I started my 20 miles with speed workout at a controlled and reserved pace as coach advised me. The first four miles were merely a warmup to the workout itself, just getting the legs turning over, the muscles stretched and loosened and all the other systems firing. I took my time down 10th street, exchanging good mornings with bus stop strangers waiting under the darkened sky, before turning onto the trail that would lead me into my workout and pull me back into the city for my cool down. I didn’t know what to expect from myself for such a long speed workout while still running out of a recent injury, so I kept the pace around 7 minute miles and tried not to get too jumpy for the anticipated workout that lay just another mile ahead.
I was feeling unexpectedly positive and powerful during the warmup and my mind was clear, not struggling with any personal issue or creating any fictional race scenario to give me motivation. It was simply prepared to run.
I came up on the first cement marker off the side of the trail and kicked into a set of 3 miles, prescribed to me as “steady” by my coach, which for me meant putting a reserved dose of effort into propelling my body off the ground, but keeping my breathing in a rhythmic and controlled state, merely heating up all the systems instead of trying to tax them. This, after running through the first couple miles amounted to a sub-6:30 pace. I certainly could have dropped it further, but was more concerned with having the strength to fight the workout on the last set of 3 miles and complete it more than post up low pace per miles. Today’s victory would be in a solid completion over a progression of time.
Rolling steadily through the last mile I hit the cement marker that began the next 3 at a “comfortably hard” pace, which meant throwing down significantly more power through my legs, laboring my breathing to a quickened and precipitous level and having to concentrate on holding form, all the while knowing that I have another gear in me to extend into the next 3 without blowing up. My mind remained clear and focused on the task as I held solid form and continued to, as I describe to my coach, “kick out the jams” down the trail, passing all the other runners, and some cyclists, doing their own training. I was pushing at my boundaries for sure, but still maintaining a level of control before leading into the last 3 mile interval, hitting my watch at the turn around point to read a sub-6:00 pace.
It was at that point I knew the fight was going to begin and the real benefit of the workout was about to kick off, beginning what was to be a “hard” pace. I turned at the marker and headed back down the trail, letting all reservations go along with my controlled breathing. I let my heart rate soar and worried less about holding form than keeping my trajectory as straight as possible as my weakened legs were nudged along the dirt path next to the paved trail. My arms swung out in front of me in a rhythmic fury that matched the sped up metronome within my chest, and continued to “kick out the jams”, gaining confidence that I could hold this near-redlined pace all the way to completion. I passed the first mile marker at 5:32 and started up a long, gradual incline towards the next, consciously trying to make up for the noticeably increased grade with more speed. Passing the second mile marker I looked at my watch to read yet another 5:32 pace, sending a final shot of confidence and relief through my body as I kicked on to finish the workout.
Then something unexpected happened.
Despite pushing my systems to their near maximum, depriving my brain of the necessary oxygen to form extended thoughts, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling I hadn’t experienced in awhile.
I could die.
Not die from running….but just die. Just have my life end….and be ok with it. I know this sounds weird and romanticized, and maybe it is, but I’ve felt this before and however morbid it may sound, it’s more an indicator of contentment than desperation.
The last time I felt this I was working as a bike messenger, blasting through the streets of Indianapolis and subjecting myself to some pretty absurd risks, but loving every second of it. I felt, more than I ever had, alive. I felt alive, not because I was experiencing a momentary satisfaction from cheating death, but because I was feeling it consistently. I was moving, dangerously, on the edge, and doing it every day. My life, on the whole, was exciting and it felt very much how I wanted it to be, always infused with action, physical exertion, a sense of danger, and just overall enthusiasm. THAT, to me, is living…and subsequently allowed me to be ok with dying, because if something out of my control was going to take my life, then at least I could say everything up until that point was how I wanted it to be. I took every opportunity to maximize every moment I had.
I felt my shoe nick the side of my leg as it swung rapidly by. I felt my right arm swing across my body as the left stayed straight. I felt my body try to correct itself as a weakened push off the right leg threw me off balance. I felt my heart rate double beat as it struggled to keep up with the rhythm of my body. I felt everything start to fall apart as I passed the last half of the last mile…and I felt like I could die.
As failing as my body was feeling, my mind was loving every second of it, fully aware we were going to have victory in the workout and simultaneously suck every ounce of excitement from life in that moment. Nothing else I could think of would be able to offer such a reward, such a satisfaction, than bringing my body to the edge of physical collapse and somehow continue pushing on. THIS was living and which, in turn, made dying ok. I know this because I felt it, because if I was hit and killed by a car on the way home, I could say leading up to that point I was doing exactly what I should have been doing. I was following my deep passion and creating a whole life, both mentally and physically.
I am satisfied, content.
Straightening my back and concentrating on correcting the swing of my arms and legs I pushed down the trail, stealing a couple quick glances at the mile marker that lay in sight ahead. Still finding one more subtle gear I “kicked out the jams” for the shortened finish and pushed all the way to the end, hitting my watch just as I crossed the imaginary line. 5:31. Victory, in many ways.
The last 7 miles brought me casually home to reflect and relax on a job well done, a life well-lived, a trail well run.