...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Room for improvement


For the fifth year now, I've been informally heading this event at work where I gather colleagues to sign up for a fun run together. I fix logistics, payment transfers and other practical stuff, and in turn, they get to go to a sports event which they might not otherwise think of signing up for if it weren't for the fact that others were going. On the first year, when I was a fresh PhD student, I started this initially from self-interest, as a way to meet more people. What started out as just informally asking around ended up with a mass e-mail to the whole staff of 100+, and eventually enough joggers were interested that I also got the institution to sponsor us with T-shirts. Since then, our participation in the local spring fun-runs more or less became a workplace tradition, with 7 to 15 people signing up each year for 5- or 10-kilometer events. I've also come to take this whole fun-run initiative as one of my unofficial work tasks. HR is just happy to see someone hold the strings for an event that gives the admin good PR. Through the years, I even got them to sponsor us with sportier T-shirts (instead of cotton ones), a team tent and a banner, all in the name of workplace camaraderie, employee health and some friendly competition (Next year, if I'm still working there, I think I'll lobby for a better tent…). 

Yesterday, it was that time of the year again and 7 of us (those who could make it from the 12 who signed up) ran either 5 or 10 kilometers. Now I'm writing this as I slouch tired on the sofa. Thank God it's Friday! This also marks the last longish run I will do before marathon day in June. I'm supposed to be resting for race day.

- - -

Last year's shoes after a rainy and muddy Tjemilen.
Switched to neutral running shoes now, which seem to work better for me.

I find that in a 10-kilometer race, it's actually the first four kilometers that are most mental. The problem is, to get your goal time you'd have to keep on overtaking through a mass of people, which feels a bit like running short intervals. For many, including myself, this requires one to start at a higher tempo than usual. It's also in the first four kilometers that over-optimism can take the better of you. Those that haven't been training to run (and don't know how long 10 kilometers can sometimes feel) can seem pretty strong the first kilometer, but they underestimate the distance and start walking by the fourth kilometer mark. As for myself, the almost constant overtaking gets me really tired and I have to slow down a bit, knowing that the first half isn't even over yet. I let the faster runners overtake me, and I think, Geez, am I tired already? If I had ambitions running along a person who I know is fast, I start to accept by then that I have to run my own race if I have any chances of getting through without stopping to walk or panting like a dog. I know it isn't long compared to the lengths I have to run for marathon training, but ironically 10 km feels longer than it actually is the faster I run, because there's always the risk of running out of gas faster. 

A bit after 6 kilometers, running is still a mental game but at least I know I've made more than half of the race, and there's just 4 kilometers to go. Intellectually, it's manageable, but still feels quite a long distance when you're already tired. Some runners that possibly have this as their first run of the season often start to pant around here, I mean really pant. I overheard a woman saying to her partner, “this is not fun anymore!” And yes. I agree. After 6 kilometers of pushing, I must admit that I don't think it's so fun anymore either. By now I've been running just at the limit of what I think I could hold, for almost half an hour. It feels heavy. How did I ever forget that it felt this bad? Why am I doing this? Of course it felt this bad too a year ago and the year before that. How did you ever forget?

For some minutes, I pondered if this was going to be the last fun-run I'd ever organize, or if it might be time to put running on the shelf and do something else for a change. I'm telling you it feels – at least for that moment – that bad. But Okay, I tell myself. There are still some kilometers ahead before the end of the race. I can decide what to do then, when it's all over. There might be some juice in me yet. It's by deciding to go on that, strangely enough, I start to forget how tired I am.

At around 7 kilometers, I am less tired that I was in the previous kilometers. I just start to go with the flow, run in a tempo my body can seem to hold for a long time. At the same time, I also start to think, with the end of the race nearing, of possibly putting in the next gear. Running is strange this way. From one kilometer to the next, I move from having to mentally lecture myself to go on, to being even more ambitious than I was when the race started. What’s the time now? Under 40 minutes? Imagine if I can make it under 50. Not realistic. But there's a good chance of beating my old time by, hmm, who knows? It's here that I realize that I haven't been running that slowly at all in the previous kilometers despite how tired I felt. Or maybe my body was getting used to the constant pressure by now. If only I could get my legs to go just a little bit faster now too, it might be a new Personal Best.

Running is no longer hard at this point. In fact, I could have been smiling. It's even possible that I even run fastest on the last 3 kilometers of a 10 km race than at any previous point. If you've ever watched elite marathon runners and wondered where they get the energy to spurt the last kilometers in the stadium after already pushing themselves for hours, I wouldn't be able to answer the question for you, but I think I might have an idea of how it feels like.   

One of the many differences between amateurs like me and a trained athletes lie, I think (aside from them just being superhuman) at the tail end of the race. It's when that drive for a Personal Best or a place at the podium seems to be balance between conservation of energy vs. pushing yourself beyond what you feel are your present limits. I tend to lie on the safe side, only running on a slightly higher level than what I think is comfortable, not really wanting to take the risk of running empty 500 meters from the finish line or something. On the other hand, I know that 2 kilometers probably isn't that long as I think it is, so I feel uncertain about how hard to further push myself. I begin to appreciate the level of self-knowledge that athletes must have, or just their sheer determination to finish strong.

The search for that balance between holding back and giving all – and realizing at the end of the race that I could probably have pushed myself even further than I had this time – is I think part of what makes races so addictive. It's the factor of possible and attainable improvement. Every time I finish a race, I keep on thinking, Boy, maybe I didn't need to conserve my energy that much after all!

I made it in 53:01, a new Personal Best. I shaved almost three whole minutes from last year's 10 km race time of 55:46. It's good proof that my 6 months of training of marathon gives effect even in short runs. I didn't come out best in my team (I placed only third; the best one colleague ran under 50 minutes), but I just have to emphasize that's not bad at all by any standard (unless you're elite). A few years ago, I didn't know I could run 10 km in under 55. What's sometimes hard for non-runners to understand is how hard it is to shave off minutes, which is why I consider my 3 minutes a big triumph in itself. 20 seconds faster for each kilometer doesn't sound like much, but I swear that just last year I didn't know where the hell in my body I was going to get these seconds from. When you think about it, ambitioning to shave a few more seconds in race time is like trying to wring a towel quite dry. The more seconds you want to shave off, the harder it gets. Well-trained athletes speak of the difficulty to reaching sub-40 times. To reach lower and lower times, one would have to train hard in wringing that towel to its last few drops.

So yes, 53 minutes is great for my previous expectations, but there's always that feeling: Darn, a few seconds faster - had I not stopped to smile for a colleague's camera - and that would have been 52-something!

Hmmm. Why oh why do I always forget that it feels so bad in the middle of a race? Maybe because pain is momentary compared to that lasting jittery feeling that I achieved something I previously wasn't really sure was possible. I was smiling like a dork from the finish line to the team tent.

People usually joke that runners like to torture themselves. On the contrary, we go back year after year not because it feels bad, but because it feels good. It's that feeling at the end that you have to remember. It's like climbing mountains because you love to enjoy the views. But yeah, preferably you're in good enough shape to run at least part of the stretch smiling too.

...That said, I think that after I run the marathon, I want to go do something else than running for a while.


Anonymous wired ON development said...

Hi there. I was wondering if you would give me permission to use the photo of your muddy shoes for a You Tube clip I am making as part of a competition to raise awareness for children with cerebral palsy? Please email me wiredONdevelopment@gmail.com

12:18 AM


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