An Honest Character

As the blue cold settles over Seattle, and the challenges of staying hydrated and loose mount, the sport is beginning to take hold over my mind. Every decision large and small seems to relate back to running.

The toll running takes on our minds and bodies seems too much to fess up to most of the time, but I’ve finally found someone who will do it–Quenton Cassidy, from the runner’s cult book “Once a Runner.” By John. L. Parker Junior–a 4:06 miler from the University of Florida–the thing has lost not an ounce of relevance since it was published in 1978. It captures the lows runners go to for their infamous highs. Quenton Cassidy, the main character, shamelessly admits that racing feels like hell, yet his girlfriend notes that he packs for races with child-like giddiness. To him, running is all goals and work, but it’s also the realest thing he knows, and a thing that makes him free. It’s hard not to love him for his dedication to the sport’s main objective: getting faster. He says he does not understand all the hype runners give to the idea of the euphoric “runner’s high,” but as he watches some less serious runners “turn their ninety second quarters,” it dawns on him that to them, running is an entirely different sport. To them, it is merely a ticket to jock-dom–a way to sport fun outfits and be known as an athlete. They were “playing track.” To Cassidy, running is “The Task.” He gets frail, irritable, lives in an exhausted haze, chasing down that sub-four minute mile and the chance to join ranks with the legendary runners of his time.

I wish I knew Cassidy. The book has come to inhabit the background noise of my mind. Images of Cassidy, droopy eyed and slumping as he walks to class, come into view as I head out onto the dark, rainy streets these mornings. “He did not like these morning rituals, but he never considered not going,” Parker writes.

That’s the sort of dedication it takes to try to break 4 minutes for the mile. I suppose it takes a serious level of maturity as an athlete. At the same time, it’s dangerous to fall too deeply in love with that no-holds-barred attitude. I’m watching some old injuries–an unruly I-T band, an irritable achilles–like a hawk. I just wish those calf raises and, icing, baths, and stretches didn’t take so much God damn time.

These days, I crave the flying feeling. I think of the sound of one step after another, each hitting the pavement squarely on the ball of my foot. I think of my foot kicking out the dirt behind me, the heel flying out behind me and as my knee raises, then dropping down to strike the ground and spring me forward again. I think of the silhouette of the perfect runner, body leaning slightly forward, arms driving in tight efficient swings, feet making perfect circles in their path up and down, forward and back, those wheels of legs building momentum like a machine, unperturbed by fatigue, rather freed by the feeling of moving along the ground faster than ever remember until the pain increases and the shadow of self doubt moves in like a cloud.  Then suddenly, strangely, the second wind hits, energy stores revive, a new gear discovered, and you’re gone.

I want to be free

Every day, life beckons our energy forth. It calls us to get up, put on our clothes, get out the door. We go to our jobs to write, analyze, calculate, sell, whatever it may be. All of us humans put forth our energy each day in good and bad capacities. And we all must choose: what is worth it? As the Beatles would say, “if you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free. There are a million things to be, you know that there are.”

I want to be free! I want to run through the rain, as the sun sets, leaving its dusty rose color leaking across the sky towards the grey fall clouds. At Cotner’s workout last night, twenty to forty of us ran six four-minute tempos with two minute jogs in between. We went around the track, down the sidewalk, over the grassy patch, onto the street, over the craggy spot of pavement, around the block by the convenient store, past the bus stop with its bus riders waiting in rain gear, around the corner to power up the hill to the track. Turning back onto the track, we aimed our bodies through the narrow openings between the metal poles and hung a sharp right onto the track to finish out the four minutes, all of us scraping the barrel of energy stores, scrounging for the adrenaline or glucose or whatever could propel us further this time than last. Each person found his or her own way, some of us bursting with the energy of driving elbows and others conserving movement, using minimal arm swings and short, pattering strides.

The run-jog pattern continued six times until we were done just as suddenly as we had begun. Night had settled. Our endorphins propelled us along for a few easy laps and some friendly chatter. We talked training, stretched, and returned home home to eat and then sigh into our pillows ahhhh, I did it.

Beyond thoughts, there is the zone

Just like any hard effort, track workouts require focus, but what exactly does that mean? Some tout the value of self talk while others “Just do it.” I like a little of both. But finding a healthy balance between those two philosophies often means running from an incessant overflow of thoughts.

I battled that overflow at Tom Cotner’s workout last Wednesday, but as we rounded the last corner of the last 800, a beautiful thing happened. I stopped thinking. All the inner encouragement and the self-checking melted away, and I was free, pounding out the last 100 to the beat of Beyonce’s “dum dum dee dum dum dum dee dum dum.”

Gotta love pop. Five songs have probably enhanced my performance immensely since I synched them onto my ipod last February: Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” Rihanna’s “Disturbia” and “Live Your Life,” Lady Gaga and Colby O’Donis’s “Just Dance,” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” Ha. Call them kitschy, whatever, the pretensions that might make you balk at pop music are really just illusions of sophistication. These beats send goose bumps over my entire body and make me, like magic, run faster.

