Elliptical Reasoning

Posted: January 20, 2013 in Roads, TRAINING
Tags: , , , ,

You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse.
– Jon Gruden, football coach-turned-ESPN analyst

View to the Bay

One thing that does stay the same: the view from our street to the Bay, and Angel Island beyond

“One day won’t matter.”

Like most runners (plot spoiler!) I love to run.  And that in itself is almost always enough to motivate me off my combination La-Z-Boy recliner/hyperbaric chamber and out the door.  Almost.  But as anyone who’s ever laced ’em up in the name of self-improvement can tell you, some days the will is just… not… there. Some days, for whatever reason – be it physical or psychological lethargy, uncooperative weather, or body parts feeling just a bit “off” – working up the motivation to run can feel like more trouble than its worth.  Some days we’re reminded that an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an imbalanced force.

And on those days when I don’t feel tough and I don’t feel like going, the sentiment at the top of this post flashes to mind.  Having grown up in a semi-redneck southern culture that revolved around Friday nights and venerated its high-school football heroes, I learned to shrug off coach-speak from an early age.  Case in point: my high-school basketball coach’s favorite expression was “Excuses are like a**holes, everyone has one and they all stink.”  He was pretty proud of that one, as confirmed by the smirk that invariably followed.  So I don’t expect coaches to enlighten me on the far-reaching implications of the Higgs boson or the defining principles of Jeffersonian Democracy.

But Jon Gruden has a point… one day does matter, because for better or worse you won’t come out of it the same way you went in.  Just ask Marty McFly.  So then it’s my choice what happens between the two turnstiles.  Realistically, one isolated day is just that – in the grand scheme of the fitness cosmos, how much difference can one day really make?  Instead, I worry that one day of deferment matters for its potential to plant a psychological seed that will grow aggressively, feed on laziness and eventually blossom into a full-grown weed that overgrows my meticulously cultivated training garden.  What I fear is the downward spiral… though not the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album, that was a keeper.

Cut to last week – Wednesday, specifically – and I found myself confronted with one of those days.  The weather had been as wintry as it gets here in the Bay Area: drab, brushed-aluminum skies,  temperatures in the high 40s and a persistent “will it or won’t it?” threat of rain that I was convinced would only play its hand once I stepped outside in t-shirt and shorts.  My East Bay neighbors, looking like penguin hunters, were bundled up to their eyeballs in North Face down jackets, scarves and woolen caps.

And the day was playing havoc with my motivation.  In general life seems to move more slowly in January, as people gradually shake off their post-holiday doldrums and strive to get their groove back.  For me, the same goes for running… January’s always been a blank month on my racing calendar, the one month of the year in which I immerse myself in my training and focus on ramping up my intensity for the upcoming racing season.  So with that kind of diligence, what would one day matter?

(© 1995 Roz Chast, published in The New Yorker)

(© 1995 Roz Chast, published in The New Yorker)

True, I had no legitimate reason to blow off my workout, as so much of the country has this time of year… no snow, no ice, no real excuse to let inertia carry the day.  The spark just wasn’t there.  Mix one part general malaise with one part other-things-to-do, sprinkle in a dash of (contrived) under-the-weatherness, and there you have the recipe for my mid-week lethargy.  I even tried to convince myself that a) I’d have a less-than-productive workout if I did run; and b) the rest/recovery would do me good and enable a stronger run the next day.

And my body wanted to believe the voices in my head, it really did, if for no other reason than this: Wednesday = track work.  After all is said and done, speedwork on the track is my favorite workout of the week, and aside from tempo runs the only workout I clock consistently.  No other feeling within the training cycle rivals the adrenalizing combination of fatigue, soreness and accomplishment that drapes itself around me as I step off that 400m oval.  But that’s after all is said and done.  And both brain and body know full well that by the time it’s over, we’ll all be done.  Because running fast hurts.  And honestly, my body isn’t very good at it… out on the track I don’t feel like a highly evolved machine, and I sure don’t feel born to run.

But when I come out of that final turn and down the home stretch on my final lap, with my brain firing off well-intentioned orders to the gummy worms below my waist where my legs used to be, with my stride deteriorating rapidly, with my eyes now narrow slits to conserve the energy required to keep them open, with my physiological train in danger of coming off the tracks, and with that imaginary finisher’s tape oh so close… when I stumble across the finish line and I’m immediately awash in a whole-body response I’d characterize as more “drained” than “pained”… when that finally happens, now THAT will be awesome.  It always is.

