It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, you want to run faster. Maybe you want to contend for a top three in your age group. Maybe you want to beat half the field. Maybe you don’t want to be last. Maybe you want to win. Maybe you want to get to the end-of-race food offerings before all the speedies gobble it up. Also, speed is a concrete and indisputable means of measuring your leveling-up progress, and what is life if not a video game? On the other hand, there’s the fear that by aspiring to compete with the clock you’ll lose some of the joy of running due to the fear and reality of failure. If you run just for the sake of running, the numbers on the clock at the end of a race have no power over you.
Well, can’t help you there. Sorry. Life’s a gamble. Suck it up, buttercup.
Anyway, for those of you who choose the green pill (green for go!), I would like to share a perspective that I credit for taking me from the front of the middle of the pack to the back of the front of the pack. Most training plans tell you what to do. I’m going to tell you what to think.
Running fast requires an acclimation to the sense that one is drowning. The gasping effort causes you to panic, which in turn causes your brain starts shutting things down even if they’re perfectly capable of functioning. The trick is learning how to not panic. If you don’t panic, then running fast is just plain old agony. Fun!
This is not an original idea of mine, by the way. It’s a riff on Tim Noakes’ Central Governator (that’s the only way I can use that word. Thanks, Ahnold!) Theory, which is itself a riff on something that some guy named Archibald Hill said that I can’t be bothered to find. Sorry, Archie.
There are two ways to practice taming your panic: the short panic, which is desperate in tone, and the long panic, which is more whiny-baby sissypants. If you want to run faster, you need to learn how to handle both. First, the short panic.
Find a distance between 100 and 200 meters. Or a couple of blocks. Or to that tree in the distance. Run there as fast as you can. Once you get there, keep going. Just for a bit. When you get that “ohmygodahmagonnadie” feeling, practice telling yourself, “No, no you’re not. This is what getting faster feels like. Let’s see what happens if we keep going.” Go for a few seconds more, then slow way down and recover. Repeat for the rest of your life.
Now the long panic. The long panic should be run on a course three to eight miles long. Or twenty to sixty minutes. It doesn’t really matter, just far enough to make a slightly uncomfortable pace feel awful after a a few miles. When you start to panic, calm yourself down by telling yourself, “Let’s see what happens if we keep going. This is what getting faster feels like. This won’t kill you. Probably.” Then keep going for at least another mile. Repeat for the rest of your life.
I mean “we” in the royal sense because it helps to also pretend you’re a princess. Just trust me on this one.
Much of the misery of speed isn’t from the effort at all. It’s fear and panic. It’s the fight with your body to do what it doesn’t want to do. Your body could go faster if it wanted to. I guarantee if you were to run your guts out in a 5k, you would be faster if you were to run it again only this time being chased by a chainsaw-wielding psycho-killer (qu’est-ce que c’est). We’re all capable of more.
I don’t recommend training with a chainsaw-wielding psycho-killer, by the way. Some days you’re not going to be at the top of your game, and chainsaw-wielding psycho-killers are not known for their forgiving temperament.
Oh, and you may be thinking “Wait a minute, I bet there’s some panic involved in being chased by a psycho-killer. Didn’t you just write that panic makes you slower?” To that I respond no, that’s a difference between panic generated from within as opposed to externally. And thanks for making me lose my train of thought. As if this post wasn’t long enough.
Where was I? Right. The agony. The upshot is that if you want to get faster, cultivate a clinical detachment about your suffering. Strive to recognize it for what it really is, expect it, accept it, practice it, and test it. If you do, you will be rewarded. After a while the pace that made you hyperventilate will start feeling comfortable and fun. The pace that felt workmanlike will be super easy. And, if you practice enough, you might attain the holy grail of racing: a finish-line puke.
Continue on to Part II, if the dishes are done.