Of course, music or no music, it’s easy to get in the zone when you see the finish line nearing on your last 800 in a set of seven. After each sixty second rest period, as we began each interval, I would say to my muscles, “all right” or “here we go.” My mindset always changes a lot during workouts. I start the first interval thinking, “Yay! Speed! I’ll never tire!,” go into the middle ones realizing, “Oh yeah, I’m tiring just like any human body does, that’s what happens, dangit,” then head into the later part of the workout chanting “Almost done, almost done, almost done!!!” Oh, too many thoughts! Let me get in the zone!

Cotner told us to hold back on the first, third, fifth, and seventh intervals and push it on the second, fourth, and sixth, but I still found myself wanting to push it on all of them. He warned me this would happen. My inner coach just won’t shut up. If she’s not saying “come on,” “Now!” “Let’s go,” she’s countering with, “okay, stay relaxed, don’t worry, just run.” These words may be good focusing tools for my wandering mind, but I think truly finding the zone means being free of thoughts, thinking solely about catching the next person or hitting a better time. I often imagine that I am dragging a big balloon of thoughts around on a string, and it’s heavy, and it catches the wind as I go, and I’d like to take a scissors to it and set myself free.

The great runners of Africa probably do not think when they run, save for little poetic epitaphs of observation. I imagine that long runs are the exception, since that is when they may be running for the purpose of retrieving water or picking up some food or medicine for an ailing child. But speed days must be beautifully focused. When I watch them run in competition, they always seem to have such carefree expressions on their faces, like they are so accustomed to running super fast that they have forgotten it is difficult.  Maybe during hard workouts they notice nothing but the sound of their feet against the ground and the pacing of those steps. Maybe their African languages enable them to think more in terms of the bare reality and to see the terrain in front of them more clearly.

Seeing the terrain was key this Saturday at Woodland Park’s cross country course, a slanted slew of trails where Seattle University held its Emerald City Open. The 2k course, which we ran three times, zigs and zags up and down and around. Just when I thought I was in a position to start really moving on people, there would be some slowing factor like the gully–this steep, fifty meter downhill that bottoms out abruptly then gives two steps to recover before turning into a steep uphill climb. It’s a lightening pace they demand when the race ends in a mere 6k. Just as we began, we were finishing. I didn’t run as fast as I’d hoped, but I did get in the zone, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Sundodger

I still remember the scene in Disney’s The Lion King when Scar, the villain, tries to chase an enormous herd of wildabeast off the edge of a cliff. The sound of their collective hooves against the ground sends a rumble through the theater. Simba, the little lion cub, gets swept up in the stampede and nearly trampled as he runs, calling on every quick twitch fiber in his little legs to keep up.  Just as his energy begins to wane dangerously, he spies a branch, snags it, and leaps to a safe perch as the stampede rumbles by, vanishing inside its own cloud of dust.

I was reminded of this scene last Saturday, at University of Washington’s Sundodger Invitational. After the sound of the gun and our burst across the grass, I felt like little Simba, scraping my energy stores to keep step with the pack. The pace was so much faster than what I’m used to.

My memory of the race is a blur. It seemed that after we’d gotten through the first mile, the next one had passed, and then the next one, and then we were kicking.  In the last mile and a half, when there was nothing to lose, the doubt melted away, and I took charge a bit more. In the end, I eeked out 15th, and Marlene Farrell, my Seattle Running Company teammate, placed an impressive 8th. In pictures I look like I’m being pulled along by some force outside myself, but the memory of being a part of that stampede, making the ground rumble beneath my feet, is growing some enthusiasm inside. I can’t wait for the next race!

Super Jock ‘N Jill 1/2 Marathon Report

Twelve hundred runners turned out for the Super Jock ‘N Jill Half Marathon on Monday. The starting line conditions–probably the coldest we’ve seen in a while–made for a somber crowd.  It was just too chilly, too on the verge of downpour. Yet I envy the chipperness of heart I was able to muster, standing there at the line, and as we took off.

On both women’s and men’s sides, the results spoke well for Seattle’s elite running community, especially for the race’s small size, at 1,205 runners, 622 of them female and 583 male. The top ten women finishers’ times ranged only by nine minutes (http://onlineraceresults.com/race/view_race.php#racetop), with the winner clocking in at 1:17.27, a time that would have placed third at the Seattle Rock ‘N Roll last June, second at the Chicago Rock ‘N Roll in August, the first American (tenth overall) at the Virginia Beach Rock ‘N Roll the day before.

What’s more impressive is how deep the field was. Despite its much smaller size (11,442 females ran the Rock ‘N Roll), the field at Super Jock ‘N Jill was much deeper. Running against that many fast locals really got me thinking…I need to start thinking of quality training in terms of what I’m doing out there, not just trying to get in 70 miles a week with three days per week of weights and two harder days. There need to be some serious workouts worked in. I think smarter training would help with a variety of shortfalls I found on Monday.

