Thursday, June 21, 2007

The best thing this week

was the Tuesday evening run at the track in the East River Park. It's a surreal effect--the track's right next to the river, with a very abrupt landfillish kind of a drop-off, so you get this great slightly sordid view east towards Brooklyn and also a sense I always cherish of being in a bizarrely manmade landscape. The west side south of Houston along the river always makes me think (I loved that show!) of the scenes on Star Trek: The New Generation when they go back to Earth and hang out at the Starfleet Academy, there is something similarly dated and 1980sish but attractively grass-and-sky-with-shiny-metal-things-dominated about the landscape; the east side is a bit dingier, and I feel faintly sick to my stomach as I cross over the pedestrian footbridge that gets you over the FDR (I do not like heights), but it's pretty great once you get there.

The workout itself was amazing. The challenge was to regulate pace based on perceived effort, and the coach started by stripping us all of watches, heart-rate monitors, etc. The goal was to run a mile on the track at a pace slightly faster than usual, then run 4-5 miles along the riverfront (it was meant to be 4 but as usual I got mixed up about where to turn around), then come back and run a final timed mile at a speed identical to or faster than than your initial one. The coach then asked us to say whether we thought we'd gone faster or slower on the last one before telling us our times.

It's an appealing multiple challenge--you're trying to match paces, you have to go out strongly enough to have a great mile time at the outset but also to conserve strength on the middle part of the run so that you have some hope of matching it at the end, and you also get a chance to assess your own pace and tell (rather than simply being told!) whether or not you met your matching goal. I did not quite match--it was clear to me as I ran the final one that though I was ardently striving for the same thing, I was definitely a hair slower, not to mention I was afraid I would be literally sick to my stomach if I ran any faster, it was very hot and humid even aside from how hard I was working!--but I am absolutely delighted with my times: 7:46 for the first one, 7:58 for the last. Pretty good, eh?!?

(I never ran a mile that fast before!)

I always thought I was the slowest runner in the world. I liked the idea of running when I was a kid--I remember when I was eleven or so going once with my brothers and our temporary and much-loved (what should I call him?) foster brother Richard Sabune (a refugee from Uganda who was about a hundred times better of a runner than any of us were, it was surely his idea) very early to "train" at the track nearby--but I was always a terrible sprinter, and a pretty slow regular runner too, and I never had the right gear to run properly when I was a teenager (sports bra and decent sneakers really are essentials!). I remember getting timed in the mile maybe around sixth grade and then again around 10th or 11th grade and both times coming in at exactly 9:04 and feeling that this was genetically my maximum pace, the pace that it was inconceivable I could surpass.

In my twenties I had quite a few spells of regular running, I liked it very much; I remember running two times around the Central Park reservoir every weekday morning the summer I was studying for orals, for instance, with the poems of John Donne recorded on a tape that I listened to on my walkman so as not to waste study time ("Tis the year's midnight and it is the day's"!--that was the same summer I destroyed my long-distance vision by reading three times through the Riverside Shakespeare). I ran quite often in New Haven during grad school, and I remember checking out of the public library there Running for Dummies and reading it very avidly.

But the thing was that everyone I knew in those days who ran was a simply excellent runner--you know, like sub-6:00 marathon pace-type excellent. I never found anyone to be a running mentor, and I thought that you had to be a really good runner already to be a long-distance runner. (I was wrong!) I would have loved it if someone took me under their wing running-wise, but as a self-sufficient and highly independent person I didn't really like the idea of asking for help in any case, and who would I have asked? The runners just seemed happy in their own running and too much better at it than me for me to want to hold them back. (Also the internet sort of did not exist then in its present form, now it's a lot easier to find out how to do these things online.)

So this is a really good thing. I was determined last summer to make this running thing happen--I'd been running very regularly on the treadmill, but was having a mental obstacle towards seriously moving it outside--and took this beginner's class at The Running Center, and now it all really is happening just as I always wanted it to. I am going to work really, really hard so that I can run to the absolute best extent of my natural abilities, and I think that will actually be pretty fast. In fact, it is ironic with this whole triathlon thing that the running is least what I need to work on--when I was a little kid I actually have to say I loved swimming and riding my bike, but running not so much.

More thoughts on bicycle-related matters once I've actually put in some time on the bike, it has not been a good week for it due to work-related stresses of various kinds, I need to get really dug back into my other book project before I can spare the attention!


  1. Congratulations on the bike and the running!! It's funny how this running thing is so much about demystifying one's own supposed incapabilities. I used to hate running during PE when I was in elementary school. Then as a teenager I always got stitches two minutes after starting to run and I used to hope that nobody had seen me give up less than a minute into the run. Now, I can't believe it is the one thing that really, really makes me feel invincible.

  2. Sounds like a marvellous workout!

    Were most of you correct in assessing the final mile speed in relation to the first?

  3. Mixed! It's easy to get pretty close if you're moderately experienced and in decent shape, but if you're a quite new runner, I think there is a strong temptation to go out way too fast because of being timed--in a handful of cases the second time was as much as a couple minutes slower than first, which is obviously a signal about the initial pace being wrong. Interesting stuff--in many ways this is more of a mental training workout than a physical one, you see very clearly the ways in which, say, someone's unrealistic patterns of thinking in regular life carry over to running also.

  4. Pacing can be a difficult thing. Yet for some people it is almost innate.

    There's a fellow who comes into the pool and swims 1:17 hundreds over 400 metres with incredible consistency. I mentioned it one time, and he laughed and said, "I always swim the same pace."

  5. Loved reading your description of your running and training Jenny. I'm lost in admiration.