During the summer of 2014, I did a few track workouts when preparing for my Olympic distance triathlon at the end of the summer. The first of those few workouts was the first time I’d run on a track in years and the final was the last time I’ve run on a track since.
Until last week, that is.
I had been considering doing some speed workouts to get back into the groove before marathon training starts in November, mostly because of what I noted above—I haven’t run fast in a long time. And while I had been feeling very confident in my ability to conquer the speed workouts outlined in my marathon, I was disabused of that notion after a confusingly horrific attempt to do intervals on a treadmill a couple of weeks ago. I set out to do 400s at a 7:00/mile pace which I thought would be a total breeze because I ran the final mile of a five mile run in about seven minutes a month or so ago.
Yeah, it didn’t go as I planned. After a nice half mile warmup, I managed a measly four 400s on the treadmill before allowing my wheezing, shaky, and dizzy self to give up and bathe in my own shame. I honestly still don’t know what the problem was. Altitude? That cold I had? An unconquerable lack of talent? Hubris? Or maybe it was just random. I knew I couldn’t even make a good guess until I tried a speed workout again to see how it went a second time. So I was tentatively planning on doing that before starting my marathon training (hopefully as a confidence rebooster), although I hadn’t definitively decided which weekend I wanted to face my reckoning. If I’m being honest, I was kind of avoiding it.
But last weekend, Rob and I spent some time with his extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles, the like). His cousin mentioned that she had set up a 5k to raise money for a family whose father was terminally ill and asked us if we’d be interested in participating. Rob immediately agreed to sign up as long as he didn’t have to run (or walk) the course. I hemmed-and-hawed a bit.
My initial reaction to the thought of racing was, “Ugh, I’ll go, but I don’t want to run!”
A few minutes later and my resolve was already weakening. “Well, who knows? If I’ll be there anyway, it might be good for me to race.”
By the time the conversation was winding down, I was saying, “Actually, I’ve been thinking I should do some shorter races, just for racing experience. This is a pretty good opportunity.”
And by the end of the meal we were having, I had pretty much decided on it. I think it was the prospect of writing a race report that sold me. So unless my little niece arrives this week and I go back to Idaho to meet her next weekend, I’ll be running a 5k.
This brings me back to the beginning of the post and the speed work that I’ve been kind of considering but mostly avoiding. I’m loathe to attempt to race a 5k when all of my runs have been sitting in the 8:15-8:30/mile zone. Since at this point, a track workout seemed like it was unavoidable and was something I should do sooner rather than later, I scheduled a speed workout on Sunday, the first since my failure a few weeks ago. I decided to do the first workout on my schedule for marathon training—8 x 400m at a 7:00/mile pace (which translates to 1:45 for each 400).
So, Sunday morning I got up at 6:00am sharp to get ready for my workout. (I think it’s important to note that “getting ready for my workout” generally just means getting up early enough that I have time to eat, digest, and otherwise wake up enough physically to have a good workout.) I had a couple of slices of cold pizza for breakfast, starting drinking my obligatory bottle of water, and just hung out and enjoyed the morning until about 7:30 when I left for the track.
I had looked up the high school where I planned to run on Google maps and had even used the satellite view to make sure I knew where on campus the track was. Nothing stood out to me when I saw it. But they must have revamped the whole stadium since the satellite view was last updated. As I pulled up to the track and parked, all I could think was, “This must be where the rich kids go to school…” The track was a nice as a lot of college tracks I’ve run on, and the football field was entirely new Astroturf. I kind of felt like I was running at a college and was actually worried that the whole place would be locked to the public because it was too nice.
The only other person dumb enough to be at the track at 7:45 on a Sunday morning was a guy who I imagined to be a football coach at the high school. He was dressed like a coach and was walking around the track looking at a clipboard when he stopped to adjust the sled (the thing football players use to practice hitting). So while I was running, I built up a little story about him and how he needs to be in the stadium when he’s creating and reviewing plays because of the inspiration the stadium atmosphere provides.
After an easy 800m warmup followed by five strides, I was ready to start my repeats. Now, I haven’t tried to hit a specific pace while running in a long time. While I’ve been tracking my pace on my recent runs, I haven’t been setting out to run slower or faster depending on the workout. I’ve just been going out and running five or seven miles comfortably hard and figuring out my pace after the fact. So when I set off to run a 400 in exactly 1:45, I pretty much just guessed, knowing that I would check my time at the 100m mark to see how close I was to :26, which was the time I was aiming for. I started off at a slow-fast pace. That’s my own very special term for the speed at which I naturally switch from a mid-foot strike to a toe-strike. I’ve spent a lot of hours in my life running fast on a track, so that’s what I default to in track situations. It feels strange to run with my mid-foot strike “long distance” form on a track.
When I hit the 100m, I glanced down at my watch and was greeting with :18. Whoops. On pace for a 1:12 for my first 400m. I slowed it way down to what felt like a jog and finished the first rep in 1:28. I resolved to run slower on the next rep. So, 45 seconds later, I took off again, this time hitting a much more reasonable 1:37. I stayed fairly consistent and, for the first time ever, timed my rest between reps. I took 45 seconds except at the halfway point where I took a minute and a half. Dividing the workout into two sets like that is a useful mental trick for me. The breakdown of my workout (aside from the 800m warm-up and 800m cool down) is as follows:
With the exception of the first accidentally-way-too-fast 400, I feel like I approached this workout perfectly, despite the fact that my paces ended up a bit faster than expected. I needed to actively hold myself back for the first few 400s but was pushing myself at the end of the last few 400s to stay under 1:40. And better yet, I managed to regain all the confidence I lost with the treadmill fiasco and then some.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed getting back to the track. I spent countless hours at various tracks in the Northwest from the time I was in junior high until the time I was a junior in college. Strange as it may sound, doing 400 repeats on a track feels a little bit like coming home. Perhaps a more apt metaphor would be that it feels like visiting my childhood home. The way I feel as I lean into a turn is comfortable, and the rhythm of my feet hitting the track is soothing. Added to the familiarity was the fact that I was running just as the sun came up over the mountains, which is one of my favorite times of day. It was comforting, invigorating, and inspired just a bit of nostalgia as I was reminded of one of my “past lives,” as I like to call experiences that seem so distant from where I am now that it seems like they were lived by someone else.
All this would have been different had it been one of those gut-wrenching, vomiting by the side of the track workouts, of course. Those inspire nothing but pain, but this workout was a nice balance—hard enough to remind me of what I miss about track, but not so hard that I remember why I didn’t miss it to begin with. I’m thankful for that because over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing surprising little moments of excitement as I think about starting marathon training next month. This is not something that I, or anyone else, would have ever expected from the girl who whined when her dad dragged her on three miles runs during high school. And those little flashes of excitement are as encouraging as they are surprising, so I really want them to stick around.