Yesterday I ran hard, on a track, for 30 minutes. It was hell. You see flat and hard are something I don’t do. Mostly because I find flat very boring but also, all the pretty places seem to involving climbing mountains and finding paths through forests. I’d much rather be there! As for hard, well my usual hard is very different to this kind of hard, more about that later. Having a coach makes you step out of your comfort zone and do the things you usually avoid. So, yesterday I ran around and around the track in the nearest town, as hard as I thought I could sustain for 30 minutes. It was an interesting half hour and I learnt a lot from it. There was a whole lot of internal dialogue going on, as well as a lot of observation of the process. Here are my thoughts on what I learnt.
30min is a long time
My last race took me over 23 hours. You would think that a 30 minute run would be nothing, and to be fair it usually is. I get to the end of a usual short run and I’m left wanting more and wishing I could stay out there longer. Yesterday however the minutes dragged and when my timer went off to say I had done 20 minutes I cursed the space time continuum, my coach and all the “fast” runners I know. I tried to stay present, count the steps (counting is my “get up the hill without stopping” technique) but my eye kept wanting to see what the timer was up to, mostly because it seemed to be taking WAY too long. It was like time had slowed down, I kid you not!
Running for a time is harder than running for a finish line
When you run a race, with the exception of timed track events like a 12hr or 24hr, you know how far you have to go. So, if I’m running a 10k I know I want to go out relatively hard but leave enough in the tank so that when I get to 8km I can go harder. I also know that if I go harder, I’ll finish sooner, which is a great incentive to push myself. Plus there is that physical finish line that you can see that tends to spur you on. Yesterday I was running for time. As I said before, I don’t do that kind of hard. I ran a short trail race hard last year, but there was terrain (hills) and a physical finish line. I knew where I needed to conserve my energy and where I could afford to push and push hard. The whole pacing myself for a timeframe is new to me, I found it very difficult! I had a few goals I was pushing for, but not having run hard and flat for that long in quite awhile, I didn’t know if they were possible or pure fantasy. I decided that when I got to 2 minutes to go I would push hard, because to be honest, I was terrified I would push way to hard way to early and not be able to finish the task. There was, in my mind, no benefit to going hard at a certain kilometre mark because the finish doesn’t get closer according to the distance I’ve covered. When I hit 2 minutes I tried to gauge where my finish line would be and sprint hard to a certain tree, but I was wrong and then had to go further than that, which I did. As it was I finished and immediately thought “I should have pushed for the last 5 minutes instead” because I felt I recovered way to quickly.
I still have a lot of toxic thought processes
To be honest the toxic thoughts started way earlier than the actual run. When I was trying to figure out my goal pace for the run those little unhelpful thoughts were already starting and comparisons to other peoples runs being made. Sitting at a computer or in my car I can usually push those thoughts aside, but in the midst of a run, where you’re working really hard, your brain can really only focus on one or two things at a time and the fight to quiet those thoughts is a lot harder.
I do a fair amount of mental training to get me through my longer runs. There is also a lot of self reassurance that goes on and I am often asking my coach for external reassurance as well. Alone, on the track, with no pretty view or mountain climb to distract me, no one there shouting encouragement from the sidelines, the demons came out to play and made it abundantly clear that I still have a lot of work to do. Here I was, running the fastest I have EVER run for 30 minutes straight (yes, ever, in my whole life) and I knew I was running that fast because I had my pace showing on my watch and where do my thoughts go? “You know this is Jim, Laurie and Catherine’s easy pace, right? And you’re really struggling.” “I don’t think you can do this without taking a walk break.” “This is the hardest you can go and it’s still slower than other peoples recovery pace.” “Why do you even bother and try, you’re never going to be fast”. Really helpful brain, thanks for that.. Luckily I have comebacks for that, along the lines of “yeah, but I’m strong on the mountains” and “ultras are finished by the strongest and toughest, not necessarily the fastest” and the less eloquent “shut the fuck up and just run dammit”.
When I finished I was engulfed with a sense of accomplishment mixed with disappointment, I had run the fastest I had ever run (Yay!!!) but I was slower than I had hoped. I had two main goals, hit 5km in under 30 minutes (never done that before) and reach 5.5km before the timer went. I ran 5.21km. Again the comparisons started and then the tears. Tears of “why am I so hard on myself”, “why aren’t I faster” and “why can’t I ever enjoy a *win* for what it is, without defaulting to comparisons and I could have done better?”. Like I said, still a lot of work to do.
Hills and 100k is easier than flat and 30min
Pretty much the entire run yesterday I spent reminding myself that if I can run 100km through mountains, I can get through 30 minutes of running hard around a grass field. I seriously found the latter much harder. Yes, it didn’t last as long, but it was harder, it was boring and it was relentless. On a mountain run you have ups that you hike, downs that you fly along, creeks that you cross, views that distract you, people that you chat to. There is so much going on, so much richness to the task, that for the most part the hardness is hidden and only comes to the fore when you let it. On the track there is nowhere to hide, there is no respite from the endless turnover of your legs at the same hard, relentless speed, no change in scenery, no easy distraction. There is just the task at hand, to run around and around, lungs burning, legs hurting, brain fighting. Give me the mountains any day.
Posting times is confronting.
I think a lot of people who don’t really understand endurance mountain running think that I must run fast, to be able to cover those distances. I recently started posting my times on social media, mostly on Instagram and occasionally on Facebook. Some people are a little shocked at the slowness of my Personal Best’s. I guess that’s kind of part of the reason I’m doing it – to show people you don’t have to be fast. The amount of times I have had people come up to me and say “I would love to run this or that, but I’m not fast enough” is ridiculous. Quite often I will look at them incredulously, knowing that they are much, MUCH faster than I am and then proceed to tell them that it doesn’t matter how fast they are, if they want to do it they should just go do it. I have, for the most part, given up on trying to explain how slow I am, as people don’t believe me or don’t really get it. I get the whole “not fast enough” thing though, I seriously do! I have been the last runner, chasing the cut-offs, more than once, but dammit, my money is as good as the next persons and if I am physically capable and I meet all the criteria and cut offs then why shouldn’t I get out there and have a red hot go.
You would think from all this, that I have hated having to run hard. This block of training has been confronting and yes, it’s not my favourite thing I’ve ever done. Just this morning I messaged a friend saying I can’t wait until this block is over and I can get back to running trails, pretty much exclusively, 5 days a week. However, I am incredibly grateful to my coach for setting me these tasks. For over a year I have wondered what I could do if I was given the opportunity to just run hard, something I really don’t do in my usual training, so those questions are being answered. I also think a lot of what I have learned from these hard, flat session is going to serve me well in future adventures, both physically and mentally. Who would have thought you could learn so much from running around a field for half an hour?
For those playing along at home, this was my run yesterday:
10 minute Warm Up
30 minutes HARD
10 minute Cool Down
5km PB of 28min 46seconds, an improvement of 2min and 26seconds in the last 5 weeks.
If you are a data geek (like me) you can also follow me on Strava, just don’t be surprised if I don’t follow you back 😉