Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Running on a whole new level

The other night, Sunday night, after finishing a nine-mile run that morning and a great 15K the day before, I found myself thinking, "I am running on a whole new level these days."

I know that sounds a little pretentious. After all, the level that I am running on is nothing compared to elite runners like Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor, and not even comparable to the level of many bloggers I read regularly.

But yet, something has changed for me. It's not just that I've hit PR's in every distance I've run this summer. (Though that is part of it, for sure.) Or even that I've slipped into logging more mileage every week than ever before.

It may be, though, that I've come to believe that I can achieve new PR's and fast times in races (even though every race still is, and always will be, a battle of nerves beforehand). And it may be that I've built up that new mileage while feeling very little pain from the effort.

So much of running is mental, I believe. I've made great strides in the physical over the last few months. I've lost weight, I've pushed my body harder doing speed intervals and tempo runs. I've increased my running distances so that a medium-length run is now seven or eight miles (previously five to six), and my long distance runs vary from twelve to (occasionally) sixteen miles, and fourteen or fifteen is typical. (Beforehand I would say a "long run" was ten to thirteen miles.) I rarely have achy legs the night after a long run (except for races where I put my legs through the extra abuse of running hard, not just long).

That's the physical. The mental, psychological part of all that is this. I want to do an eight-mile run instead of six in the mornings (though we'll see how I feel about that at six in the morning during the dark, cold, wet winter months!). And while running fifteen miles in the desert still feels like biting off a big chunk of challenge, I know I can do the distance, and feel okay about it. And twelve miles? Hardly a blip on the radar.

I find myself thinking about my runs when I'm idle at home or work, or going to sleep at night, picturing myself out on the sidewalks, feeling my body gliding along, up hills and down. And although I much prefer running with my iPod, my ten miles without it was a bit of a Zen running experience, listening only to the sound of my breathing and my feet hitting the sidewalk. When I am not running I crave it (although I treasure my breaks from running on non-running days as well).

I don't know precisely when this metamorphosis occurred, although I know it developed gradually over this spring and summer. As I've written before, during the winter I fell into a slump, in which I kept doing the distance but got slower and slower. After my nadir at the Bath Half, I came home to the beginning of spring and it was then, in the season of new growth, that my running was reborn.

I did a little bit of mental letting go after Bath. I had a bunch of goals for 2009 which seemed so impossible at that point, PR's and increasing my annual distance from 1500 miles last year to 1600 this year (which would require an average of 32 miles a week over 50 weeks). At that time any new PR's seemed unlikely, and I was surely behind on mileage.

And I said to hell with it. After getting home from England I took a four-day break from running and stopped worrying (for the time being, anyway) about how many miles I was adding up every week. (I still kept track, I just didn't worry about it.) I let go of my expectations and just let myself run. And somehow, without even pushing myself, I started running just a little bit faster again.

After a month I felt brave enough to sign up for a race, and I registered for the Spokane Bloomsday Run in the first weekend in May. Even though I ran it slower than 2008, I was okay with my time, about 9:30 per mile average (slowed by the lengthy and steep Doomsday Hill, which apparently I was less prepared for than last year).

My next revelation occured in Kona, during a four-day Memorial Day weekend trip. I ran every morning in Kona, getting up before 6 a.m. to beat the heat a bit. It was pleasant but still humid in the very early mornings, and the sweat poured from my body as I flew along Ali'i Drive every morning. I say flew because I was as light on my feet as I had been for a long time, not even slowed by the rolling hills. I saw times on my Garmin that had seemed out of reach only weeks before, times starting in nine, and often on the low side. Perhaps the sweat bathing me was a running baptism of sorts, a sacrament to the running gods that probably reside along the Kona Ironman route where I was running. Or perhaps I was channeling the spirits of some of the many much greater runners who had run this path before.

And over the summer it has all just progressed to bring me to the point of running nirvana I am at now. Will this last indefinitely? Will it even survive the winter? Who knows. I am just going with the flow, the joy of finishing a sweaty run at Starbucks and walking home with a latte, the endorphins I bask in on weekend afternoons after a long morning run.

The pleasure has not eliminated all pain, I will confess. Getting out of bed in the mornings is hard even on light summer mornings, and will only get harder as fall and winter progress. Even as I run a 9:30 pace easy run on the day after a hard race, I may face another day with leaden legs where it takes all I have to give to stay under ten minute miles (that would be yesterday). I certainly don't expect to PR in every race (although I do hope to avoid humiliation in every race). And my body, though able to withstand lengthy miles so much better than before, is not immune to aches and pains. Today, in fact, I am plagued with unexplainable lower back and hip soreness that makes me look like a 90-year-old every time I stand up (half-bent, hand on my hip, hobbling for a few moments until the aches dissipate).

So what level will I be on tomorrow morning? I have every belief that once I overcome the early morning lethargy, any residual aches and pains, and whatever weather the day has in store for me, I will embrace another run with joy and energy. And savor the endorphins all day long!

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