Monday, February 18, 2013

Running Free

I mentioned some deep thoughts on training in my last post, so at the risk of boring non-triathlon aficionados, here goes.


I’ve mentioned on here that before I got into triathlon a couple years back, I had a running background.  I ran track in middle school, high school, a little bit in college, and then after that, I started running marathons.  I did two during college, two during law school, and then after a substantial (i.e., five-year) hiatus from all things sporty, I did one in 2009, the year before I started triathlons.   

These marathons were all done in a relatively low-key fashion – my “training” consisted of downloading Hal Higdon training plans from the internet and crudely adapting them to whatever was going on in my life at the time.  I was quite old-school in my approach.  I wore (gasp) cotton t-shirts more than a few times, and often, in the pre-Apple-obsession days, pounded out the miles while carrying one of those brick-sized yellow Walkmans, playing a mix tape I made myself (True story: one summer when I was interning in DC, I had “Sweet Home Alabama” on my mix tape.  I stayed right by the Watergate complex, and it seemed like nine times out of ten, when that line “Watergate does not bother me,” was sung, I was running right by Watergate.  [Insert creepy Twilight Zone music here].)  
Don't act like you didn't have one, too

And more to the point of this post, I ran completely free.  I did not have a Garmin or any other sort of GPS device.  Nor did I have a heart rate monitor.  I always either ran for time with an old-school, normal digital watch and no concept of distance, or I ran a route of a known distance (usually something I’d plotted by driving my car and watching the odometer) without any sort of watch at all.  I never connected the data points.  If you asked me what pace I did my training runs, any single one of them, I’d have no clue. 

There were negatives to my low-tech approach, sure.  Mostly, when I got to the marathons, I had pretty much no idea what a reasonable pace for my fitness was, so I’d just go out easy and then try to get faster and end up surprised (good or bad) at the end.  But that negative was probably outweighed by a whole lot of positives – I knew my body well and I suspect I listened to it more than I do now.  When I had a day where I felt bad, I slowed down.  When I felt good, I went faster.   A slow run didn’t bring me down or discourage me, because, well, I just didn’t know whether it actually was slow or not.  Blissful ignorance. 

When I started doing triathlons, I saw a lot of people were very methodical, very data obsessed, had lots of fancy watches and devices and all of that.  I resisted for a long, long time.  Part of it was that I knew myself—I knew that if I exposed myself to too much data, I’d over-analyze or become neurotic.  Part of it was that I just didn’t want to know.  It took me a long time to start running at the speeds I used to run, and I kind of enjoyed keeping my head in the sand about how much slower I was.  

Eventually, I began to realize that to be successful, I did need to sometimes be aware of my pace.  My coach gives me different kinds of workouts and there are often paces to hit, and short of running on the track all the time, I was going to need a GPS to keep track of these things.  This stuff is important to grow as an athlete.  So I somewhat reluctantly bought myself a Garmin and started logging my workouts.

I have a love-hate relationship with my Garmin.   On one hand, the data’s good.  It lets me track my progress and hit my workouts appropriately.  It helps me to know what certain paces feel like (although that is still a work-in-progress).  

But on the other hand, and this is truly one of my weaknesses as an athlete, I become a slave to the data.  I don’t think I’m totally alone in this regard.  When I get home from a run, I analyze and then I overanalyze the results.   I’ll sometimes feel good about a run, but then I’ll look back at my training log and see that the last time I did a similar workout, I was a little faster, and then I’ll feel bad.  I’m constantly racing myself and judging myself when I have that thing on.  I tend to overwork a LOT of my workouts because I’m testing myself or racing the clock (it would probably be a lot easier if I’d just do the workouts as assigned instead of filling my training log with tons of “sorry, that was too fast,” “my bad, got carried away,” and so forth) and I cannot truly run easy, not when I have that Garmin on, because I just hate seeing “slow” paces show up on the screen, so I increase the pace, even when I’m supposed to be going really, really easy. 
Too many days like this
Most of all, I feel like sometimes when I have the Garmin on, constantly giving me instant feedback, I stop listening to my body's feedback.   On days when I don’t feel great or the conditions are making things a little slower, if that Garmin shows a pace that doesn’t make me happy, I either: 1) pick it up to an effort level that is probably not appropriate for the day; or 2) panic (oh my God, I’ve gotten so slow, how did this happen, how can I be this much slower than last week, etc. etc. etc.).  Neither have good outcomes.  