So rather than listen to the voices in my head last Wednesday, I followed my usual path of most resistance.  And 30 minutes later I found myself chasing the endorphin dragon around the dirt track behind Martin Luther King Jr. middle school in North Berkeley.  Genetics might also have compelled me here: after all, my brother had once fought off his own litany of excuses for 4,012 consecutive days, running at least two miles per day during that time.  That’s less than a week short of 11 years.  Ironically, his streak (plus a rib or two) was only broken when the van in which he was driving was t-boned at an intersection during a 100-mile relay race.

Point is, maybe a valuable thread of masochism/self-discipline runs (pun unavoidable) in our family.  Barring aggravated soreness or an injury that threatens to derail my training, I can’t in good conscience skip a workout.  I run my speedwork alone, so nobody else would know or care.  But then, nobody else matters.

A great place for speedwork:

No better place for speedwork: 4 running tracks within 2 miles of our house
(MLK Jr. is circled in green, UC Berkeley in teal)

I’d decided my temperament this day was more suited to the low-key, off-road ambience of the MLK Jr. dirt track, rather than the all-weather synthetic surface at UC-Berkeley.  The pristine UC track is generally preferable for speed workouts, though not so much during the winter, when runners and boot-campers hurry to squeeze in their workouts between the time the track and field team finishes practicing and the time the track closes at dusk.

Wednesday’s plan called for a 2-mile warmup jog, followed by the speed portion of the program: a fast 4×1 mile (one mile, or four laps, repeated four times) with 400m (one lap) recovery between each mile.  I’d finish up with eight striders to work on my running form, and finally a 2-mile cooldown jog.  At first blush four miles doesn’t sound like much, especially with a slow lap to recover between each mile.  But if you truly run each mile (rather than mosey, jog or trot at the oft-recommended 10K pace), you won’t feel cheated by the time you’re done.  And each recovery lap will feel like you’ve earned yourself a bonus life, the running equivalent of the 10,000-point mark in Pac-Man.

After an uneventful 2-mile jog to the track and one warmup lap, I accelerated across the start line (marked by a small puddle in lane 1) as the {beep} of my watch timer signaled the toughest part of this workout – mile 1.  For me the first mile of these sessions is always the slowest and most laborious, as the body adapts to the sudden shock of being forced out of its comfort zone and into an immediately stressful situation.  The body at once becomes needy: the heart needs to pump more blood faster, the lungs need to take in more air and exchange more carbon dioxide for oxygen, the muscles need to ramp up their number of contractions, the neurons carrying signals throughout the body need to to fire more frequently, the bones need to manage the increased biomechanical stress.  These are a few of the dramatic challenges that must be overcome quickly for the body as an integrated whole to have any hope of completing one mile, let alone four or more.

But having experienced “starter shock” as a regular feature of my training, I quickly realized that something was different about today’s opening mile.  Something altogether unexpected, though not unwelcome.  I felt fast (for me).  Really fast (for me).  In fact, faster than I could recall feeling for an entire mile on any track, much less a bumpy dirt one.  And as I crossed that puddle for the fourth time, the timer on my watch stoically reported the good news – 6:27.  Whoa!  My momentary swell of accomplishment was tempered by the understanding that I should probably dial back a bit, lest I blow out my tires after only two miles.

But after my first recovery lap, as I fell into a smooth rhythm on mile 2 and glided (ok, that may be overstating things) around each turn, I knew I had a legitimate shot to improve on my first mile.  Zagging around two slow-moving conversationalists in the inside lanes, I rounded the final turn, surged past my favorite puddle and glanced at my watch – 6:22!  I’ve never timed myself to know just how fast I can run a single mile, but 6:22 was no doubt the fastest mile I’d ever timed in the course of training.  And when I followed that up with a 6:23 on mile 3 and another all-out 6:22 on mile 4, my brain registered that hey, maybe all this speed training does do more than just hurt!

Just to confirm that MLK Jr. is a regulation track, I mapped it on favoriterun.com

Just to confirm that MLK Jr. is a regulation track, I mapped it on favoriterun.com

Everything had just clicked, and on this of all days.  Maybe chaos theorists are on to something.  As all systems returned to equilibrium, I finished up with 8 striders and then left the track on my 2-mile cooldown jog, thankful as hell I hadn’t heeded the voices and blown off the day.  As it turns out, those 25 minutes and 34 seconds spent redlining on the track set a strong tone for the rest of the week, as Friday yielded its own fast tempo run and Sunday a well-paced 19-miler over a hilly yet scenic course.

