that as soon as I began to look forward to the next challenge, the present accomplishment would be lost.

This is something Rohe’ knew as well. He reminds us that “…in any life joy is only known in this moment – now…you are not running for some future reward – the real reward is now!” So when you see me out there, racing or recovering, jogging or going anaerobic, don’t bother asking, “what’s next” – I probably won’t have an answer.