Tying this back to recent events--  I think everyone has a certain workout that scares them a little more than others, and for me, it’s those really long runs, the 20-miler sorts of deals.  I had my last long run before Ironman a few days back.  It was scheduled for the day after another really long training day, so I was really quite fatigued going in.  I was also more than a little nervous about that run.  I’d had a couple minor setbacks in my training that forced me to cancel the long run scheduled the week before and left me worried about the ability to complete this workout at a decent pace, and I also had some unpleasant memories.

See, last fall, before Ironman Wisconsin, I had this same sort of “last big weekend,” scheduled, with the big bike + run on Day 1, and the long run on Day 2.   I got through Day 1 just fine, and then strapped my Garmin on for my long run on Day 2, feeling fatigued from the start.  And…. I failed that run.   I started, I was tired, my legs were dragging, I looked at my Garmin, the pace was slow, so I tried to pick it up, then I looked at my Garmin, and the pace was still slow, so I tried to pick it up more, but still slow, and then I mentally lost it.   The fatigue and the anxiety about the race overwhelmed me, and I shut it down at mile 8 and walked home.   It’s the only workout I’ve “quit” in the middle since I started working with Liz.  

I tried again a few days later when my legs were rested and I finished the run just fine, but that failed workout stayed in the back of my mind.  Looking back, quitting that run was the biggest mistake I made before Ironman Wisconsin.  Because when I got into that race and had that same exact feeling (my legs are tired and the pace on my watch is so slow and I can’t go faster and it’s still early on), I had no idea how to deal with it and just get through.  Quitting and trying again in a couple days wasn’t an option this time, so instead I just quit mentally and stayed in a nice little funk for the rest of the race.

The memory of that “last long run” was in my head again last weekend (and actually, that run before Wisconsin was the last time I’d gone really long, as in more than two hours at a time), and going into my run, I was scared.   What was just a workout suddenly seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.  I emailed Liz, telling her I really wasn’t sure I could do the run, that it just seemed like too much of an ask.  I sat on the floor of my hotel room, trying to talk myself into it, trying to figure out why I was suddenly so phobic of long runs when I’ve been doing them since 2000, when I first started marathon-ing. 
 See :14 in.  That was me trying to pump myself up for the long run.

Then Liz came back with a simple solution—leave the Garmin at home.  Just get it done.  Make the run about getting time on my feet, not about pace, not about speed, not about anything other than just completing it.   This wasn’t the first time she’s suggested leaving the Garmin behind—we’ve been ditching it quite a lot this season for all the reasons I laid out above -- but it was the first time I went into a major workout without it.

But I liked the idea and I did what she said.   Sort of.  I still wore my Garmin, but I changed the display so I couldn’t see the pace or the distance, all I could see was the elapsed time.  I set out easy, just time on my feet, just getting it done (those became mantras of sorts). I did constant body checks, assessing my fatigue levels, my breathing, my form, and I adjusted the pace accordingly.  I was tuned into my body more than I usually am when I’m doing runs chasing certain paces, because the goal today was just to finish and finish feeling strong.  Once I got an hour in (the point where I’d stopped last time) and still felt decent, I knew I could complete that damn run.  And when I got to the point of an hour left, I reassessed a little more and allowed myself to pick it up a bit.   I ran old school, I ran free, I flashed back to those watch-less marathoning days in Columbus or DC or Boston … and when I hit 2 hours and 30 minutes and was done, there was plenty left in the tank.   

Later, while heading back to my car, I let myself look at the results.  And wouldn’t you know it …  I not only ran much faster than what I thought I could, I did it the right way.  I started slow and the run got progressively faster as I went.  The last twenty minutes were, by far, the quickest (and felt the best), a far cry from other long runs I’ve done where I crashed and burned and staggered it in for the last few miles.   I’m certain that with a Garmin there, telling me how slow I was the first few miles, making me want to ignore my own body and pick it up, the run would not have gone anywhere near as well.  

I’m still learning as a triathlete, but I think for me, there’s a real value in just “running free” sometimes.  Removing the clutter, removing the noise, preventing the racing against myself, and just learning to listen to my body.   One of the best Christmas gifts I got was regular ole Timex wristwatch.  No fancy pacing stuff, no GPS, nothing (but it is cute and pink).   And I think that Timex and I are going to get to know each other real well as time goes on.  

Also a good reminder of what I left behind in the States.  Did I mention my sunburn lately?

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