It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ll be walking or running down a city street and suddenly some jerk will tell me to smile. As if I care what he thinks. This is New York! People should be minding their own high-stress lives, not bothering me with trite lectures about positive attitudes! What am I supposed to do, run around with a vacant grin on my face like some kind of idiot?
Catching up on Ultra Runner Podcast last week, I heard this interview with Krissy Moehl, a runner and race director of the Chuckanut 50K, which was also her first ultra. In the interview Krissy tells the story of how she became known as “The Smiling Runner” at that first race because her mother had threatened to pull her out if she didn’t come into each aid station with a smile on her face (you can read a print version here). Krissy took the advice with her throughout her career and is celebrated within the ultra running community for her positive attitude. “It made the race more enjoyable,” she says. “What a great way to go about this sport. And you know…If I’m not liking what I’m doing then I shouldn’t be doing it.”
It made me think long and hard about those people on the street who tell me to smile. I thought about all the terrible race photos in which I look like I’m about to die. And after a moment of sulking about it all I thought, “Okay, I’m not good at smiling when I run. So what? I can change!” And with that I resolved to invest time in smile training.
Luckily I had an easy three-miler on my schedule that day, because smiling is a lot harder than it sounds. It was natural at first because I was reacting to the beautiful weather, but soon after that I just felt silly. Still, I had resolved to complete my experiment and so I kept the goofy grin plastered on my face until my cheeks started to hurt a little. It sort of felt like sitting next to a drunk guy who’s giving a wedding toast: awkward, uncomfortable, and totally ridiculous.
And then something happened!
I started looking around at my surroundings. The trees, the people, the beautiful brownstones… I started thinking about how much I like them. And when I realized it was happening I started looking for more things to be happy about. A flock of pigeons landed for just one brief moment in Fort Green Park and then took off again when a puppy–A puppy!–chased after them. A little kid was sidewalk-chalking and talking to himself the way kids do when they’re pretending. It was amazing what a difference the smile made. I run past this stuff all the time, but today I was running in it.
And then something else happened!
Things that would normally annoy me weren’t annoying anymore! An unrestrained toddler wobbled into my path but I just waved hello as I darted around. A man on the street cheered for me and instead of wondering what his agenda was (hey, I’m a New Yorker) I thought it was nice of him and said thank you. And when a city bus cut me off I just shrugged and figured the driver didn’t see me. When the bus pulled away it revealed the blooming trees and tulips in Metrotech Plaza, and I couldn’t help but think it looked like a moment in some movie I’d once seen and loved.
With these results, smiling is definitely an exercise I plan to incorporate into my weekly training. It’s amazing how different my whole week seems; usually I think of my best run as my longest or my toughest, but this little dinky three miler was way better than speed work and even outshines the long run I did with my friends. I think it’s because consciously reacting to my surroundings made me more present in the moment and more appreciative of the great stuff I so often speed past. I’m so lucky to live and run in Brooklyn!
So here’s the challenge: how far do you think you can run keeping a smile on your face the whole time? I did three miles, but I bet with enough training I could run a whole marathon grinning like some kind of idiot and loving every minute of it.