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Fun as a performance enhancer

Emily Halnon, a FKT champ on the Oregon PCT, makes the light hearted but earnest case for why "it's not performance or joy. It’s both."

Emily Halnon

February 20th, 2022

7 min read


It’s easy for me to remember when my relationship with running became toxic – and left me feeling as squashed as a wad of gum in the tread of a shoe.

I was training for the Vermont City Marathon and I had my eyes laser-set on a sub-3-hour finish.
My training plan was based on the Advanced Marathoning book and my training philosophy was: Stick to the plan.

If a friend invited me to run, I would ask: “Are you planning to run exactly 47 seconds above my marathon goal pace? If not, thanks but no thanks. I already have plans with my plan.”

I chose my running routes based solely on how conducive they were to my workout needs. I hitched my happiness to the harness of how fast I ran my 800 repeats. And I spent most of my Friday nights organizing GUs for my Saturday morning long run.

I prioritized my Very Serious Training above all else and that put me on the fast-track to some very clear results: An injury and a DNS at the Vermont City Marathon.

When I look back at that training block, I see where things went wrong. There was a glaring omission that set me up for failure instead of success.

I wasn’t having any fun.

When I moved from Washington, DC to Eugene, Oregon a few months later, I met a crew of trail runners who ran together every Tuesday night. The group boasted an impressive collection of performances: podium finishes, blazing fast PRs, and a whole heap of decidedly sub-3-hour marathon times. Which I knew because I stalked them all on UltraSignup, not because anyone was wearing a T-shirt screen-printed with their race resume.

When I went to their group run, I expected it would be a very serious affair because it was a group of such high-performing athletes. And high-performing athletes are very serious about their training, I thought.

Instead, I found myself bushwhacking up a steep hill, surrounded by primal hoots and cackles as everyone raced through blackberry brambles and mossy logs to find the bench at the top of the hill. And then we were drinking beer and eating Cool Ranch Doritos in a dingy basement full of Tom Selleck portraits and old race bibs – while listening to hilarious, wild, and emotional stories from one runner’s first 100-miler.

The run was not at all what I was expecting – in the very best way.

I went back for more and more and more. I’ve missed very few Tuesday night runs since that first jaunt through the jungle of Mount Baldy over eight years ago. Because regardless of whether we’re running a very standard loop around our local trails or racing around town using Barkley-esque hand-drawn maps as our guide, it is always one of my favorite runs of the week.

The Tuesday night runs, and the people, have become a sacred part of my training – and my life. And I’ve become a stronger and happier runner along the way.

I briefly worked with a coach and when he found out my heartrate ran a little high on Tuesday nights, he looked at my spreadsheet of workout data and locked eyes with me. His tone dropped to one of utmost seriousness.

“Emily, this obviously means you should…” he started.
“Ignore the data and keep running on Tuesdays?” I finished his sentence for him.
“Not run with that group anymore,” he said, at the same time.

That’s when I knew we were not compatible as coach and athlete.

I need to be able to have fun. My Tuesday night friends had taught me a very important lesson: it’s not performance or joy. It’s both.

I like to say I now follow the Do Fun Shit training plan. Which doesn’t mean I don’t take running seriously and set big, audacious goals. It means that fun is an integral ingredient in maintaining a relationship with running that lets me perform my very best.

Emily Halnon running with fun.
Emily uses joy as an integral training tactic to perform her best.

My training includes lots of the standard things that help runners get ready for big goals: long runs, big back-to-back weekends, hill workouts, and recovery days. But it also includes a lot of joy and fun.

I serve up hill repeats with Lizzo sing-a-longs and a taco aid station at the trailhead. I plan my long runs based on how jaw-dropping the scenery is and how much the company makes my heart burst with joy. I warm up for races with a Taylor Swift dance party and love that my crew shows up at aid stations in sequins and jorts.

And I almost never miss a Tuesday night run, no matter how much it makes my heartrate spike.

I don’t think it’s an accident that some of our sport’s top runners look like they’re having a real good time while they’re throwing down incredible runs. We see Courtney Dauwalter cracking jokes at aid stations, Killian Jornet dancing down the trail with a huge smile on his face, and Camille Herron breaking a course record with a light saber in-hand.

Just like I don’t think it’s an accident that I’m running the best I ever have now that I’m having a lot more fun. I’m stronger, grittier, bolder, healthier, and I’m sure as heck happier. I am not that wad of gum anymore.

Finish line fun at the Cascade Crest 100
Finish line fun at the 2021 Cascade Crest 100.

My big run this year is Hardrock. I finally got in after entering the lottery for seven years. And I’ve always said, “When I get in, I’m going to take Hardrock very seriously.”

I know not to squander an opportunity to kiss that rock.

And, I will take it seriously: I’ll build in time to acclimatize to the altitude, I’ll get to know the ins and outs of the course, I’ll go up a butt-ton of hills and mountains to get stronger.

But I know that taking it seriously doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice all of the joy along the way.

If I want to have my best day in the San Juans, I also need to have a heck of a lot of fun between now and when I run back into Silverton with my lips puckered up.

11 thoughts on "Fun as a performance enhancer"

  1. Pingback: UltraSignupNews
  2. VegRunner 66 says:

    I loved this. As a back–wayyy back–of the packer, I realized recently that I would like to do some actual training vs. just logging miles, but it does make me consider the value of finding a group to run with as well.

  3. Shalise says:

    So much fun inspiration! Thanks for sharing Emily, spreading the JOY of running and life is needed.

  4. Eazy says:

    Cheers to the Funnest Known Times!

  5. theboss29 says:

    There are some Fun yet Super Fast in my local running community, and now I’m pretty bummed that their group runs are on nights I can’t make it. The group runs I can make are with the SuperSerious road community. Not sure I want to get in tight with that group…

  6. Nicole Aracki says:

    Love this!! Having fun is #1!!

  7. i love your attitude. kiss that rock and have a blast doing it!

  8. alina says:

    A true running success story! ????

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