One of the hardest parts of improving as a runner is fitting in training when everyday life becomes chaotic. Unlike most skills, running doesn’t let you take significant time off. Your speed and endurance are inexorably tied to your fitness, which takes years to build but can be lost over the course of several weeks. What’s more, training without proper recovery is usually a recipe for injury or burnout. So skimping on sleep and relaxation to save time simply doesn’t work.
Over the past few months, I’ve seen first-hand how much of a difference everyday life can make on training. In May, I finished a 1099 gig about 10 days before a family vacation in Italy, allowing me to make running my number one focus for nearly three weeks. I timed my nutrient intake perfectly, rarely having to eat on the go. I put my feet up and played video games at night to relax and wind down. And I slept as much as my body needed. As a result, I had by far the best training month of my life. I put in over 255 miles of running and over 55 miles of hiking/walking over the 31 days, both personal bests. I also had several incredibly encouraging runs, including a random tempo effort where I felt good enough to put in two miles at 5:35-5:40 pace on a track without breathing heavy. That run, along with a few others, makes me believe that marathons around that pace may one day be possible for me.
In June, I tried to put in similar volume, focusing more on intensity and hills than sheer mileage. But thanks the perfect storm of family emergencies, a new job, and other random time eaters, my personal life became incredibly chaotic. On several occasions, I forewent warming up just so I could get in the extra few minutes of actual running. My sleep was terrible. My stress levels were through the roof. And I ate almost every meal on the go, shorting my body of nutrients. I actually lost a few pounds through the whole process, which, at my body fat percentage, is not a good thing. Needless to say, this lifestyle is not conducive to recovery. I dug myself into a pretty big hole, which I’m currently resting my way out of.
If any of what I just wrote sounds like complaining, it’s not. The few weeks in May where I lived the perfect runner’s lifestyle were an anomaly. The reality of this sport is that if you want to reach your potential, you need to keep your foot on the gas pedal, even when life is screaming at you to take it off. And I love running and competing enough to put in my miles during the inconvenient busy periods.
What’s funny about the past month is that although I’ve felt awful, both in terms of running and overall energy, I’ve had some of the best results of my life in terms of racing. On June 7th, I went back to Blue Hills in Canton to reclaim an FKT on the park’s access hill road. For the past two years, I’ve used this hill as a fitness indicator while trying to maintain the fastest GPS time from bottom to summit. I’ve gained and lost the record a number of times, but on this afternoon I ran a big personal best and lowered the FKT by about 10 seconds. I continued that run with some fast bursts on the park’s trails and hills, reaching over 1,200 feet of elevation gain in the process.
Five days later, I ran a Monday night summer series race in Raynham, taking first with a hard 3.25 mile fartlek effort. I ran a 5:02 first mile to establish a comfortable lead, and then I mixed tempo-effort running with quick bursts over the courses hilly final 2.25 miles. The race was incredibly hot and a humbling reminder that runners my size (153 lbs) are better suited to race in cooler temperatures.
After the Raynham race, I turned my focus to Foxboro’s annual Finish at the Fifty, which is by far the biggest running event in our part of Massachusetts. Every year, thousands of runners show up for a chance to run through Foxboro and finish on Gillette Stadium’s fifty yard line. The event hosts both a 5k and a 10k, with the 5k field usually consisting of 2,500-3,000 runners and the 10k field consisting of 1,200-2,000 runners. What’s funny is that ran the event’s inaugural 10k in 2011, which was years before I started taking running seriously. I remember feeling awful the entire way and getting passed by a guy wearing a hotdog costume around mile 4.
With the race still three weeks away, I decided to maintain my volume with the long-term focus of the Boston Marathon in mind. That Saturday, I put in a 17-mile, 1,300-foot elevation run at the Middlesex Fells in Medford, getting lost several times on a very humid day. The added hills and heat made the week arguably the toughest of my life, even though I only covered 68.6 miles.
