Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hamster Wheels and Sustaining Excellence

Training is different from running. Before I became enamored with the world of organized distance races, I ran as long as I wanted at a pace I wanted and skipped it all on days when something else promised more enjoyment.

Some days I’m tempted to revert to that semi-lackadaisical approach. Specifically, on days when my training schedule says “Tempo Run, X miles.”

I hate tempo runs.

If you’re not up on your running terminology, a tempo run is a run in which the basic idea is to reach and sustain a quick pace. For example, last week I did a 7-mile run at a 6.8 mph pace. That’s quicker than my average long-run pace, but not so fast that I can’t sustain it for the required distance.

To increase my misery, I do most of my tempo runs on that contraption based on the hamster wheel concept—a treadmill. It’s easier to maintain a steady pace (the treadmill doesn’t slow down on its own) and it’s proving to be a cold winter, even in Alabama. But for some reason, I have to concentrate more when running like a hamster than I do when I run outdoors.

However, the treadmill does serve its purpose; it forces me to maintain a quick pace for the duration. So, while I view it as a loathsome taskmaster, its belt spins for my benefit.

Lately, I noticed improvement in how my long runs feel. Don’t get me wrong; they’re still L…O…N…G. But at some point in every recent outdoor run I’ve noticed that I’m running quicker, stronger, and with greater ease than I have in the past. My tempo runs equip me to sustain excellence for longer periods of time, even when endurance is my focus.

On yesterday’s lengthy run, I got thinking about this—about how enduring the long runs is easier than sustaining a quick pace. That led me to think about excellence and how sustaining excellence (keeping a good pace) is often more challenging than merely enduring to the end.

In both my experience as a student and my career in education, I’ve known teachers who were enduring (“Just have to do this for three more years and then I can retire!”) but not pursuing excellence. The treadmill’s belt outpaced them somewhere in the past and tempo runs gave way to sliding by and biding time. And, yes, I’ve occasionally been such a teacher (“Only 6 more days until Christmas break!”). When we succumb to merely enduring, our classrooms often deteriorate to boring routines and frequent viewing of videos with tenuous connections to anything we actually teach. We need the occasional “tempo run” to ignite our own growth and effectiveness.

As I counted down the final miles of yesterday’s run, I began to ponder what the “tempo runs” were in other areas of my life. What, for example, do I do to increase and sustain my effectiveness as a teacher? as a writer? as a husband?

What are the “tempo runs” in your major areas of life?

Image: 'New Year's Resolution: 36/365'

Monday, October 4, 2010

Miles, a Mayor, and Even Banana Pudding

“I’d love to come in at or under an hour, 45 minutes, but I don’t think I can,” I told my wife. She, being the ever-believing optimist, said, “You can do it!” I think I snickered as I struggled with the laces of my running shoes. However, I had voiced the thought, and now it was camping out in that mental woodland we try to avoid. Every time it tried stepping out into the light of a cranial meadow, I shoved it back into the forest’s dark shade. The time seemed out of reach based on my past half-marathons.

Ah, but I love Montgomery. I really do. I may complain about the
heat and politics of “sweet home,” but I love Alabama’s capital city. Montgomery is truly a place—a location that occupies more than its geographical boundaries. From the way it has embraced all aspects of its history to the Renaissance-like renewal of its downtown and Riverwalk regions, the city surprises you. It feels like a place that is successfully bridging its past, present, and future. In fact, you can literally see this in how recent additions to the city, such as Riverwalk Stadium, actually emerge from historic and preserved buildings. In this city, restoration and progress are partners, not rivals.

All that, and a few personal favorites are found here, too: restaurant (Saza), theatre
(Alabama Shakespeare Festival), hotel (Renaissance). Maybe my feelings about the city come out in my running; I seem to run well in this land of a Confederate White House, Rosa Parks, and a state constitution that is longer and more complex than an ultra-marathon.

