Training for my last two marathons involved an incredible amount of rigidity and inflexibility in perspective. There was one unbroken, unspoken rule among myself and teammates, which was Run Every Day. It didn’t matter what else was going on in your life, it didn’t matter how daunting the upcoming workout was, it didn’t matter how your legs felt, it didn’t matter if it was raining, it didn’t matter if there was 2 feet of snow on the ground. Nothing mattered except running EVERY DAY. Sure, among those runs were the standard two speed workouts a week, long run and recovery runs, but beyond all that we held to the mantra Run Every Day, because we walked a very fine line of success, being that our goals were so lofty (sub 2:19) and the worry that taking just one day off might ultimately end up as a few seconds over 2:19 at the finish line. The mental torment of coming so close would always fall back to “that one day I didn’t run! That must have been it! If only I would have ran that one day!” Whether we want to be that honest in stating this perspective, it was certainly there, because if the responsibilities of life did force us to miss a day, we agonized over the perceived missed opportunity to get better and we berated ourselves when we saw other runners, no matter how slow, out running on the day we weren’t. We can’t deny that.
And god….it was exhausting. Running EVERY DAY, with the speed workouts, with the long runs, with the recovery runs never under 10 miles was SO. INCREDIBLY. EXHAUSTING. In my personal experience I was not only putting in mileage that rarely dipped below 85 miles a week and maxed out around 110, but also getting up at 6 am every morning to go to work where I was on my feet most of the day, then coming home to take part in family life and other responsibilities. There was NO BREAK. No naps, no massages, no sleeping in, no nothing. Just running and life responsibilities. Nothing got in the way. If I was traveling to North Carolina to see my son, I would wake up extra early and get my run in before work and before jumping in the car to drive through the night. It got near dangerous. Then in North Carolina I chose our hotels based on sufficient workout rooms and always got my runs in on the treadmill, whether that was a long run starting at 10pm or a recovery run the very next day starting at 6am. There was no leeway. And, again, it was EXHAUSTING.
I remember sitting at my computer at work, closing my eyes for just a second and falling asleep immediately. I would duck into the boiler room where I had stowed away a chair and no matter how comfortable the position was, if I shut my eyes, I was asleep before the sheep could even see the fence to jump. I was always running on empty, but there was no give. The goal was uncompromising.
It was just too much…and so I “retired”, as everyone likes to say. Then they joke about how little I’ve actually retired. Just the other day a friend said to me, “I’ve never met someone who quit running…by running more than ever.” It’s true, sort of. I’m running a lot, without trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials anymore…I’m just running for the love, well, it started out that way, and then this whole Vermont 50 thing came into the picture and suddenly my wife was training as much as I was, but her on the bike and so everything kicked into full gear again…almost.
This time around it’s very different. I know the loads I can handle, while pushing new boundaries, but I also know what a fire-eyed inducing goal does to me and I haven’t forgotten the exhaustion of my previous training methods where not a single day was left to chance. I know what it did to me, to my performance to work, to my mood at home, to everything. It wasn’t a drug addiction, but the almost unnoticeable slide into becoming a different, all around unpleasant creature has its similarities. So this time I’m doing things very different….and loving it.
It’s true, I’m hitting big mileage again, rarely dipping under 90 miles a week and hitting consecutive weeks of 100 miles, while pushing for bigger weeks in the coming months, and I’m also putting in speed work, hill running, intervals, track workouts and all the other fun stuff related to my past marathon training, but this time I’m also doing it with a greater sense of awareness to my family and…here’s the big change….not only allowing myself to miss entire days of training, sometimes 2 or 3 days at a time, but also reveling in and appreciating it, even viewing it as fundamental to my performance advancement. Part of this change has to do with the nature of trail running itself, in that mileage is so much more difficult to track in the snaking wilderness that you have no other choice but to simply run, on time if you must have a defined endpoint, but most often on feel alone. Every run in the woods is a workout, no matter how slow you go, due to so much climbing and descending so running on feel often defines how and how far you go each day and it’s this running on feel that I’ve carried into my more traditional road training.
I’m getting big mileage, but I’ve also adjusted my goals for the day based on how I feel before and during the run, knowing that the rest I allow myself will pay off further into the week during either a solid speed workout or, more importantly, a long long LONG run. I no longer worry about getting in EXACTLY 10 or 15 miles on a specific day, knowing that backing off then will allow me to hit those 20 – 30 mile runs later in the week, making up that mileage and still getting the benefit of the long runs I’ll need so badly during the Vermont 50.
I’ll tell you this as well…it’s sooooo nice. It’s so nice to be able to just run, knowing I’m putting in big mileage and putting in hard work, but not feeling so over-stressed when I need to somehow juggle my days to get a run in or stressing out my family when I put everything aside to take off down the street. I’m even beginning to think this is a BETTER, MORE EFFECTIVE way of getting fast. These days off are not only giving me a full body recovery, but also giving me a mental break as well, allowing me to recharge fully and never dread heading out the door just to get that seemingly undebateable run. This new, less stressful, less demanding training regimen has me questioning the way I was doing things in the past, when no matter how tired and exhausted I felt, I would still get out and run. I wonder if I was really breaking myself down over time, or if not breaking down, then really limiting my potential by inadvertently missing full recovery.
As a potential support for my hypothesis, a few weeks ago I ran a track workout with my teammates and although had not done anything like this since before Chicago (October) last year and had NO clue where I was at fitness wise, especially due to the doubt I had by not adhering to my training like in the past, I still managed to knock down our first mile in 4:44. I was hoping I could put in a 5:10 and not feel too dejected afterwards. Needless to say, I was pretty damn satisfied I pulled that off leading into the rest of the workout. Something was working. I was and still am proving that I don’t need to be so rigid in my dedication to running every day, that missing a day or two here and there is not only NOT detrimental to my overall speed and fitness, but quite possibly an aid to my development. And beyond that I don’t feel so defeated every day. I don’t feel like I can’t walk up a flight of stairs if I have to and I’m not falling asleep every time I sit down to work at the computer. I have energy, I have strength (admittedly sometimes weakened), and I have the drive to continue on, whether that is a 10 mile recovery run or a 30 mile long run or 20 mile runs back to back to back.
Like the unpredictable nature of the trail, my training has followed suit and I’m constantly adapting to the twists and turns that show up in my day, getting my runs in whenever possible and making the most of my days off….but in all staying fit, staying fast, staying strong.
Over time I’m developing a greater and greater, while always reserved, confidence for what is to come in Vermont in September. I’m training smart, training fun and training relaxed and expect only great returns from this new perspective.