Learning Experiences

Each run is a learning experience, and for those of us trying to push our boundaries, it’s a definite, measurable learning experience. We attempt to learn if we’ve adapted to previous training stresses, if our recovery runs feel easier, if we can drop our mile paces, if we can push further into a distance without increasing fatigue. We take these learning experiences and bring them with us to race day, drawing on them to convince ourselves to run as hard as we can, bumping against our thresholds, screaming out the voice inside telling us to back off, and get to the finish quicker than we ever have.

My learning experiences, however, aren’t as defined as they once were, when I used them for the above purposes. Nothing is as predictable and measured as it used to be. But I’m still learning. Each run out I’m testing myself, at times measuring my abilities to my pre-cancer days, but more often trying to measure them against my recent abilities post-surgery. I’m learning that I’m getting better, yes, but not on the same trajectory as I’m accustomed. Progressions aren’t as quick, nor are they as significant. I feel like I’m pushing a wall forward only in centimeters where I used to move it in feet.

This morning I had a workout consisting of descending miles with increasing paces. I was to run 3 miles at marathon goal pace (whatever that is), recover, then 2 miles at half marathon goal pace (whatever that is), recover, then a mile at 5k pace (again…whatever that is). I went through my normal warmup at around 7:00 to 7:15 pace before beginning my drills. Pushing into the first effort I decided to just take it easy, run a little faster than warmup pace and see what happened. Looking at my watch for the first mile marker, it read 6:34, a surprisingly quick effort for not really trying…and yet, I could already feel my lungs resisting the pace. I tried to stay calm going through the second mile at the same pace and then finishing the third with noticeably increased heart rate at the same. It was a solid effort, but not sustainable for a marathon by any means.

I recovered a mile and then started in on the next two at 1/2 marathon pace, putting in a little more speed and muscle tension, going through the first mile at 6:18 and managing to finish the second with the same consistency, and same rate of increased heart rate.

I was learning my abilities again.

I recovered a half mile and started the final mile at a 5k pace, which brought me in at 6:00 minutes per mile flat, needing to push against my heart rate for the final 400 to make it in even.

Ignoring my pre-cancer abilities, I was satisfied with these efforts, keeping in mind that I’m still in the thick of half marathon training, fatigued with 60 – 70 mile weeks, and looking at another month of training with taper weeks leading into my goal race. What I learned, though, isn’t so satisfying, because it’s consistently confusing. I was glad to have been able to drop each pace at a significant pace, even though I could tell they weren’t necessarily applicable to the distance should I need to run the whole thing, but more problematic was how quickly I lost a comfortable heart rate. My lungs seem to have fallen far behind my legs. Or just can’t catch up….or something else is going on.

The encouraging lesson is that I’m continuing to build my muscular base and am able to run through these efforts with form and without fatigue, able to push from the ground instead of just falling forward into the distance, catching myself with each turnover. This is a recent change and is a sign of progress. My lungs, however, seem to have two measures, on and off. The easy, effortless warmup and cool down pace is a consistent 7:00 to 7:15 pace, that feels like I could run forever, and yet the second I start to push into quicker pacing, my lungs revolt and my heart rate skyrockets. I can’t keep it calm and getting oxygen to my muscles becomes harder deeper into the run.

I’ve never experienced anything like this and I’m not sure how to respond.

Still, I’ve made progress and I’ve learned that 7:00 pace is a walk in the park. We’ve forced my body this far.

Admittedly, for race day, this isn’t very encouraging. I race to push hard, but right now, pushing hard means blowing up. The second I begin to push I seem to also begin a drop, a backslide in pace and strength. But the idea of running 13.1 miles at an effortless warmup pace is NOT inspiring. Come race day, though, maybe things will have changed and my range of ability will have grown to at least a degree that I can push and suffer all the way through the finish. That’s what I hope to have learned.

On the other hand, as I look ahead to the Because We Can run, I’m learning that my ability to endure the distance might be much greater than I’ve initially perceived. I know that much about myself, that if I drop the pace enough, I can run a long, long time, while still keeping the effort at a respectable level (by my standards). So if these workouts are teaching me anything about my abilities, it’s that, if I can’t push towards speed, I can at least hold strength through the distance.

And I still have 5 months to build, hopefully learning more and more about my abilities, building an increased range of pacing, and increasing my ability to endure and recover, which will become crucial when the 50 miles a day starts and begins to accumulate upon itself.

But first, I will learn what I can do for 13.1 miles on May 2nd, and then we’ll see what I can do with 50 miles, 7 days in a row. Whatever happens, it’s going to be one hell of a learning experience.

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