I loved track. I could wax nostalgic for hours about my memories of track. For workouts, there were the 400 meter repeat days; the hill repeat days; the descent/ascent days (1000 m, 800 m, 600 m, 400 m, 200 m, and then back up); even the infamous ‘Declining Two’s’ days (200 meter sprints, with rest jogs of 400, 300, 200, 100, and finally, 0 meters in between). I know these workouts were painful, especially when we did more than one set of them, yet I have almost no negative memories of them.
As a teenage middle distance runner, I guess I could just really get behind almost sprinting for 5 minutes or less, and then jogging slowly to recover. As an adult recreational distance runner, I can also get behind settling in to a comfortable pace that I can maintain for 2+ hours. What I found/find much, much harder to enjoy are those runs in between, where the pace isn’t slow enough or the distance isn’t short enough to get comfortable – ever. Think mile repeats. Think fartleks with intervals lasting 10 minutes.
What sort of race would require such workouts? Well, the innocuous 5k, for one. And guess what distance, give or take, is run in high school cross country meets? None other than the much-harder-than-meets-the-eye 5k. (Also, cross country in September, in Arizona, is brutal – think 110 degrees and no shade – and I literally ran on courses that had signs warning about the cactus to either side of the trail. Yikes.) So it suffices to say that my feelings about cross country are not as rose-colored as those for track, or even for my recent first marathon training.
Yesterday, both Lina and I had cross country flashbacks during our first tempo run of the season. Before I start complaining, let me just say that when we finished the run, we felt great and I was elated to have had to do this workout because I know it will make me faster. Not only does suffering in the name of sport build character, but in this case, it helped me build speed and stamina.
Here’s the deal: Week two of Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 Marathon Training program calls for a 30 minute tempo run on Thursday. In his description of the tempo run, Higdon explains that the idea is to gradually build up to near 10k race pace, hold that pace for a while, and then come back down to easy run pace. Given that we had to do 30 minutes, Lina and I decided to take the first 10 minutes at 9:00 minute pace, push to 7:30 pace for the middle 10 minutes, and then back off to 9:00 minute pace for the last 10 minutes.
The first 10 minutes were, as expected, just peachy. We were running up a slight hill in the very beginning and were still trying to warm up, so 9:00 minute pace felt comfortable but not excessively so. When the 10 minute mark came, we started trying to get down to 7:30 pace and…ENGAGE FLASHBACK. Checking my Garmin after a minute showed that we were running near 8:00 pace, but seriously, HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? I felt like we were sprinting and if I recall, I was able to do a lot of my runs at near-t0-sub 8:00 pace about a month or two ago.
Checking my Garmin again a few minutes later showed that, finally, we were more or less near our goal pace, but what about that feeling of “OMG I HATE THIS IT’S SO HARD”? Still there. For the first fast run of the training cycle, this pace was much too fast and 10 minutes was much too long for this to feel at all comfortable – classic cross country sentiments. We ended up dipping below 7:00 pace somewhere near the 7 minute (or rather, 17 minute) mark, which I think happened because it took us a few minutes to get to 7:30 pace and we were, at that point, in the mindset that we had to really push to meet our goal pace. We did have to keep pushing to maintain the pace, but not as much as we thought. Did I mention that this totally sucked?
After 10 exceedingly uncomfortable minutes, Lina called the time and we abruptly backed off. Our Garmins told us that our middle mile was run at 7:28 pace, so although we were slower than that initially and faster than that at the end, it evened out. Considering we’re just getting back into training and haven’t run a ton at that pace, I’m very happy with that. We ran minutes 20-30 at 8:30 pace, which oddly felt even easier than the first ten minutes at 9:00 pace (speed is relative, no?). Even though 7:30 pace initially felt too fast as the goal pace for this tempo run, I stand by it because those last 10 minutes were a breeze and we felt great afterwards. Hal Higdon mentions that you should feel refreshed at the end of a tempo run, and both Lina and I found this to be the case.
To summarize, this workout was strangely easy and hard all at once, and it reminded me of why cross country was so hard. I’m not looking forward to the next tempo run in three weeks (we have a speed workout and hills in the upcoming weeks), but just as in high school, I will try and embrace it, knowing that it is making me a better runner.