From there, I decided to taper off a bit and sharpen for the 10k. But my training was thrown off in the absolute weirdest way. In the midst of an easy run in the Walpole Town Forest, I saw a small deer run across the trail in front of me and into the woods. I didn’t think twice of it, as deer are pretty common around Boston suburbs. But as I continued to run, I continued to hear footsteps, and as I turned around to see what was going on, I noticed the same deer running towards me. My initial reaction was to laugh and capture the moment on my phone. But right as I started to turn on my camera, the deer made a crazy screeching noise and picked up its speed towards me. I realized the animal was rabid and was making a legitimate beeline towards me. I opened up my stride a bit, but the deer was gaining on me rapidly, so I went into a full-on sprint for nearly half a mile, thankfully reaching the trailhead without a fight. I really wish it was a coyote or something that chased me, because that would sound so much cooler, but the last thing on earth I wanted to do was fight a rabid deer in the middle of a run.
Because I had just ran all out for nearly two minutes, I had no choice but to move my speed workout up to that night. I struggled big-time as I barely hit a 5:10 mile and 75-second quarters. My legs simply weren’t there.
As the race drew closer, I started to worry because my legs seemed to be feeling worse by the day. The high intensity, coupled with the chaos I was dealing with on a personal level, had taken a massive toll on my body. I had no choice but to taper even more, significantly reducing my mileage over the two weeks. Despite feeling terrible, I did manage to get in some decent speedwork, albeit a low volume.
The race gun was scheduled to go off at 7pm, which is so different than competing in the morning. I felt like I was crawling in my skin the entire afternoon, doing anything I could to pass the time. I was expecting to do well, but with the size of the field, I wasn’t sure if I could pull off the W. I also knew that my legs weren’t quite back from hole I dug myself into in June. But the mind is a powerful thing, and when it comes to racing, toughness always trumps logic. I put my head down and promised myself that if the first place spot was there, I was going to take it.
There were a few guys who looked very quick at the starting line, so I was mentally prepared for a potential tug-of-war race for the top spot.The gun went off and about six guys went with me for the first 300 meters. But around a half mile in, I had opened up a 5-second lead, and a mile in, I had at least 15 seconds on the second place runner. My first mile felt fantastic, as I crossed the split in 5:18, I was feeling good about potentially shattering my personal best.
As I continued along a rolling uphill during mile 2, my body temperature seemed to jump from warm to red hot over the course of about a minute. It was a typical hot night at around roughly 85 degrees, and the humidity had risen to about 60%. What was odd about this night, though, was that it felt like a heat switch was turned on in my body, and I couldn’t turn it off. I immediately had flashbacks to last summer’s half marathon, where I had to fight just to keep my legs moving after 6.
With my level of discomfort turned up to nearly full volume at only two miles into the race, I knew I was in for a very unpleasant 4.2 miles moving forward. But I was still in first place, and cheers for the second place runner were quiet enough that I knew my lead was solid. Plus, the amount of people who had lined the course to watch the race was really cool. I wasn’t about to let an opportunity this big go to waste.
I hit the 5k split in 17:15, which I knew I would be a lot faster than the race’s second half. In fact, I was already struggling to keep my splits in the 5:40s, which I hit without issue in April’s half marathon. I was able to glimpse back on a turn around mile 3.5, and it looked like the second place runner was still in firing range. I kept turning my legs over, determined not to give up the lead.
The race’s final two miles took place on Gillette Stadium’s massive campus, winding through parking lots and eventually bringing us to a straight path towards the stadium itself. After a big climb to the 5-mile split (28:20), I was able to get a clear look back and see that no one was close enough to realistically catch me. All I had to do was not fall apart, and I would have the biggest win of my life. But with the way I was feeling, a blowup wasn’t a given.
I followed the race’s cyclist lead, who I bumped into several times, and I did my best to maintain a respectable speed without taking a wrong turn. The race’s final mile consisted of downhill ramp running into the player’s tunnel. From there, runners kick towards the 50-yard line finish. Once I got down the ramps, I did my best to enjoy the finish in spite of the pain, as I knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I broke the tape, elated and relieved, and immediately went over to my family, who was there watching in the stands. I then took a moment to myself, looking up at the stadium from the field, feeling a sense of pride and slight disbelief. It was one of the coolest moments of my life, sandwiched in the midst of a rough personal period.
The race, although amazing, was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of my health and energy. I felt terrible all last week, and this week my energy has been pretty spotty. I may have had some sort of virus in the midst of all this, so my body is certainly taking its time getting back to normal.
From here, I want to get my mileage back up for about a month before the fall racing season, when I hope to shatter my 10k personal best. I’ve also started incorporating regular strength work for the first time in a while, which I will blog about in the next entry.