September 26, 2011

3 or 4 things I learned while training to run the 5th Ave Mile

I love racing, but I generally have less to say about races than about workouts. Still, the Fifth Avenue Mile is a good excuse to talk about the things I learned while training for it. Because in fact they may have changed me forever.

I wanted to beat 5 minutes, as I did in 2010. I had a good running year in 2010, and a slow, injured 2011. Fifth Ave. was the first race this year where I felt I could get close to last year’s results. I was in it to beat 2010 Daniel, who ran 4:57.

After a good warmup with comrade Chris, we crammed into forward part of the corral and stood there immobilized for 20 minutes. I tried to focus on what would come next, whether to take the first quarter hard or not, what the hill would be like. Then the gun (a gun?) and I busted out of 20 minutes of stillness like I was trying to escape my own body.

A race goes by in a red-yellow smudge, indistinct at start and finish, like certain brushstrokes of later de Kooning. I remember very little, though I can piece it together from photos people took. I took the first quarter fast, and pounded hard up the hill that occupies the second quarter.

But as I crested the hill, my enthusiasm ebbed. Dispiriting thoughts settled in to my pace – easy Tiger, don’t hurt yourself. The photo evidence shows three guys passing me in front of the Frick, just before the halfway point. I let them go and ran alone for the rest of the race. I didn't use my watch, but Chris tells me I was ahead of 2:30 at the half. The guys who passed me there finished about 8 seconds ahead of me.

I sucked wind for the third quarter, but then I suddenly got hungry again. I caught a fabulous cheer from comrade Ani at just the right place, and decided no one would pass me again, not even 2010 Daniel. And this is where the lessons of my training cycle kicked in:

1 – Suffering is normal. Shut up and run.

And an old lesson, briefly forgotten:

Those lessons, which had first come to me as bright epiphanies during my last hard workouts, swelled up from my chest and held me like a life jacket. I was finally in the race, and relaxed into a steady kick.

As the clock came into focus my eyes were glued to it. In the finishing photos I appear to be praying to the sky. I counted down with it as 4:55, 4:56, and 4:57 slipped away forever. Then it passed out of sight, and I surrendered myself to the hope of a two-second net lag at the start.

The mile is a horrible distance, too long for a sprint, too short to get warmed up. But Fifth Avenue is one of my favorite races because you get to cheer the other heats and the pro races are a blast. I got to see some of my favorite runners, including Chris, Ani, Brenn, Robert, Jennifer, and Kip.

My official time, posted hours later, was 4:58. Yes, 2010 Daniel beat me, but not by much. That guy better watch out, because I have three or four things he didn’t.

September 14, 2011

How I Discovered America

Every morning after a track workout I wake as if I’d been on a bender. What the hell was I thinking? The cold floor squeezes the sole of my foot painfully. I limp to the bathroom mirror to see how much I’ve aged overnight. And there he is in the mirror - the Mad Scientist.

If running is an experiment of one, the track is a lab in which we rats are exposed to all manner of edifying maltreatment. Eight x 400m for example, is an isometric string of successively more choking rigors, designed to acquaint the subject with his limits, or else those of the next world.

Experimentation provides proof and reassurance: How fast can I run a Mile? The only way to find out, without a tune-up race (which Julie Threlkeld has convinced me would have been a good idea), is to drop the rat on the wheel and quantify his behavior at race pace.

So, 8 x 400. I execute the first four items with a heartfelt grimace. Even though I’m going fast, the tripwire of fatigue moves up earlier with each item, catching me first at the final straightaway, then the preceding curve, and by the fourth item well before the halfway mark. And the real experiment hasn’t even begun.

During the next two items my vision quickly fills with bright spots and my head lolls with heavy, dark thoughts. I let myself be passed. By the seventh item I’m slowing and depending on a kick to even out my time. Oddly, as I put together the kick in that final straight, I have a fleeting sensation of extra reserves I never felt before.

Halfway through the eighth and final item I’m prepared to surrender. I’m at my absolute limit, and I begin to slow down. But curiosity gets the better of exhaustion, and I push on. And here it is again: like a dream where you notice a little door in your bedroom for the first time, opening onto a greenish universe where the air is unbearably heavy, but completely normal. You just deal. I accelerate, and realize that in the dream world I can hold this pace well past the finish.

I ran 72’s and then 73’s for the workout. The numbers predict I could match last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile of just under 5 minutes. But what about that freaky little kick?

