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Up to Speed

Yesterday I did my first bit of speedwork in ages, and it wasn’t much at that: a 10-minute warm-up, 2 minutes at 5k or 10k pace, a 5-minute jog, 5 minutes at the higher pace, another 5-minute jog, 8 minutes at the higher pace, then jogging in for a total run of 50 minutes, plus a 5-minute cooldown walk.

All in all, it went well, I think, though I do have to be wary of doing the hard stuff harder than my fitness level calls for. I know I’m supposed to push myself to a certain level of discomfort when I do speed work, but I have a hard time knowing how hard that level should be. Since I haven’t raced since last Thanksgiving, and since I’m in nowhere near the shape I was then, I find myself in a nebulous realm of wanting to punish myself but knowing that doing so can really undermine my long-term attempt to get more fit.

So I’m trying to learn to feel my way, to use Perceived Level of Effort, though that is taking me a while a gauge. And I guess that’s okay. The shift from looking at a watch to listening to your body and your breathing requires patience, and ultimately that’s the point. I have to trust in myself, trust that I’m not going to let myself down or give up, even if that means I have to use trial and error and it takes longer to get as fast as I’d like.

Stride

I read a good series in Running Times the other day about coach Greg McMillan’s work with American marathoner Paige Higgins. He wrote several articles about how he’s been trying to get her to change her stride–to lengthen it slightly–because it thinks it’s the most likely way to help her get faster. In and of itself, the article was fascinating, but in particular what a longer stride length involved surprised me. Whenever I’ve thought of “striding out,” I’ve assumed it meant reaching my lead foot out further. But he was working more on getting Higgins to exert more force pushing off and kicking back with her trailing leg. I liked this idea of progress coming not so much from reaching out toward the place you want to go as pushing off from the place where you are. I want to get better at taking full advantage of where I am to get to where I want to be.

Pure

We spent the morning taking a day trip down to a college cross country meet, something I haven’t done in more than ten years. After we parked the car, we walked up and down the rollings hills and paths that made up the course. Wind blew over the grass and trees; white lines marked the lanes that the runners would be passing through. Finally, the trees parted as we climbed the last hill leading to the start/finish area. Under open, blue skies, teams jogged to warm up together. It was cool but clear, not too windy. From the hill that marked the high point of the course, we could see runners on two different loops of the race, then we could make the short move downhill to see the finish. There’s nothing like the face of a cross country runner in mid-race, especially as she pushes her way up a steep hill, competitors chasing behind her.

More than anything, watching the races reminded of the simplicity, the purity of running, especially cross country. There’s nothing tricky, no gimmicks, no scoreboard of flashy lights or spectacle. Just the mixture of speed and grit and determination that marks all the participants–from first-place finishers to those bringing up the rear. Just singlets and shorts and shoes and the purity of running.

Fall Tease

I’ll believe it when it happens.
I mean, of course, the arrival of fall. We’ve had a taste of it the past couple of day, and I’d guess the temperature outside this morning is somewhere in the 50s if not the 40s. This makes it, of course, prime running weather, and for someone who is trying after months of irregular working out to rebuild a running base, nothing could be more ideal. I had a great run yesterday afternoon, pushing it without laboring. It’s not that I mind the heat so much; it feels good to have the sweat coursing down my body. But it does limit how hard I can go without overheating. So knowing I can push the run a bit without starting to feel wrung out is a nice change.

Of course, it’s early September, which means it’s too early to expect that we’ve actually turned the corner from summer. By the middle of next week, the highs will climb back up around 80 (at least according to the most recent forecasts I’ve seen). Not bad, and it certainly beats 90-degree days. But I’m reserving my emotional abandon until we get a full week under 80.
I’ll believe it when it happens.

Sick Days

Today’s the second day that I’ve had to sit out running because of a cold. Of course it’s hard to run when you can’t breathe, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout the day that I might still be able to give a short run a try. Of course, I was wrong, and though I know that’s the right call, it’s difficult to spend the whole day sitting around, especially a cool, damp day like today: cloudy skies, intermittent drizzling, a bit of a breeze. Patience may be a virtue, but that doesn’t make it any more fun.

Treadmill blues

The cold and wind and snow are getting old as the weeks turn into months, and I’m piling up more miles on the treadmill than I’d like to count. But it is managing to keep me in training. Of course choosing between watching soap operas, ESPN with the sound turned down, or Fox News on close captioning isn’t as much fun as passing trees and farm fields, or watching the occasional dear bound across the road. But for now it will have to do.

One unexpected side benefit is that I’m getting in a bit of cross training. Just to break up the monotony of hearing my feet thump along on the belt, I’ve been warming up or cooling down by riding the stationary bike. It’s also a good test of my discipline. I know that the only way I’ll be in any shape to race come spring or summer is by continuing to add up the minutes and miles now. They say the blues is suffering transformed into art, so I guess the treadmill qualifies as paying my dues.

I call this blog “The Road Alone,” but many of my reasons for loving running have nothing to do with me personally.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because my wife, mi esposa, La Senora Arizona, trains more for triathlons. She did her first sprint triathlon last fall, and she’s planning to do an indoor one later this month. I have noticed about triathlons something that I haven’t encountered among many who have joined the newer running “boom” of the last decade or so. It goes beyond their own enjoyment, their own effort or success, to a sense of those competitors who have gone before them and who will come after. In triathlons, for example, competitors are expected to adhere to the rules for things like the use of headphones or not drafting during the biking leg. They actually have marshalls who enforce the rules and warn or even disqualify athletes for breaking them.

This strikes me as a sharp contrast to the road racers I’ve competed in, where walkers line up near the front of the start line and chat amiably with each other four abreast while runners end up nearly colliding to avoid running into them. Or where folks pop in their headphones knowing they’re supposed to be prohibited. Or where costumes and spectacle reins, people trying to determine who can be the cleverest, the funniest, the most outlandish. And I’ve seen the message boards where all of this behavior is defended in the name of “more people participating in the sport” or “popularity” or “the money it brings in.”

Triathletes seem unconcerned about such issues. They seem to have, even the slowest of them, a respect for the sport that matters more than how entertaining each participant can make his or her own race. They don’t talk about how “boring” the sport is, or how they could never compete without something (cheerleaders? rock bands?) to keep them distracted.

This contrast came to mind today when I read an article about the first Master’s race of one of the greats of middle distance running, Eamonn Coghlan. I wonder how many of today’s bucket-list marathoners know his name and what he meant to distance running once upon a not-so-long-ago time. I wonder how many scramble at odd hours of the morning or night to catch streaming video or online  broadcasts of the distance races at the Olympics or World Championships or major marathons. I wonder how many recognize that they run in the footsteps of those who trained in cotton sweats and raced in plain cotton or polyester singlets and shorts.

You see, I don’t just love the act of running; I love the people who love it, who have sacrificed for it, who raced when there was little or no money, no admiration, nothing but the desire to test themselves and share their love with whoever had the same desire. I love those who are passionate about running, whether or not that means winning, whether there are 20,000 people running with them or 20.

Because of those people, while I may run by myself, never really run alone.