Monday, March 12, 2007

Sometimes easy lessons are hard to learn

I consider all of my training runs as lessons of one sort or another. Sometimes the lesson is more physical like hitting a particular mileage goal or practicing downhill running technique. Sometimes the lesson is more mental like pushing through the last set of intervals or finishing the last few miles of a planned long run when your body says "stop". Almost always it is some combination of both. Saturday's lesson was supposed to be easy. Not so much an easy lesson, but a lesson about going easy. The plan was to run 25 miles "easy". Not that I am really capable of making any mile past 20 (whether it be 30 or just 1) feel easy, but I wanted to try to maintain an easy pace for the entire run and finish feeling like I had plenty left in the tank.

I decided to run a very flat course covering the full Alameda Creek Trail in Fremont which measures just about 24 miles so I would have to do a little extra out and back after returning to the start. This, I reasoned, would be the good measure of how much I still had in me. I am definitely not what I would consider a fast runner, but I have a difficult time setting a slow pace for myself. I almost always run in the mid-8 minute miles on the flats. Part of the reason I love running trails so much is that the terrain usually sets the pace for me so I can just run by feel. However, I have signed up for a relatively flat 50-miler in just over a month and my hope was that I could run this 25 at a pace where I finished feeling like I could just go and go. Apparently, that's not me. I started out running at what felt like a very easy pace. I didn't check it as many of the mile markers along the trail are inaccurate, but for the first couple hours I felt like I could maintain it forever. At about the 3 hour mark, I realized that I was probably going to finish the run in under 4. I also realized that my pace and energy were fading. I checked my pace with a few mile markers that I knew to be OK and I was running at about 9:40/mi. This was a pace I could probably have maintained easily the whole time, but my mental math told me that I had obviously started a whole lot faster than that. In fact, about a minute per mile faster. Damn it!

I hit the start and did around another mile or so out-an-back and I definitely still had some energy to continue. I could probably have gone on for a 50K or so and the pace is about what I would need to do sub-5 hour ultra (some day). However, this is not something I could maintain for a 50 miles. I either need to figure out how to go out at a much slower pace or take (can I even say it?) walking breaks...ugh. Don't get me wrong, I walk all the time in ultras, but that's usually because the terrain demands it. The idea of taking planned walking breaks throughout a run on a flat course is something I just can't quite get my head around. Maybe this is the true lesson I need to learn. If I am unable find a slow sustainable pace I will either need to deal with integrating walking into my current pace or find myself forced into walking later on in the run whether I want to or not.

I often question why I signed up for the American River 50. I wanted to do another 50-miler before tackling Miwok and the timing worked out pretty well. However, the course profile is so very different than your average trail ultra. It is basically a 30 mile road run followed by a 20 mile mostly flat trail run that has a steep climb in the last few miles. I may be the only one out there welcoming that final climb. In running, as in life, I've never really been one for the steady even pace. I like the peaks and valleys. The self-actualizing, struggle up and over tough obstacles followed by the euphoric reward of flying down the other side and then the final pride of looking back over the mountain that you've "conquered", knowing you are that much better for having taken it on. However, every challenge has its lesson to teach and the lesson of keeping my up-and-down tendencies in check and maintaining an even, steady gate may be one that
has broader applications than I may yet foresee.

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