Who knows, maybe I never top my mile times from Wednesday’s track workout.  But it won’t be for lack of trying.  I can easily imagine 1,000 different scenarios that might have played out had I opted to stay inside that afternoon – some heroic, others less than fulfilling.  All I know with certainty is that I wouldn’t have run my best timed mile ever, if I hadn’t bothered to run at all.  Or as hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky so memorably put it, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So I’ll keep firing shots on goal, every chance I get.  Sure, there’ll be those that sail wide or ricochet off the crossbar, but there will also be plenty that find the back of the net.  Because every shot matters, and I want to need to get better.  And contrary to how this post may read, I’m not writing some sort of misguided advice column here, to offer training advice to people who in many cases are better runners than I am.  I’m pretty sure a PhD in Cancer Biology and one sub-3:30 marathon qualifies me to stay in my blogging lane, not play running coach.  Nor would I want to.  In fact, I’d encourage every runner to do their part to increase my likelihood of improving on last year’s racing percentile in 2013: kick back! blog more! run less.

Just don’t listen to me.  I don’t even listen to myself.

  1. Dan says:

    Killer workout. I rarely dip into the mid 6s unless I’m going for a balls-out speed run, and those don’t happen too often. Track workouts are the one staple in a runner’s diet that I have yet to do, mostly because I don’t know any nearby ones. This is my fault because I’m sure I could do some simple research, but frankly, I’m a little intimidated by it.

    As for motivation, I find that my most slippery slope is not whether to do an exercise at all. I agree that staying home simply out of lack of motivation does “incept” the idea into the mind, which can become a sticky problem later on. However, for me, it’s not much of an issue. I am more worried by the midrun voice in my head that tells me to run just 6 miles when I had originally planned on 8. It happens often, either from a miscalculation on my perceived exertion to the weather, that I’ll slash a few miles from my expected workout. THAT, I think, is the bigger daemon that I must vanquish.

    Great post, Mike.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Dan. Impressive that you’re posting consistently strong finish times and showing rapid improvement (at the marathon distance, no less) with minimal speedwork. I agree the thought of track work can be intimidating, but I also find it’s just that — the thought of it, more than the reality — that’s intimidating. After the first lap or so it’s all good. That’d be tough, not having a track nearby… I’d imagine you frighten a lot of small children and seagulls with your speed runs along the lakefront.

      Interesting to know we have different motivational issues… aside from stumbling into a snowstorm while dressed for the beach (not that I’d ever do that), I don’t have a problem finishing a run once I’ve started. Of course, we also have perennial 50-60F weather here. For me it’s a matter of getting myself into my shoes and out the door… but once that happens I’m in it for the duration.

  2. Chuck says:

    Some days the only thing that gets me to the track is that I spend all day telling myself that I am going to take it easy when I get there. Usually I will tell myself that up until the moment I start the first lap. It is strange some of the mind games we play to push ourselves.

    But I like track work outs. I always think there are two benefits. There is the physical aspect of running until you cough up a spleen. But there is also the mental. If you can make yourself show up, if you can make yourself run a little bit faster on that last lap, well you are more likely to do that during a race. Races have a mental component also.

    Great miles times by the way. Do you check your time every lap or just at the end?

  3. Mike says:

    Sounds familiar! Yep, the all-important mind games are usually what keep me going through the physical discomfort. I do the same thing, telling myself before I arrive at the track and before every mile that if I’m too tired, I can always just truncate my workout, say, run 3 miles instead of 4. I don’t recall ever shortening a workout (even in the afternoon heat on the UNLV track), but hey whatever it takes to assuage the brain so the body can do its thing.

    And no I don’t check my lap times, just the final mile time. I try to filter out distractions and focus on the physical task at hand, since I’m usually having a hard enough time just holding it together for four laps.

  4. Jen says:

    Pretty inspirational stuff, Mike. Getting speedy!! I still haven’t gotten my butt to the track, even though I totally intend to. One of my lame excuses is fear of the unknown: I have no idea whether the track will be open, how crowded it will be, or how late it’s open. It’s gotten to the point where I might have to schedule a “date” with TC to get myself there. On a related note, I actually quite enjoy doing speedwork on the treadmill — it’s the only way I can manage to do more than 3 miles on that thing.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Jen. It was a fun outing, though now comes the hard(er) part… improving on it next time!

      I can totally understand your frustration with your local track… you should BART up here once in a while to use the Cal or MLK Jr. track. Not necessarily convenient, but at least you know it’ll be open and not too crowded.

      And as much as I loathe the treadmill, speed work actually sounds like a solid use for it… that would really be the only thing that would get me on one in the first place.

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