Friday, April 24, 2009

When It's Too Far To Finish

I need rest. So today I will only run 45 minutes.

We intuit that we have limited capacities. Our bodies are fuel burning machines, and just like cars, they can run out of gas. Muscles fibers tear and breakdown, we sense, and need time to heal. We train and race, always aware of the walls that enclose our ability to perform. If we are determined then we claw and scratch at the walls, always pushing at them and trying to climb beyond them.

I felt a bit sluggish during the first 20 minutes of yesterday's workout. Nothing troubling, just the hint of a limit ahead. I've been running a lot of miles for me, and fatigue is to be expected. I parked in Abingdon at the start of the Virginia Creeper Trail. An old black train engine marks the spot. Proceed 15.5 miles and you will be in Damascus, where the red caboose stands at the foot of the Town Park. These landmarks intentionally bracket this first section of the Creeper Trail. Additionally, each mile is chiseled into a small stone pillar. I run on the Creeper occasionally because it is wide, graded, and composed mostly of crushed gravel. It trends gently downhill from Abingdon to Damascus, and then climbs to it's highest elevation, White Top station, at its 34 mile terminus. Howard Nippert sent me workouts for this month, and yesterday's called for 5,10, 15, and 10 minute intervals at a "good" pace. I interpret this to mean what we called "threshold" pace in college. The pace is one that you can maintain for about 30 minutes without digging yourself into a hole.

I hit the lap button on my watch when I start the first 10 minute interval. I'm just short of a mile marker, so I pass it about 25 seconds in. When I pass the next mile marker, I glance at my watch. I'm a bit disappointed by the time, because I forget that I've run more than a mile. So naturally I run a bit harder, thinking that I've been subconsciously sandbagging. When I start my 15 minute interval, it takes about 1 minute to pass the next mile marker, and that's when I realize my previous mistake. I'm thinking to myself about the need to subtract the minute to get my mile split at the next marker. I've already stepped up the effort, though, and now I'm heading in the slightly uphill direction. Even so, I sustain my new effort. So was I not going fast enough to begin with? How do I know I still wasn't going fast enough?

As I wrote yesterday, the object of the workout was to get tired. But if tired is good, wouldn't more tired be better? Can't I just take a sledgehammer to the wall enclosing my performance and bust through it? It might not be pretty; my blue lips won't be able to hold the spit from spilling down my chin. I may collapse into a pool of my own puke after my interval is complete. Isn't that the drive we're aspiring to? If my guts were spilling out of my abdomen I should be able to carry them in front of me, still running. I get a kick out of coaches who ask their athletes to give 110%. What does that mean?

When I was younger I figured out the only sure evidence that an endurance athlete had given 100%. That evidence is death, of course, precisely after crossing the finish line. People have died while running, but I can't think of any high performing endurance athlete who died at the finish line. (This is excepting the apocryphal first marathoner, Pheidippides.) But don't great runners learn to expend the maximal effort, and won't that be 100% of what they can do?

It may be helpful to think about the problem from the perspective of those who try, but run into "the wall." My lifelong friend, and high school teammate, told me before one high school cross country race that he was literally on a mission from God. He blasted out to the front from the start. Like anyone who "goes out too fast" he faded and had to slog through the second half of the race just to finish. My running buddy here in Virginia has had a string of frustrating DNF's. Did he exceed his capacity?

To be continued... (I have to get my kids at the bus stop!)

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