It’s 5:20 on a cool and wet mid-April Monday evening and I’m off to meet up with the McGill Olympic Club for our weekly speed session. For the non-runner it’s not a very nice evening but once we’re moving, the rain and the temperature seem to fade until they are hardly on my radar. Along with 9 or 10 [AS1] other intrepid souls we’re about to run for six minutes, five times, at ‘cruise’ pace – a term our coach John Lofranco likes but no one else seems to be clear about. This lack of consensus means that any nuance the term might have implied will be replaced with ‘hammertime’ – in other words, run bloody hard till the beeper on the countdown timer goes and then repeat! We are looping around parc Jeanne Mance, a familiar route made more ‘interesting’ by an assortment of walkers, dogs and bikes who, with better light, seem slightly less lethal.
I do a quick appraisal of tonight’s workout and realize that a good level of effort will take me all the way round the approximately one-mile circuit in the six-minute cruise. Maintaining the focus to repeat this five times would certainly help my mental toughness for my upcoming race so I make the commitment to make it happen. At least my rational self – self assured, confident, visionary, showing real leadership – does!
Once the session starts to ‘bite’, another ‘SELF’ pipes up. It reminds me of the training I missed earlier in the year and the heaviness in my legs. It calculates the average age difference between me and other runners I am training with and astutely observes how many more minutes are left in this rep and how many other reps remain to be completed. All of which does little to help my commitment to the noble cause made just a short time earlier!
There are some who say that suffering is an inability to accept pain; others who claim pain makes cowards of us all. I need to find a way forward. I know that the ‘endure’ part of endurance is a key element to improving performance: we used to call it ‘callousing’, like what happens to your hands when you start playing tennis after a layoff. Once you go through it, then the same demand does not feel so hard. But my ‘governor’ just won’t let me suffer as much as before. It starts to kick in way earlier to save me from self-inflicted catastrophe… or so it thinks. I ask myself if I can inject some elements of ease into the run if that might stall the inevitable – namely, slowing down.
So I start to pay attention to how I’m running and the first thing I notice are my arms and hands. They’re a bit tight, one thumb is sticking straight up (not a good sign) and my arm movement isn’t making much of a contribution to the run. So I free them up and add a little more energy and rhythm and can feel the immediate boost to the quality of my overall movement, especially going uphill.
Next I start to notice my back. Was it arched in a paroxysm of pain and anguish or hunched over in defeat? Neither, thank goodness, but I renew my sense of length just in case. And my head? Seems ok, isn’t pulling back or bent over like I’m looking at my phone. This renewed interest and energy in my length seems to make my stride feel a little lighter, a bit more springy and less of a slog. Still, two minutes to go on this rep so what else? Ah, focus. It seems the tougher things get, the more I want to retreat inside my own head, running almost blind. As I maintain my length I allow myself to look out and become more aware of my surroundings, especially the runners in front of me. It now seems as though my discomfort is sharing my attention rather than monopolizing it entirely for its own purposes.
Two reps left. What else? Yes, breathing. Time to sync my breathing with my cadence. Three steps for the in-breath, two on the out. It’s an odd cycle but it shifts the impact of the exhale off the dominant leg. So what if I sound like a phone pervert with emphysema? It’s helping me forget about my legs! Just keep the cadence high: quick light steps, no muscle, just flow.
Final six minutes. Feeling like I can see the finish. My running partner wants to stop because his back is sore but I tell him we’ll run it together. In slowing down for him at one point I feel like a horse whose rider has gathered it before a big jump and then let it go. I release the self-imposed brake and suddenly notice there is another gear – quicker, easier. ‘Where was that hiding?’ I wonder, with a faint smile. Or was it a grimace?