Photo: Flickr/Tara Severns
I’m better at most things than I was in high school and college: I’m a better writer (at least I hope), I know more big words, I’m more well-read, more informed on current events, more patient, more capable of handling stress, maybe even a little braver.
But I’m not as fast as I used to be, and that might go part of the way towards explaining why I’m so reluctant to do speedwork—and also why running wasn’t really fun for me for several years.
I’m the kid who was always picked last in gym class, and I never really blamed the captains who didn’t want me on their teams. I couldn’t hit, couldn’t catch, couldn’t serve, couldn’t shoot a basket, couldn’t climb a rope, etc. When I joined the track team in seventh grade and started winning local meets, two things happened: kids stopped picking on me in school, and my self-esteem skyrocketed. I don’t doubt that those two events were connected.
You know why jocks always seem so confident? Because being good at sports makes you confident.
I was never elite-fast or sub-elite fast, but I was middle-school county champion at the 2-mile two years in a row, all-conference and all-regional for three years in high school. I wouldn’t have been able to walk onto most Division I teams in college, but I ran a 20:13 cross-country 5K sophomore year, which isn’t too bad. I didn’t think of myself as fast, but much of my self-esteem and the enjoyment I got out of running came originated in the knowledge that I was faster than most people, and that on a good day I could, for example, run a mile in under 6 minutes.
I never thought of myself as a long-distance runner. Five thousand meters was agonizing enough, and I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that gasping-for-air, struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-pack hell in a 10K, let alone a marathon.
But then I finished college, spent a few years running no more than 10 miles a week, and found out that unless you are Kara Goucher, no one expects you to do anything in a first marathon but finish. When you do finish, everyone says, “Awesome! You ran a marathon!” And you feel good about yourself because, hey, you ran a marathon, who cares how long it took? So I found the easiest training plan I could, Jeff Galloway’s “To Finish” plan for runners & walkers, which asked me to start off at 9 miles a week and build up to a little over 30.
I put speed on the back burner and stopped beating myself up every time I ran a 9- or 10-minute mile. Sometimes, I even left my watch at home and took off running, armed only with the knowledge that when I reached the intersection of Franklin and Allen, I would be 3 ½ miles from my apartment. I gave myself permission to run slowly, and I had fun.
Soon enough, though, a sliver of my old competitive drive crept in. I added mileage, picked up the pace a little on my training runs, and entered progressively longer races (10K, 10-mile, 22K, 30K) to test my fitness. I had a new goal: to finish my first marathon in under 4 hours.
I did a lot of things right in training: long runs, high weekly mileage, practice with fluid and electrolyte replenishment (although the last one didn’t work out so well on race day).
However, I shirked speedwork.
In eight years of cross-country and track, I did every type of speed workout you can image: ladders, mile repeats, 400 repeats, hill workouts, fartleks, tempo runs, and a bunch of others whose names I don't remember (and some I think my coaches might have made up while they were tripping on cold medicine).
I know that speedwork is important, and I know how to do it, which means that I don’t really have an excuse.
During the six months I spent training for the Buffalo Marathon, I did maybe two fartleks, each one totaling fewer than two miles of actual hard running. I also ran a couple ladders on the treadmill over the winter, though that was primarily out of a desire to get off the blasted treadmill as soon as possible. I threw in a few one-minute surges during my training runs, too, but for the most part I just trotted along somewhere between 8:45 and 10:00 pace, enjoying the act of running.
On race day, I didn’t break 4 hours. I hit the wall and finished in just under 4:10. I wasn’t happy with my time, but I was proud of myself for making it to the finish line. Hey, I told myself, it was a first marathon.
But now I really want to break 4 hours, which means that I should probably get back into the habit of doing speed workouts. Dehydration probably had more to do with the bonk-out than anything else, but if I'm cutting it close during my next marathon, a speedwork foundation sure won't hurt. As my grandfather always says, “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”
On June 14th, I officially started training for the Wineglass Marathon (Corning, New York, October 3rd). My new training schedule (a “Break Four Hours or Bust” plan from Runner’s World) called for a four-miler, so I dragged myself out for a 9:30-a-mile plodfest. I spend the next couple days on an ill-advised attempt to self-correct my stride (more on that later). That Friday, I decided to just go out for a run with my same old stride, which had worked well enough in the past and probably wouldn’t kill me for a few more weeks (I’ll tell you in an article next week about how improving your form can actually be quite beneficial, but sometimes, you just want to run). I took a jog over to Buffalo State College, where I figured I could drink from the water fountain at the student center and put in a few laps on the track.
It was hot, sunny, and cloudless. A hefty man was out on the football field kicking around a big rubber ball with his toddler, but other than that, the place was deserted. I love having an entire track to myself; it makes me feel rich, spoiled, godlike. I jogged a lap and stretched, and then decided to see how fast I could run 400 meters.
I had not done a 400-meter time trial since college—or maybe since high school, when I sometimes ran the 4x400. I’ve never had the foot speed of a sprinter, so my shortest individual race was the 800. I once pulled off a 67 second split during the 4x400, though, and at my best I could run 400 repeats in the 75-80 second range.
I jogged through the line, hit the split-timer on my watch, and took off at a dead run.
I was already feeling the pain after 100 meters.
At the 200, I glanced at my watch: 42 seconds. Okay, if I could just hold steady, I might be able to pull off an 85.
The man and his kid were in the bleachers, not paying any attention to me, but I pretended they were cheering.
At the 300, I wanted to stop. I mean, I really just wanted to stop. But I kept running, forced my heavy legs and heavy shoes to go, go, go, and stopped my watch when I finally reached the line. I had given it everything.
Okay, I decided. That was just the warm-up. Now that the blood was flowing and I re-acquainted myself with the feel of the track, I would give it another shot.
I hauled ass around the oval again. When I finished, I gasped for air and hit the ground. I looked at my watch: 97.
I didn’t have enough gas in the engine for another attempt, and I wasn’t sure my dignity could take it. I jogged home and chugged down a glass of Gatorade.
As disappointing as the effort had been, it made me feel a bit more like a runner. Getting onto the track will do that. The next day, because I am a glutton for punishment, I decided to time myself for a mile. I even announced my intention on Facebook.
It’s about a mile and a half from my apartment to the Buffalo State track, and when I got there it was locked. But no one was looking, and I had committed myself by way of Facebook post, so I climbed over a low gate, thrilled by my minor rebellion.
This time, I would do it right. I stretched carefully and put myself through the paces of formwork: butt-kicks, high-knees, quick-feet, side-to-side gallops, striders. I even ran backwards, and since I wasn’t sharing the track with a teamful of other runners, I didn’t have to worry about careening into the people in the next lane.
I took off my hat (which likes to blow off in the wind) and anchored it down with rocks. Then I jogged around to the starting line.
Alright. This was it. I calculated that I could run 7:00 if I did 1:45 splits; I would start off steady, try to maintain 1:45 for each of the first three 400’s, and then kick it into high gear for the last lap.
Lap 1: 1:42
End of Lap 2: 3:30
End of Lap 3: 5:18
I had to do 1:42 on the last lap to break 7:00. I gunned it, gasping for air—I hadn’t really sprinted like that in years.
Final time: 6:56.
My mile PR, which I set before I was old enough to drive, is 5:49. Yeah, I’m slower than I used to be.
But sub-7:00 is a good place to start.