I have noticed a recent trend among the fitness blogs that I have been reading. We are all desperately waiting for spring to truly arrive. I think that with the official end of winter, our tolerance for cold, snow, sleet, and wind is at an end. I have further noticed that many of us are just venturing out and pretending that spring has indeed arrived. Last week, I went out in a long-sleeved shirt and wind vest thinking that I might be overdressed, since the thermometer looked like it was approaching the high forties (Fahrenheit). About a quarter mile into my run, I had the realization that I was pushing the season. There was more wind than I had anticipated; the sun, which had been briefly visible, was now behind the clouds and wouldn’t be coming back. It felt like the middle of January.
Around two miles, I was starting to bargain: “This is ridiculous. If I am doing this for fun, why am I still out here – this can hardly be called fun. Hey, I did something today and I’m keeping to the mantra of ‘doing something every day.’ I’ll just finish up with one of my short loops and call it quits.” The bargaining phase lasted for about half a mile and I soon found myself on a steady eleven mile run with a few surges thrown in. After three miles in the wind and cold, I warmed up and actually enjoyed the rest of my run. I’m still looking forward to running in shorts and short-sleeved shirt (sometime in June I imagine…), but my triumph over the elements has gotten me thinking about both the merits of warming up and the nature of training and motivation.
I find that if I can get through the first several miles on a cold and windy day, I’ll be able to finish an eight to ten mile run and actually enjoy most of it. I don’t think it’s a matter of merely warming up, although it does seem like it takes longer these days for my body to fully get into running. My better races are usually preceded by a two-mile jog, regardless of the distance, and when I am using the treadmill, I usually give myself a mile or two at ten minute-per-mile pace before I really start my workout. When I’m running outside in less-than-ideal conditions, I also feel that I need to get my head in the run. There are a lot of competing voices usually urging me to go back inside, even when I know that I will ultimately enjoy at least some part of the workout. I know that I’m not the only runner who loves to run, but also has to talk themselves into doing it – why is that? I remember reading an interview with Canadian masters runner Ed Whitlock – the first seventy-year-old to run a sub three-hour marathon and whose 2:54:48 at age 73 was an age-graded 2:03:57! – in which he admitted that he found his training to be “quite a bit of a drudge.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/interview-with-ed-whitlock) Whitlock’s typical training day is doing 600-meter loops around a cemetery for three hours at a time, so I found it odd that he would spend all this time and effort merely to race well. He must find it worthwhile, but I get the impression that if he wasn’t racing, he probably wouldn’t be running. This might be almost the opposite approach of runners like George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers, who gave and give the strong impression that they would be out running even if racing had never been invented. I don’t think that this is merely an indication of their relative competitiveness, because both Rodgers and Sheehan were notoriously competitive when they were racing.
What I’m trying to get at here is an exploration of motivation. Would I be running if there wasn’t some future race on my calendar? I have spent years in the past running without training for a race, but I also didn’t improve and I found it easy to skip days. I felt a need to run, but I didn’t think too much about getting faster. I found a route that I liked and ran it day after day – never added too much distance and never ran it all that much faster. I told myself that I would start racing, “as soon as I got in shape,” but I never managed to convince myself that I was ready to race. It turns out that for me a looming race is a great way to keep motivated. I love running and would do it anyway, but I find that training for a race can be the necessary spur to get me outdoors on a really yucky day or that can get me on the treadmill (oh, joy). I have to admit that some of the motivation to train comes from the desire not just to run to the best of my ability in a race, but to avoid that horrible “I’m not quite in shape for this” feeling that can accompany a race. Every season I experience this to some degree. Last year, it was racing my first 5K of the season after taking a week off after HMRRC’s winter series races and then coming down with a series of colds. I didn’t realize I was undertrained until I took off from the starting line and kept waiting for the first mile marker. It took awhile to arrive. When you are desperately looking for mile markers in a 5K, it’s a really bad sign – you have stopped racing and are now surviving. This year, I have avoided illness, have remained injury-free, and have managed to keep my mileage up. During the last several months, I have idly wondered whether this is the year that I am going to experience problems associated with overtraining rather than undertraining. There have been times where I felt that I was on the verge of overdoing it – not just tired but kind of depressed – and wondered if I was getting a bit too close to the edge. I realized the other day, however, that you won’t know that you are overtraining until you are overtraining, especially if you are trying to stack up miles to get to another level.
The problem, of course, is that the edge is different for every runner. If forty miles a week feels good, how would fifty feel? Sixty? I read somewhere that fifty might be the dividing line where breakthroughs are made. When testing limits, however, we also need to be wary of the breakdown line. I have the feeling that the two might be very close together. I guess I might soon find out.