Speed Works!

This past Sunday at the Northfield Mtn. Race (New England Trail Championships) I felt like I had been hit by a truck. The two weeks prior had been incredibly stressful. My grandfather passed away, two days before his 99th birthday after three days of struggling with congestive heart failure. I had been helping to organize the first ever stair climb up the Bennington Battle Monument, which included hosting three people coming from CA and IL, who could no longer stay at my house due to the large influx of relatives attending the funeral. I was in the midst of learning how to program in PHP and CSS to get my blog migrated to this very platform and losing lots of sleep in the process. OY!!!!! Needless to say, my spirits were low, my stress was high, and my training was minimal. So when I toed the line at Northfield, I really didn’t expect much. But as the race progressed and my legs decided to go on strike midway through the climb, I realized that even my low expectations were too high. I needed a break.

I took a day off on Monday and made sure I got some good sleep.

Tuesday, I punished myself with the hardest mountain workout I’ve done to date:

• AM: 2.5 times up Mt. Anthony in Bennington (1 mile, climbing 1,200 feet vertical for each ascent) for a total of 8.8 miles including warmup and warmdown

• PM: 8 miles of running and an 1,800 foot ascent of Bald Mountain in Bennington.

I slept very well Tuesday night and then decided to take off again on Wednesday to really let the workout sink in and recover well.

On Thursday, my new Running Raw teammate Michael Menard, invited me to Pittsfield, MA to run in the first annual Green Mile. This race was a one mile street race down the main drag of downtown Pittsfield. It had been raining all day and I really didn’t feel much like going outside and running or racing in the rain, but I had committed to it, so off I went.

Michael and I warmed up for a good 25 minutes before the race. I was hoping that this would shake off the stiff lead weights that had replaced my legs. The workout on Tuesday was still looming large in my quads and gluts. With the amount of rain coming down, the slipperiness of the street and the sludge in my legs, I really didn’t expect much. I had decided that this “race” would serve as a good mile repeat. Michael and I had agreed to head over to the Taconic High School track after the race to do a few more mile repeats to get some good speed work in.

A hardy crew of runners braved the cold rain to stand on the line and test themselves. After glancing down at their shoes, I surmised that there were four fast guys in this race. I can always tell how seriously someone is taking a race by seeing what shoes they are wearing. The best runners not only have on racing flats, but usually they are racing flats that have to be special ordered and can’t be found in stores. There were two pair of such shoes present on the line. I asked one of these gentleman what his goal time was. He replied that he had run a 4:15 at UMASS Amherst a month ago in track season. “Oh” I replied and kept my mouth shut until the gun went off.

Ten guys immediately jumped to the lead at the start. But only three of them had good shoes on, so I relaxed and set my pace in 11th. Surprisingly, my legs were feeling rather spry, so I kept only a second or two behind the leaders. One by one the men in front of me began to fade. There were only five of us left when we reached the quarter mile. “58, 59, 60, 61” a woman shouted out as we hit the 402 meter mark. Had I really just run a 61 second quarter? I felt fine, but wow, that was fast!! In another hundred meters two more of the leaders faded. I pushed the pace. With the 804 meter sign in sight another man faded, leaving only the two guys with the best shoes a few strides in front of me. “2:12, 2:13, 2:14” shouted a man at the half mile mark. Smartly I had slowed down a bit in the second quarter, but that was still pretty fast – I was on 4:28 pace. The leader began to break away. The second man was now only a few feet in front of me. I held strong through the three-quarter mile mark, having run 70 seconds for my third quarter. The man in front was now picking up the pace significantly and number two was in my sights. I felt suprisingly strong, So I pushed the pace again. It came down to the last 20 meters, when the 4:15 miler pulled ahead of me and nipped me by a little over a second. I finished in 3rd place in a time of 4:41, 16 seconds behind the winner. Pleased with my comfortable performance, I bounced back on the course and cheered Michael on to the finish. He set a new mile PR of 5:19 and was very pleased as well.

After inhaling several bananas and oranges, we ran the two miles over to the high school track. My hope was to knock off two 5:05 mile repeats and call it a day… a good day. Two hundred meters into the first lap and the bananas and oranges in my stomach began to complain about the pace… So I backed off and ran an uncomfortable 5:28. Feeling a bit defeated, I told Michael that it might be best if we just get a good run in and not try to do any more repeats… After all, it was raining, we were cold, and bananas and oranges don’t make the best bedfellows.

My inner child had had enough of jogging laps after a mile or so, it wanted to play. I suggested to Michael that we do some 100 meter sprints… Not long enough to cause any digestive stress, but yet a great way to build speed. Besides, I hadn’t done a 100 meter sprint since 1986 when I competed in the Vermont state decathlon. At that time I had run a 13.2, which has remained my PR for the past 23 years.

On a wet and slippery track and without blocks to aid our start, there was little hope of breaking any speed records. I was really looking for another excuse to test out my Usain Bolt imagery that I had practiced on some very successful 200 meter repeats several weeks earlier. In the early 1980’s as I was learning how to cross country ski, I had the privilege of being on the same team as one of the greatest skiers in US history – Erik Vigsnes. He was poetry in motion. I was a lame duck trying to perform ballet. Whenever I got the chance, I would watch Erik ski… I would feel his rhythm… Feel his strength and relaxation… I would imagine what it felt like to ski with such grace and with such little effort… I would then put that feeling into my body and posture and try to emulate it… Not how he looked, but how he must feel. That practice has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. I’ve used it time and time again in many disciplines in my life – taking on another person’s feelings and moving inside of that experience. During the 2008 Olympics I sat awestruck as I watched Usain Bolt demolish the 100m world record with the most relaxed form I have ever seen. Since that time, I’ve watched that race over and over again, as I admired his form. I now had another model to emulate.

“Go” I shouted and Michael and I took off. My arms and legs were shooting about furiously. It was not a pleasant experience at all. I clocked a 13.9, which I was pleased with under the circumstances… But I wanted more. On the second repeat I remembered my Usain Bolt model and “bolted” into a much more powerful, and much longer stride… controlled and smooth. It felt fabulous. My speed increased throughout the 100m and I crossed the line in the fasted time I’ve ever run – 12.9 seconds. Twenty minutes later I used Mr. Bolt again to run a very comfortable 29.1 second 200 meters. I can’t wait to bring him into all my of workouts now.

Speed works… But only if you work the speed.

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