The first time I ran a 10k, I was 16 and had recently completed the Couch-to-5K program. My mum and I had managed to run about 8k without stopping, so we made a last-minute decision to sign up for a 10k that weekend. I was excited — to wear a racing bib, to reach a new goal, to cross the finish line. Mum gave me a little side-eye and said, “Kenza, remember to pace yourself.”

We’d been running together for a while at that point, but the problem was, we never actually ran together. I had this horse-like instinct to remain in front of our two-person pack as we looped around Santo Domingo’s botanical gardens, so I ran slightly ahead of Mum, which kept my competitiveness in check for the most part. If someone came up from behind and passed me, it was fine — as long as they were fast enough that they quickly zipped out of eyesight. But if they were within reach, I couldn’t help it — breath ragged, I’d speed up with a singular goal of needing to pass them. It usually fucked up my run, scared strangers, and I’d end up walking the last kilometer or two.

So Mum was understandably worried for the 10k. We wouldn’t be running with just whoever else happened to be at the botanical gardens at 4pm; this was an event with hundreds of runners. But we showed up anyway, on a blazing Sunday, unnecessarily carbo-loaded and ready to go. “Pace yourself,” Mum said again, at the start line, and then we were off.

I didn’t pace myself. But passing people — who got successively faster with each person I passed, who were of course going to be much better runners than I was — was difficult. By kilometer 5, I was panting and doubled over and angry. “I’m done,” I told Mum when she trotted up. “This race is stupid.”

You’re being stupid,” she corrected. “Now, you made me sign up for this race, so we’re going to finish it. Just sloooow doooown.”

I narrowed my eyes. Obviously Mum didn’t know about challenging herself, I thought.

I didn’t learn my lesson that race, and I’ve made the same mistake with pacing a frustrating amount of times since. And it’s not just with running — it’s something I struggle with in all areas, and it wasn’t until last year that I started to realize that it’s not even the finish line that I enjoy. With writing, I’ve set goals for myself — see my byline in a magazine; publish my first cold-pitched article; score a staff writing position. But those goals always come with an inevitable disappointment when I reach them. I will work like a horse — equine comparisons seem to be the theme of this post — but then, when I cross the finish line or see my name as a byline, it’s nearly always a letdown. There’s none of the fireworks that I expected. There’s no successful fist pump or overwhelming surge of pride.

For a while, I thought that meant that I’d been chasing the wrong goals. Maybe I don’t actually like running, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t pursue a writing career. Don’t we need fireworks to fuel us?

But the thing is, like all good things in life, the fireworks come in the doing. They come from writing a line that merges data and poetry perfectly; they come from putting in a 15k training run despite your laziness’s best efforts. Those small, ongoing victories are what we need to pursue, and it’s the same when it comes to a relationship or getting fit or anything. Don’t toil through something just for that gasp of “Look, it’s an engagement ring!” or “God damn, I look good in my beach pictures.” Those should never mean more than the journeys themselves, and actually reaching those goals is doubtful if the process is no fun.

So now, I’m trying to slow my pace down, rather than giving up when I don’t reach the finish line as fast as I thought I would — because the finish line matters so much less than I thought it did in the first place. I try and reign myself in. It’s not about if the struggle is worth the applause. It’s about if the struggle is worth the struggle.

(Oh, and I finished the 10k. It sucked. I later ran a half-marathon and that sucked too. But running is still dope.)

Picture by Eric Moller.

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