Going Fast and Taking It Slow

On an unseasonably warm late September 2011 day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania I’m trying to prove myself.  A mile into the Paul Short Invite gold 8k race, I navigate slime slicked grassy spots, the course softened by prior races as if masticated by some giant possessing thousands of half inch spikes for teeth.  My thighs are already beginning to burn and I begin to think, not again.

That summer in Park City, Utah the Princeton Tigers had trained hard.  Some of us older guys put in multiple triple digit mile weeks at between 6000 and 8000 feet, constantly on hills.  We were running 10 mile tempo runs and 20+ mile long runs in August, and to me they often felt nearly like races.  I’d wake up and need several minutes to get myself out of bed, fighting through the desire to just fall back into the pillow.  But I viewed it as typical training fatigue, and believed all the work would cash out during an epic senior cross country campaign.  That fell into doubt when the races started.  First a no-finish on the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park’s course in early September.  Then at Paul Short I faded from that 4:51 opening muddy mile all the way to a disheartening 26:01 clocking, totally disengaging from the race.  Some moments in practice were promising: I’d be able to hang with my workout group for shorter bouts of fast running.   But I couldn’t string together five consecutive miles without rest in a race.

I watched the snowy and muddy 2011 Heps Championship from courseside in Princeton, not having broken into the top twelve on the team – the year before I had been in our top five for much of the season.  I was working hard and injury free: my performances didn’t make sense.  The not knowing why bothered me – I would almost rather be totally injured for the knowledge of it.

That is until a blood test showed I had a ferritin level of seven.  Coaches, trainers, and doctors cite various numbers for appropriate ferritin levels, but they’ll all agree that seven is extremely low.  Most likely the deficiency came on during the summer while I was potentially overtraining at altitude.  I began taking ferrous sulfate supplements – I hadn’t ever before, and just 17 days later things turned around.  We held a 5k track time trial for the guys not on the Nationals cross country team.  As planned, we ran 70 second laps to two miles in 9:20, at which point I knew my red blood cells were back.  I ratcheted down the pace to 66s laps, closed with a 4:21 mile, and ran 14:12, a new PB.  The next weekend I and Princeton won the IC4A Cross Championships, getting revenge on Van Cortland Park.

The late fall turnaround continued into spring.  I obliterated every personal mark from 1500 to 5k, broke four, won Penn Relays titles, and had success at the conference, regional, and national levels.  I learned that year that every inch of work you put in helps you somewhere down the line, even if years later.  Through 7/8 of college I trained at a much higher level than races indicated, but it fortunately showed in the end.  I ran a lot of miles probably too fast and too tired, but they weren’t for nothing.  They stayed in my legs, waiting for health to return.  When it did, I became a totally different runner with a different perspective.  I formed an altered point of view of the unwanted and unexpected.

Label failure differently.  Make the good times models and the bad times lessons.  What was once failure – a godawful race, a bad workout, an injury ridden season – becomes success.  You successfully failed the race.  You learned something.  That terrible race is a part of You now.  You can think back to it, hate it, laugh at it, but whatever you do, make the future better.  You define what losing really is for yourself.  When you finally do win, it’s only because you’ve lost many times on the way there.  Training is a microcosm of this:   A calculated series of blows to the body in pursuit of the triumphant gain in fitness.

I may be older and wiser (probably not, I just got carded twice in half an hour even though I’m 25) but running never stops challenging me.  This fall has been about learning to be patient.  Our training has focused on aerobic base building: lots of fartleks, hill climbing, tempos, and surges on long runs, to a degree I sometimes have been uncomfortable with.  At times I feel the need for some faster, more specific workouts in practice in order to execute well in races.  The week after a bombed race in Boston in October, I brought this up to Pete in a pretty uncharacteristically demanding way.  He just looked at me and said, “I need you to be patient.  I know you are going to run fast this year.”  Something as simple as that calmed me down.

Your 2014 USATF Club Cross Country team champions, Zap Fitness.  L-R Andrew Colley, Cole Atkins, Joe Stilin, Tyler Pennel, Chris Moen, John Simons, Griff Graves.  Not pictured are assistants to the assistant regional manger George Alex and Cameron Bean.  Photo credit Michael Scott.

On Saturday I was back in Bethlehem on Lehigh’s cross country course for the first time since that race in 2011.  I finished tenth and the team won in probably the deepest Club Cross Country Championships in history, showing I could run cross country without necessarily needing the battery acid intervals and repeats I adore so much.  I was reminded how sometimes I need to just shut my mind off, pull the plow in training, not ask so many questions, and run.  If you stay in it long enough, things have a way of working themselves out.  And many times, turnarounds happen when you least expect them.

Get more from Joe at his blog: http://thinkfastwaitrun.blogspot.com/