On our recovery jogs between items, Coach Tony was out there telling us stories. “I hate this workout,” he said. “It’s painful. Everyone always tells you, all you have to do to run a 4-minute mile is run four of these at :60. So I ran sixty-second quarters. But I never ran a 4-minute mile. My PR is 4:08. So I asked my coach, What’s up, how come I can't hit 4 minutes? He told me, Tony, you weren’t tough enough.”

For a few seconds last night I was tough. Can dreams outpace science? Per the Mad Scientist, further research is indicated.

September 9, 2011

Masters of Relaxation

My legs are fairly trashed, as I push hard at my limits to get ready for the upcoming Mile. During a six-mile team workout yesterday, the first three miles (at marathon pace) were a total mess. I was sure I would have to stop at the halfway point, where we were supposed to accelerate to half-mary pace. I felt a stubborn woodiness in my calves. Turbulent ideas about work and commutes and the president's jobs speech jostled the air around me. I was tensed and shambling like a cartoon zombie. My eyes nearly crossed and my shoulders pushed up towards my ears.

Then suddenly the air grew still over my right shoulder. Maybe a valkyrie, a dragonfly, or the eye of a storm; still, but moving faster than me. It was teammate Joe, hardly moving his body and already several strides ahead of me. What calm, what grace. Like he was daydreaming on a park bench. I latched on to him to escape my own shipwreck, and managed to hang on for a while. But he drifted off ahead, and instead of trying to match his velocity I felt my limbs imitating his stride: short cadence, shoulders low and back, hardly any motion in his upper body, but also no tension. No tension at all.

For the last three miles of the run, I kept reeling in that calm. The tension constantly tried to flow back up from my legs, but I just let it fall back. Every time I relaxed I sped up.

Jack Lovelock was a New Zealander and one of the fiercest milers of his time (1500m gold in the '36 Olympics). For Roger Bannister and his younger classmates at Oxford, he was "a master of relaxation, the cleverest, neatest miler they had ever seen." Just watch him - like a lot of fast runners, he looks like he's moving in slow motion next to the other runners.

WORLD RECORD SMASHED! (click through for the video)

Does that guy look like he's breaking a world record?

It is a lesson that keeps appearing in the little mantras that pop into my head during workouts. Run faster not harder. Thoughts are heavy. No effort.

So it was Joe and the ghost of Jack pulling me along those last few miles, even once both of them were far out of sight, and their merest images floated alongside, to preserve me from thoughts.

September 7, 2011

If you want the rainbow you must have the rain

A running buddy of mine, who is also a blogger, recently had a running-and-blogging slump. He claimed that a really good writer would have blogged right through it. That makes me a bad writer as well as a bad runner, as evidenced by my own long slump. A real writer, if he blogs at all, blogs his rainy days.

What I didn't write about was six months spent nursing and cursing the tendinitis in my heels. It was just enough time to completely de-train. No PRs since last year's Turkey Trot. I ran slow, ugly races this summer - slower even than my first few months of running. Fitness, like everything, is only ever borrowed. From a miser. On unfavorable terms.

While I'd just as soon forget all the missed workouts and bad moods, posts in the slow time could have had a human interest absent from something like, "Check out my improvement curve, it's like a rainbow!!" Happy runners make boring bloggers.

I'm building back up now, toeing that fine line between fitness and injury, remounting the rainbow's rising curve. I squeeze in regular speedwork and tempos, with medium runs on the weekend. With any luck I'll improve. With any luck I'll write some spectacularly dull blog posts.

But like the frog says, rainbows are visions and only illusions. I ain't an elite and there's no pot of gold. The fact is, I only run to make things hard for myself. I threw my back out during my weekend run, and I was on the fence all day yesterday about a planned track workout. Excuses were within easy reach. I mean, I was moping around with a pronounced stoop and it was raining, like, .33"/hr (i.e., damn hard).

I took my daughter for a walk around the block to look for puddles. She stomped like a giant into each one we found and squeaked "Hooray!" My back began to tingle. When we got home my wife cured me of my hunch by walking on it. In the end familial solicitude prevailed over fear of rain and re-injury. I went out.

The East River Track was flooded and had nearly merged with the East River itself. I found my teammates huddled in a shallow doorway at the side. We're training for the Fifth Avenue Mile in a couple of weeks, so we had planned for 600, 400, 200 x 2 @ mile pace or faster. The rain came down in stinging diagonals. The water was 3-4" deep on one of the straightaways, requiring a fair amount of aquajogging. We plunged in.


The workout was slow and won't be getting me any medals on race day. But, drenched with rain and awash in lactate, I imagined I saw the slump washing away down the flooded streets in the unrelenting rain.