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.
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.