We’ve all heard the stories of the notorious course cutters in our beloved running communities – those runners who fabricate literal shortcuts to the finish line, bypassing fellow runners along the way and skipping altogether the inherent trials and tribulations borne of an honest race effort. As with most things in life, there are no true shortcuts in running and there is no instant gratification. Success demands grit, determination, consistency, and perseverance. But life doesn’t always allow for that singular focus many of us once enjoyed with our favorite pastime. Our priorities shift, sometimes incrementally and sometimes dramatically, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstances outside of our control.
Not too long ago, my own shift in priorities landed me in unfamiliar territory, and I had somehow become an unstructured, infrequent runner (gasp!). If you try to return to the sport you love after a lengthy break, as I am doing, you’ll have to regain the physical conditioning you once took for granted; your body must be able to handle the demands of a training program. We all know how daunting it is to get back into peak running shape after taking off a few weeks or even a few months. Try three years!
To set the scene, three years ago my husband and I were trying for baby number three. By this point, we had already been trying for nearly a year. During that time, I suffered the second of my three heartbreaking miscarriages. After those losses and the D&C, my doctor advised me to table fertility for a few months and concentrate on healing my body and soul. Since I desperately needed to channel my anger and frustration in some positive direction, I turned my attention to a local half marathon. I was in decent running shape and had just enough time to adequately train for the race, though I wasn’t attempting a PR. I paced the first half of the race incorrectly (going out too fast … rookie mistake!), and it was a grueling slog to the finish. Overall, while I was satisfied with my effort, I found my heart just wasn’t in it.
After that race, I kept on logging aimless easy miles until the day I found out I was pregnant again. I then took a three-month hiatus from running to minimize the jolting and jostling the sport exerts on the body. There was no evidence that my running and HIIT workouts were causing our miscarriages, but my doctor didn’t think it was a bad idea to forego strenuous exercise until I was safely through the first trimester. I do not suggest that all women should stay dormant through their first trimester; rather, this recommendation was specific to me and my situation.
I jogged easily through the second and third trimesters until our precious caboose joined us in the fall of 2017. After that, my running became intermittent … because, well, kids. Fast forward to Christmas of 2018: my sweet husband surprised me with a Peloton bike, which I adore by the way! Running once again took a backseat, but this time to the bike. By the time I toed the line for a low-key 5K in March, I had run a whopping three times. Three. But sometime this past summer, I got the running bug again and started to increase my mileage … just in case a race came calling. That turned out to be a good idea, since I’ve now agreed to join some friends for an October 26 half marathon. By the time the race rolls around, it will have been just shy of three years since my last half. And the only race I’ve done in the interim is the 5K this past March.
Several people have asked how I am training for this race with three kids, a full-time job, and a million other obligations and commitments. I don’t think I’m in a unique situation, though. We are all busy, and life in general is hectic for most people I know. The key is flexibility. This is a life skill thrust upon me with my first child. I have to give myself leeway to train with a plan that works with my uncertain schedule. My training has to allow for accommodations based on my kids’ schedules, their sleep schedules (or lack thereof), their health (have they been sick all week?), my hubby’s schedule, and my own work schedule, just to name a few factors. There are days I have to skip or shorten a planned session, and I need to be okay with that, or this would never work.
My current training plan (crafted by me, so if it fails I have no one to blame but myself) is more conservative than in the past. When I was training for 2015 and 2016 marathons, I ran five days a week and eventually suffered through an Achilles tear and related calf issues. By being conservative with both my volume and frequency, I’ve aimed to stave off any more injuries. The plan involves running three days per week, cross-training on the Peloton two days a week, and one strength routine each week. The runs consist of one easy run, one speed or tempo workout, and one long run. The cross-training sessions on the bike are anywhere from 45-60 minutes, involving either Tabata efforts (2:1 efforts) or endurance work. I covet my “rest” days, though I can honestly say they are usually far from restful! For me, a conservative schedule was essential because I know I don’t get enough sleep each night and I have the tendency to burn the candle at both ends, which breeds fatigue, culminating in sickness. I am trying to train smart to avoid that – and so far, so good!
As with most running regimens, mine has focused on moving from the general to the specific. The general part of the process concentrated on endurance. I slowly added in more mileage to regain endurance. Once the endurance and mileage were under my belt, I settled in to pursue a more specific goal—maintaining a certain pace per mile. Over the last two months, I have been slowly winnowing down my pace to get within range of my goal race pace, such that what was once “comfortably hard” feels easier by comparison. But knowing you can run a 10K at a certain pace is a far cry from knowing you can run 13.1 miles at that pace. This is honestly the biggest unknown come October 26: can I run the pace I have targeted? My pace runs and tempo workouts say yes. Even the second halves of my long runs have had negative splits faster than my goal pace. But until the theory truly has been tested over 13.1 miles on the race course, I just don’t know. Rather than fixating on the uncertainty of the result, I am trying to focus on the simple act of doing the work, logging the miles. When race day arrives, I’ll have the confidence that comes with knowing I have been trained for the challenge ahead.
As runners, we are often competing against the clock, which really means we are competing against ourselves. We are trained to chase PRs. While personal bests are awesome, I am above all else a realist. Because this is my first race in so many years, because I came into this training plan late in the game, because my pace wasn’t as fast as I wanted it to be earlier on in the process, I objectively understand that I shouldn’t place too much pressure on myself to finish near the same time as my prior “good” half marathons. But the cautious side of my brain is fiercely clashing against my competitive spirit which is telling me that my body can do this. I just have to get my mind fully on board. Sometimes finding the sweet spot between our inner competitors and our more pragmatic selves is tough.
We all know no matter how exceptional we feel on race day, we will inevitably be challenged during any race, whether that challenge is mental, physical, or environmental. In order to overcome these obstacles, my mantra from my marathon days was “this is what I trained for.” I still intend to use that mantra but will also employ some new strategies. One is friendly self-talk, which I admittedly need to practice. During tough parts of the race, I hope to talk to myself the same way I would talk to a struggling competitor next to me. I wouldn’t tell that harried stranger, “You should stop. You should walk. You’re not strong enough for this.” So why is it okay to say such things to myself? I will treat myself with the same positivity and encouragement I would give to a fellow runner on the course.
Another device I will incorporate is the “gratitude mile,” recently recommended by a friend. I am a person who loves race spectators and am grateful when I get to encounter them, as these people can truly pull you through some tough miles. Their homemade signs – both funny and encouraging – often bring me to tears out of sheer gratitude and thankfulness for the support of strangers. But getting buoyed by their optimism is entirely dependent on factors over which I have no control. The spectators need to be where I need them, when I need them the most. The gratitude mile removes the unpredictability from the equation, as it relies solely on you, the runner. The concept invites you to reel off a list of things for which you are grateful. You do this for a solid mile when things get difficult. The theory is that as your gratitude list grows, your negativity has no choice but to subside, or maybe even vanish altogether.
Though not necessarily cognizant of it, I have been practicing the gratitude run in a looser, more unstructured fashion for several years. You see, my dad, who was a runner his whole life and who instilled in me his love for running, now has ALS. Since his diagnosis, I have not done a single workout without thinking of how grateful I am for the hours he spent logging miles with me. I am immensely thankful for the ability to get out of bed and move freely each day, which is a privilege he no longer enjoys.
On October 26, I will toe the line with gratitude in my heart because I get to toe the line. I am thankful that my health and my tribe allow me to pursue whatever goals I may set in life. Thus, no matter what pace I ultimately run, whether it’s goal pace or something slower, I’ll remember an adage from ultrarunner and Peloton coach Robin Arzon: forward is a pace. And move forward, I will.