Saturday, October 20, 2007

How do you know unless you try?

This morning, I didn't anticipate that I would end up in an ice bath. Ice baths are reserved for particularly grueling workouts, hard races, or days when my body just needs to send all the gunk shooting out of my legs. Today was an optional hard workout, in fact, it was supposed to be easy. Nothing too challenging, nothing too hard on the body, nothing abnormal. Just an hour and a half run, heart rate zones 1-2, but all zones were an option if I was feeling okay.

Uh-oh! There that word was: option. Meaning: If I wanted to, I could run faster, but it wasn't necessary. Which, when an athlete finds themselves in a final build towards an A-priority race, means they will more often than not, try to push the pace.

I'll backtrack for a bit. I love running. Running is joy. Running is fun. Running is freedom. Running can also be: painful, tedious, and on the right combination of days, a real pain in the you-know-where. However, more often than not, running helps me to clear my mind, open my senses, and really think. When I go for a run, I don't usually feel like I'm slogging in the miles, or just running for the sake of building training volume. I truly have a great time. My Dad got me into running as a young 4th grader, and it's been something that I enjoyed ever since. I still smile to this day when I remember the many "long" runs (think 1/2 mile) that the two of us shared. As I grew up, it became a stress reliever, an outlet, and gave me a sense of purpose.

So when my coach gives me long runs to do as part of my training, it's no big deal. I'm usually chomping at the bit to get outside, enjoy the great outdoors, and see what I can do. It's just fun, plain and simple. On these longer days, I look a bit of an oddity. I'm decked out in all the usual running gear of shorts, visor, glasses, shoes, watches, and ultra-light tank, but add a few gels (nutrition!) and a camel back (no water stops and we live in Florida!), and I look like I'm ready to tackle part of an ultra-running challenge or some kind of insane adventure race. Mid-morning, after my 2 cups of coffee with creamer (which came back to haunt me later), I was off.

On these longer days, I really enjoying heading out to the UWF (University of West Florida) Campus. The Campus loop is a very hilly 7 mile loop, that provides many challenges and beautiful scenery along the way. Previously Nathaniel and I lived in Eastern North Carolina - 20 miles from the ocean, where the elevation was a whopping 21 feet. That equates to about 1 foot of elevation per mile. So hill training wasn't really all that great, or much of an option. Imagine my delight when we moved to Pensacola and I found hills. The first time I drove UWF Campus Drive, I felt the car automatically shift into a lower gear as it climbed one of the many hills. My reaction was pure delight. So these long runs were great for me - beautiful campus, nice woods, rolling terrain - all within a quick 2 mile run from where we lived.

I started the run pretty easy, figuring it would be senseless to blow myself out in the first 5 or 10 minutes. As I ran, I let my mind wander - it was a great feeling. No worries, no complaints - just running for the pure sake of running. As I crossed 9-mile road (roughly 10 minutes into the run), a little voice at the back of my head urged me to pick up the pace. I'm not feeling all that bad...Thursday's bike was awesome, Friday's swim was a bit of a breakthrough... Why shouldn't today's run be any different? I quickly pushed aside the voice and decided that it wasn't worth the effort, that I would coast today, have a good time, and focus on tomorrow's break-through bike.

But tomorrow's not here yet... the voice countered.

I arrived at the gates of the UWF campus, sailed past them, and reassessed my physical state. Both my calves were extremely tight, but were loosening up nicely. My left hamstring/IT band felt great, with the exception of a slight twinge here or there, and everything else seemed in perfect working order. I could definitely feel the fatigue from the previous 3 week build cycle, but it wasn't bad. And then, as I coasted past the public radio station (support public radio!) WUWF, and over the hill past the aquatic center and parking lot, it hit me.

How do you know you can't, unless you truly give it a shot?

Hhhmmmm. I had no response. What kind of question was that? The only sound was that of the camel back sloshing water, and my shoes hitting the grass. I suppose it's a decent question. How do we know our limits unless we actually test them? Who was to say that I couldn't push the pace on the run, unless I actually tried. And at that moment, at that exact moment (18:45 into the run), the entire focus of my run changed. I still enjoyed the scenery, the woods, the campus, and yes, even the hills. But I had a different purpose: keep the heart rate above zone 2.

That's it. Nothing too hard, but keep the tempo up. Keep the pace going. What does it matter if you get tired or work harder than you initially expected? It's only another hour. And you might just surprise yourself. After all, how will you ever learn and grow unless you try?

So off I went. What started out as a really nice run, turned into a fantastic one. I kept my heart rate steady, I pushed the hills, flew along the brief flat sections, concentrated on technique and form, and I visualized myself doing well at races. It was great - certainly I was working hard, but I knew it was for the better. And that was the beauty in this whole experience: I get to go for a run today, and I get to go fast!

I had a few moments of pain, a few times when I wondered what I was doing, I think it happens to everyone one way or another. I blamed the coffee creamer. About 27 minutes into the run, I took a banana gel flavor, nothing that I haven't been able to handle in the past - but it didn't sit all that well with the coffee. Or the creamer. So for the next 20 minutes, I listened to the slogging of the camel back and my stomach, in a perverse synchronized rhythm. But I kept going, because after all, how do you know if you can't, unless you really try? I thought of my gel/coffee creamer experience as simply another hurdle to get over. Sour stomach? No problem - I can keep going! Just get to the next trash can...the next building... the top of the hill... I've handled much worse in race situations, so in all reality, this really isn't all that bad. I just won't have coffee creamer before a race. Just keep going and keep the heart rate up. After all, how do you know you can't unless you really try.

I hit the end of campus drive in near-record time, turned around, and headed back home. There were times during this run when I questioned myself and wondered why I was doing what I was doing. I didn't really have an answer, but kept returning to the idea that we don't know our capabilities, unless we really give it a try.

Overall, the run was fantastic. But I feel that I learned a much more valuable lesson in the process. While I was hitting the final homestretch, I likened my experience to that of Macca and Wellington at IM Hawaii. No, I am NOT ANYWHERE NEAR their athletic level - they are pure gods when it comes to the sport - but they each took a risk with their respective races. Wellington made a strong move on the bike around mile 80, and Macca went out on the run at a blazing fast 5k of 15:42. My whole point being, is that they took risks. They gambled. They didn't know if they would succeed or not, or what would happen - but they gave it their all. They believed in their capabilities, they believed in their training and strength, but most of all, they were willing to give it a try. And it worked. They didn't know if they were ultimately to be successful, but they gave it a shot.

After returning home from a much more grueling run than I had originally planned, I pleaded for Nathaniel to make a quick trip to the store and pick up 40 (yes, you read that correctly) pounds of ice. I started the water for an ice bath, stretched as much as I could while he dashed out, and got mentally ready to take the cold plunge. An ice bath is a bit torturous - immersing oneself in 45 F degree water is no fun - but it's great for recovery. I recommend wearing shorts and a warm top, if possible. And the company of Tabbitha (the 18.2 pound tiger, er cat) was greatly appreciated.

So next time during a workout, give it a shot. What have you got to loose? At least you can enjoy a nice, cold ice bath afterwards. And the company of a cat. How do you know you can't, unless you try?

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