I first ran in Montgomery’s series of parks found on its east side. The paths in Blount Cultural Park called my name until I answered, discovering other nearby parks in the process. Then, in 2009, I ran my first (and Montgomery’s first) half-marathon. I remember being so happy to have completed the distance that I allowed myself to eat anything I craved the rest of the day.

This year, as I joined more than a thousand others at the starting line, that 1:45 idea stood at the edge of the forest, plainly in sight but knowing the light of day was off limits. After a moving introduction of true heroes—soldiers representing Hope for the Warriors—and comments from an enthusiastic mayor (he’ll return later), we were off.

“Pace, Kevin, pace!” my mind shouted. I still get excited at the start of a race. Even
though I’m paranoid about starting out too fast and not finishing, I get caught up in the excitement. Running is often an individual and introspective sport. Racing, however, can be incredibly social. You immediately share something in common with everyone around you, and the interaction is often laden with laughter. I don’t talk much, but I listen. That, combined with the fact that everyone around you is running, can make you feel like a thoroughbred just released from the starting gate.

I’ll spare you the mile-by-mile details, but Montgomery does a great job of hosting this event. Everything from jumprope troupes, college bands (loved the Abba tunes, Huntingdon!), and random residents handing out oranges and even cold beer make this course a blast. But the organizers here do something else that I love. Every mile marker has a running clock, making it easy to determine your pace at every stage. I’ve run in bigger events, but Montgomery is the only place I’ve seen this.

As I approached the first mile marker and saw my pace, the thought I’d voiced stepped clearly out of my neuronal woodland and into the sunlight. “I wonder if I can run a 1:45 half.” Like the “Little Engine That Could,” my wondering became a mantra, and it grew louder at every mile marker.

At the nine-mile mark, my wondering stubbornly hung around, even though I’d need to complete four miles in about 31 minutes. Unlikely, but not impossible. “I wonder…” my mind shouted. At the 12-mile mark, I knew the answer. No, not today. The final mile would need to be about a 6-minute event, a pace that I occasionally reach in my dreams. However, a personal record was possible. My wife awaited my arrival in Riverwalk Stadium. She took pictures of other runners while she kept an eye on the clock. When it ticked past 1:46, she groaned. But then, #109 showed up in her camera lens. I ran down the ramp into the outfield of the Montgomery Biscuits’ home field and crossed the line at 1:46:22.

If you don’t run, you may not appreciate this, but I had cut more than five minutes off my half-marathon time of three weeks ago. So, even though I was tired, I triumphantly high-fived the mayor, who greeted all the runners at the finish line. (Way to go, Mayor Strange!) As if to celebrate my accomplishment with me, Dreamland, a legendary Alabama barbecue restaurant, handed us heaping free samples of its banana pudding as we walked back to the hotel. On the elevator, another runner and I smiled, shook hands, and congratulated each other on the race, a perfect conclusion to the morning.

I still wonder if I can run a 1:45 half-marathon, and I’ll keep wondering until it hopefully happens. And with how things seem to go, it may happen in Montgomery…unless those murmurings about a full marathon there next year grow into reality. Hmm, I wonder if I can run a sub-four-hour marathon…

In conclusion, to the city of Montgomery, AL, THANK YOU! For the second year in a row, you have put on a first class event. The organization is phenomenal, the volunteers and police officers are the best, and the community is one of the most supportive out there. To everyone who yelled encouragement, handed out water, beat a drum, suggested I “use my arms” to get up and over I-85, or provided commentary on runners’ fashion sense (or lack of it), you truly make this one of the most enjoyable events in the country.

My vote: go for it! The “Montgomery Marathon” sure has a great ring to it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

13 Miles in My Own Running Shoes

It was not the race I wanted. That event began fifteen minutes earlier, and I watched with a mix of envy and disappointment as its runners passed the starting line. Now, as the loud speaker blared, “Runners, on your mark,” I had the sinking feeling that even my second choice race may end in defeat.

