I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s so simple and so obviously applicable to every aspect of my life–yet I forget it, often. I think one of the best surprises and also greatest gifts I’ve received from completing my first marathon almost 6 months ago is that I’ve come to understand how much I still have to learn about running. It’s almost painfully humorous that in an activity chock full of finish lines–there is no real finish line. There’s always more to learn.
Don’t get me wrong, I get that part of the appeal of the sport is it’s simplicity. It’s not at all a necessity to enter races or go for PRs or even to try to improve. There are certainly runners who insist on not being constricted by any of these things; they run free–when they want to and how they want to. Still, running shares a quality that can also be found in yoga, in personal relationships, in academics, and really almost anything: You get out, what you put in. If all you want from running is to be able to clear your head at the end of the day and get a good night’s sleep, a brisk 20-30 minute jog will probably get you there. If you want more, you’ll probably have to do more.
Running has given me so much over the years: health, joy, companionship, belief in something bigger than myself, sanity. Still, I continue to want more. Training for and running the marathon altered my perception of life in ways I didn’t foresee. I thought finally crossing that finish line, after seventeen years of dreaming about it, would feel like an end to a chapter I never thought I would finish. Instead it felt like a beginning; like I’d had gone to the back of the wardrobe expecting to find a wall and found Narnia instead. The world of running is vast and the realization that I had barely scratched the surface was for a moment dispiriting, but quickly became exhilarating.
When training for the marathon I ran four times a week, essentially adhering to three different types of runs: Intervals (speed work), hill intervals, and the long slow run. For almost the entire duration I thought my longer weekday run was a tempo, but discovered later that I wasn’t doing it correctly. When I actually started completing true tempos the understanding of what I could gain from them kind of blew my mind. Without a marathon in my foreseeable future, I’ve been able to let go of the “get the miles in” mindset and instead concentrate on the minutia of different types of workouts. I never saw the value in that before when I was only going for distance.
I think up until now I always kind of knew what my ceiling was with running. I knew I could get in better shape and improve my speeds and extend my distances a bit, but I really thought my ability was pretty fixed. I don’t believe that anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m realistic. I’m not dreaming of Olympic medals or even BQs. But I know now that I don’t know what I don’t know–and that because I don’t know, I no longer want to put a limit on what I think I’m capable of. Life is surprising. I think it’s the most delightful when we surprise ourselves. Challenging myself to do difficult things–things that make me uncomfortable and tired and even frustrated, is the only way I really know how to tap into that delight.
The difficult workout I tried for the first time this week was mile repeats. Since my next race up is a 10k, I’ve been working at trying maintain my endurance at a higher speed. For those of you who don’t know what mile repeats are (I didn’t know so I’m not gonna assume that everyone else does, you experts, whiz on by this) they are actually just what they sound like. You complete a mile at or a little faster than your 5 or 10k race pace, then you recover (jog or walk) for 2-3 minutes, then you repeat for however many miles you are going for. The idea is to build race specific strength and dial into the precise endurance required to maintain your goal pace.
The workout is hard as hell. I ran my first mile at an 8:42 pace which is a little faster than what I will be going for in my race. In the middle of it I thought, yeah, there is no way I am doing 6 of these, maybe I’ll start off with 3. Yeah, 3 will be fine. It’s a more intense workout so 3 will be fine for today. I think the smartest thing I did is something I almost never let myself do: walk. It’s mostly my ego that usually doesn’t allow for this break in stride–I don’t want to be seen as a walker, I want to be seen as a runner. It’s bullshit. Who cares? Fortunately I got over it for this run and walked at about a 13:30 pace for the 1.5-2 minute recovery I took between each mile. This is what really allowed me to complete all 6 miles of running and 8 miles in total. The start of the workout is a total mind f*%$. When I do intervals, near the end I run up to a 7:20 pace. While this is only for two minutes, I think it’s given me false expectations about the pace I can maintain for a full mile. When I was huffing and puffing 4 minutes into the first 8:42 mile, it made me feel out of shape and out of my depth. I felt frustrated and completely unsure that I would be able to complete the entire workout. It rightly put my expectations in check. 8:42 is really challenging for me to maintain. That is where I’m at right now and that is okay. What was cool about the workout is that the recovery and the progression built up my mental strength as much as it did my physical endurance. I went from doubting I could even complete the first mile to feeling confident at mile 5 that I could complete 7 or 8 if I really wanted to. To me that evolution is what makes these workouts so valuable. Pushing through what I think is exhaustion (and is often more panic) and learning to steady my breath without slowing down is strengthening my legs, my heart, and my mind. With each mile I complete I overcome a bit more of my doubt–I break down what’s been holding up those limitations I had previously set for myself in my head.
Running just to run is awesome. But so is running to challenge yourself. No one on earth will ever be able to convince me that doing hard things does not make me better. When I purposely place my body and my mind in situations that create discomfort and mentally eliminate quitting as an option, I force myself to grow and increase my capacity for experiences I thought were out of my reach. Experiences that weren’t even on my radar when I was living within the limitations of my comfort zone.
Anyone currently breaking out of their comfort zone–whether in fitness or some other aspect of life? I’d love to hear about it!
Whose done mile repeats? Have they kicked your ass? Any tips for improving in them other than “keep on doing them”? I’d love to hear some success stories!
What other types of workouts outside the long slow run have been really challenging you lately?
What did it feel like the first time you didn’t let doubt or exhaustion stop you? When you went through it instead–what did it feel like on the other side?