Coming into a 10-mile race today, I wasn’t expecting much. The course my running club runs is notoriously hilly. It’s not a course known for running that fast.
It was supposed to be a fitness barometer to see where I stood for my real, long-term running goal in a month: running 72 minutes in a half marathon.
For those of you who don’t know, 72 minutes in a half marathon is a little under 5:30 mile pace for 13.1 miles. For some people, that’s not that fast. But for me, that’s very fast. As it stands right now, my half marathon personal record was in late 2017, when after three hours of sleep and a hangover, I ran 76 minutes and 5 seconds.
I knew I could do better, but I was very proud of that effort. I ran close to that time in my first marathon, and if I’m hitting my half marathon personal best midway through the marathon, then I’m clearly capable of better.
But this 10 mile race broke my expectations and showed I was in better shape than I even thought. I ran 54:58, which is 5:29 mile pace for 10 miles.
I learned a lot of fundamental running lessons over the last year that I always knew, but didn’t internalize for a long time. Every running coach I’ve every had has preached them. Among these lessons are the following:
- Don’t go out too fast in races. It’s better to finish strong than die hard.
- Save your surge for the end of the race, when it matters.
- It’s better to be relaxed and fresh for a race than overtrained. I used to be known as a “workout warrior” because of how well and how hard I went on workouts. I used to take this as a compliment, and now I realize I was shooting myself in the foot.
- Workouts and easy runs are not races. It’s okay to completely drop a workout if it gets hard to the point where it stops being benefiical.
- Running is all about restraint, not going all out all the time. When I first started running, each run was an all out effort. Now, I think about how I should only give 65% effort during an easy run, 50% effort during a pre-race run, and 85% during a workout. In races, people will pass you. People you think you should beat will pass you during the race. If you let your race be dictated by what other people are doing and run a race unnatural to you, you’re not going to run to the best of your ability.
All these execution and running-philosophy related lessons help me maximize my potential, even when I’m not the most prepared or fit. When you’re in school, most of the time it’s better to have a good night’s sleep and be well-rested than to stay up all night studying in panic.
I remember during a human physiology class when I stayed up all night for an exam, thought I was prepared, then got a 60. It was the first and last time I ever pulled an all-nighter for an exam.
Long-term, consistent training is the key to improvement
For the last three years, I failed to really rival the fitness I had my senior year of college. I wanted to run fast, for sure. I just couldn’t really find the time or motivation to put in the months of running 70 to 80 miles a week.
It’s not that I was lazy — it’s just that you can usually find the time to do that in college and not have it interfere with your studies or job. In the real world, I have to plan out my running carefully because it’s going to take a lot out of me.
However, I’ve recently had some changes to my training. A friend who’s faster than me and an elite woman runner took interest in my training, and she agreed to train me. She has helped keep me accountable. She knew what she was doing and took the time to design workouts for me, and all I had to do was follow her directions to a tee.
I don’t take many creative liberties doing anything other than what my coach tells me to do. I occasionally run some extra time to hit the required miles for the week, but otherwise, I don’t add sets or any extra flavor to the workout.
If my workout is eight 400s at 10,000-meter effort, that’s what I’m going to do.
But I digress.
Breaking 55 minutes in the 10 mile felt a bit run-of-the-mill and unspectacular. I would like to say it was a grandiose effort that I gave my all to do — but the truth is I’ve been running and preparing for a long time. I’ve been running high mileage weeks for months now, and the steady stream of consistent, quality training helped put me in this position.
What getting in the best shape of my life taught me about life outside running
Running fitness isn’t everything. I learned a long time ago not to get down on myself if I wasn’t hitting the times I wanted. There were a lot more important things to running, namely relationships with people you run with. The social aspect of the sport always drew me more than any competitive aspect did. I would not get as far as a runner or as a person without the friends I’ve made running — in college, those friends are still the best friends I have today.
At the same time, running fitness taught me a lot about life. For most of my running career, I made the horrible mistake of training too hard. Workouts would be races. Easy runs would occasionally be all-out ordeals. By the time races came around, I was worn out and exhausted most of the time, and I wouldn’t run to my potential.
I used to ruminate over bad workouts for days. Now, I don’t really care. A bad workout is just a sign I needed to take my foot off the gas pedal. Plus, there are times running will not go well for factors well beyond your control, like injury or illness.
Running your best possible races and times means saving your best for when it matters. It means holding back all other times and staying in control, being tactical, and knowing when you’re giving too much of yourself.
Now, I realize life comes in similar seasons as running. I think of my life often in running related segments these days. There are easy runs, workouts, races, and time off of running completely. Each segment requires a completely different type of effort. As an example, Sundays at 11:59 p.m. are the deadlines for all my Master’s coursework. This is when I give a race-like effort to get everything in before the deadline, and it usually works out.
As a teacher, I also try to pace myself accordingly and give only so much of myself to my job so I don’t burn out. The worst thing that can happen is if you burn out and overtrain yourself in running. As such, knowing when to pull back is something I’ve only learned from maturity, both in and out of running.
The logical fallacy here is life is not running.
However, it’s a life fact that you have to do the best you can with a limited amount of resources. In running, you have to do the best you can and allocate your energy strategically with only a limited amount of energy.
This is the most consistent stream of good races I’ve had in a long time. In the fall, I won a local 12 miler, ran a 10 mile PR in 56:12, and ran two marathons, both which were my best marathons up to that point. I haven’t had a bad race because I got smarter without giving all of myself every single workout, and I’m very glad I learned those lessons.
I hope I can keep it up, and I’m very lucky through the grace of God and through sheer luck I have been able to have time to train without getting injured, and that I’ve been able to achieve my potential in my post-collegiate running career.
This post was previously published on Ryan Fan’s blog.
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