Setbacks provide a painful reminder of our frailty. They discourage us because they prevent us from achieving our goals on our timetable. And surrendering, accepting the setback as fatal, can embitter us and even cause us to quit. These are the choices I have wrestled with lately.

I signed up for my first full marathon back in the spring. I gave myself plenty of time to train, dedicated myself to a tested training program, and enjoyed the highs of new distance records. Then a confluence of events and their ramifications caused a setback in the last six weeks of training—too little time to regain what had been lost, but too much time to think about what might have been.

So, this morning, I watched the full marathon runners rather than being one of them. While that was disappointing, I started my day and my half-marathon run anticipating defeat.

Note to self: salad bars may seem like a healthy eating option, but the perception only holds true if no food-borne illnesses lurk among the leafy greens and vibrant toppings. This note to self is brought to you by my lunch a day before the race. And it explains why I woke up sick to my stomach. This is not the way you hope to feel on the morning of a long run (or any morning, for that matter!). As I considered the hand I had been dealt, the temptation to fold grew.

The beginning of the race was awesome. The event was so well organized and the woman handling the PA system had the right mix of information, enthusiasm, and humor. (Thanks, Rochester, NY!) My first mile flew by, and that feeling of freedom and confidence remained until the third mile. At that point, the route began about a two-mile incline—not a hill, exactly, but a subtle incline. By the fourth mile, I was seriously considering stopping and asking the next police officer to call my wife.

As I argued with myself, some commotion ahead fought for my attention. A man with a bullhorn was calling out the time and pace at the five-mile mark. I decided to see where I was at that point, expecting to be so far behind my normal pace that quitting would seem logical. But, to my amazement, I was slightly ahead of my normal pace. How then, I thought, could I quit? Yes, my stomach was empty, but my hunger turned its focus on the finish line.

Long story short, I finished the 13.1 miles. I did not have the energy to sprint to the finish line, and hearing my name over loud speakers never sounded so good. Still, I ran the race that the day (and the days preceding it) had set before me.

Setbacks suck (pardon my language!), but for us mere mortals who run, the challenges we overcome are often individual. Yes, we run in a competition surrounded by other runners and even an occasional well-wisher, but we overcome our own limitations of time, of fitness, and of emotional roadblocks.

My first marathon is still out there. Yes, I’m disappointed that I did not meet it today, but I’m satisfied to have overcome the physical and emotional challenges that tried to sideline me. 26.2, your time is coming. Setbacks do not force forfeit; they merely change the arena of victory.

Image: 'Running Shoes'

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shoelaces, Connections, and Running

First, the title.

I’m a runner. Running is supposedly an “easy” sport. You put on sneakers (aka. “running shoes”) and do what you’ve been doing ever since you mastered walking. Sure, you can make more of it—and when you truly train for something, you do—but at its essence, it supposed to stay simple.

However, the step between deciding to run and actually running, tying my laces, creates a challenge for me. If I don’t get the tension just right, running just feels wrong. Tied too tightly my laces restrict blood flow to and from my feet. Tied too loosely my laces allow my foot to flop like a single sock in a clothes dryer. Only when the connections are correct can my run feel anything close to comfortable.

That idea, connections, has always intrigued me. As a result, connections often consume my thinking when I’m logging miles.

That’s what this blog will be about: running, thoughts I have while doing it, and anything else that seems connected, no matter how remotely, to it. Postings here will be mentally drafted during my runs, and, as time allows, crafted to communicate to any interested readers.

Don’t expect deep insights (though I’ll try) or just another runner logging his mileage and weather conditions. Most posts will fall somewhere between the profound and mundane—at least that’s the goal. You can let me know via comments how close I come to either end of the spectrum.

[And if you are a runner who wants to know my mileage and other mundane details, find me at (kdwashburn) or at (kdwashburn). Those are the my sites of the mundane.]

Until next time, may your laces allow you to keep moving forward.