I was strangely unmotivated throughout the first half. I just did not feel like being there. It was a pretty trail, and there were plenty of fast people around to pace off of, but I did not have the sense that I needed to go any faster or pass anyone else. It was a much different experience from the Seattle Rock ‘n Roll, where I had the urge to speed up the whole time, and really had to temper my desire to do so in an effort to keep from going out to hard.

We hit okay times through the first few miles–remaining relatively close to six minute pace–and then slowed as we hit the next few miles. I focused on staying with Karen Steen through the middle, and she chatted away. When I found that I was able to chatter back to her, I wondered if I could possibly be pushing hard enough. “What is half marathon pace?” I wondered. I don’t know what it’s “supposed” to feel like…should I have been breathing hard the whole time, or was it smart of me to wait until the last three miles to push myself to that point? Maybe with more weight training and speed training, I would feel more confident about pushing harder throughout the race.

Better training would probably put more speed in my legs. I have done so little speed work in the last few months. In fact, the only speed work I’d done had been the week before–a tempo run of three ten minute tempos at 6:10 pace the previous Monday and 6 1200s the Wednesday before that. I had felt frustrated by this, but at the same time, without a coach or clear training plan mapped out, it is really easy to cut out, or shorten, the tough stuff. I have to do a lot more speed if I want to get any better and to get through the tired days that follow.

Doing speed work solo is so incredibly anticlimactic–there is no sense of accomplishment in having stuck with someone or pushed someone. Times are always disappointing, and in the end, you simply feel as though, okay, I didn’t go as slowly as I could have gone. And I got it in. I also find that I behave really poorly when doing speed alone. I’ll feel sorry for myself that I am making myself go so hard, and as a result, I’ll start panting, thinking I’m pushing it so hard, when I’m really not. Sometimes I’ll realize this mid-workout and say to myself, “okay, relax,” and then suddenly, like magic, I’m able to breathe normally…funny how that works! I have lots of gimmicks for solo speed work. I noticed that hearing my shoe scrape against the pavement as I take off puts me in a more focused racing mindset, but that’s not enough. I’ve just got to have people to chase.

So it is all about chasing people down and knocking down that time a few more notches? After this post, maybe that’s how it seems. But there are the visuals to keep me happy. The winding trail along the Sammammish River, the happy chatter from Karen Steen, who makes me laugh now in retrospect. (I’ve never had anyone talk to me that much during a race, and it was a nice change) Then, of course, the bubbly runner’s high that followed sent me on some great runs this week, down along the waterfront and around and around Greenlake. I just hope this new energy lasts.

Why run?

     Satisfaction is a slippery prize for us goal chasers. Accomplishments, however great, lose their luster as new expectations set in.
After improving my half marathon time by eight percent at the Seattle Rock ‘n Roll last June, I was on a high. The race had felt like flight, my legs like wheels, and the endorphin high that followed sent me bubbling into the sunny hours that followed–chatting and laughing and musing about future trail runs, workouts, and races.
     The following week, giddy energy propelled me down trails and roads. But then I hiccupped on the excitement and…oops…I felt like a drunken fool. The revelry was over, and it was time to get back to work. Unfortunately, more hard workouts and high mileage training sounded about as fun as eating dirt.
     I’ve been running through a bout of burnout ever since. The question–why run–pervades. The answer? I’m still working on finding something more satisfying than, well, it’s gotten me this far.
     Wednesday was tough. I’d decided to do a hard workout the day after my long run, so my legs were pretty tired. In procrastination mode that morning, I took particular care in selecting my shirt, donning my socks, lacing my shoes, stepping outside, and locking the door, all the while holding the serious expression of someone heading off to war. “I don’t have to do this,” I thought. “Yes you do,” I responded.
     I ran up and over the hill to Greenlake, bitter, imagining the other me–the one that works at a newspaper or some other appropriate, high-stress job–speeding to my coffee pot, then to my car, then to a desk at an office and sucking down my daily dose of news. I would have heard reports of Ted Kennedy, who had died the day before. Reporters were commemorating his aggressive speeches and adherence to personal ideals. Ah, to linger over news as I wake. Ah, my future life.
    I hit the track and began the six 1200’s, hiting the first at an embarrassing thirty seconds slower than I had hoped. I wondered what the point was. To feel the ground? To find out? Because I’m an endorphin addict? But I did not feel like such an addict that day. I felt like that other self–the one that loves to wake up and read–and wondered if I had mistakenly come to think of myself as an athlete.
     Then the two minutes of rest were up, and I began again, rounding the corners of the track, searching for that elusive sense of desire.
I began the second lap, blaming outside factors for my slowness–the tubes that took up the inside lane, the napping construction worker. All slowing signals, I thought.  In a  last ditch effort for some motivation, I conjured an image of my college coach, Ted Castaneda, who had managed to remain confident of my potential during those slow early-season workouts. “Times will come,” he’d always said.
     Towards the end of the workout, I began to think about staying on my toes and keeping my eyes up, and I was able to improve my speed by  ten seconds on a few, although that was still about 20 seconds off goal pace. It was disappointing, but I hadn’t quit, and sometimes that’s all a runner can do. The next day, I woke in chipper spirits to wind through the trails of Ravenna Park.
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