Aliens at the track
What’s with all this speed work anyhow?
Posted Saturday, 3 July, 2004
I often end up at the track after hours. I work too much, have an active family and all those other blessings that push and pull on a runner’s time. Sometimes the best hour to get a workout in is late at night, after dark.
Many times I’ll get home late from the airport, or the chaos of the day will simply subsume all extra curricular activity until the sun is down. I’ve had some great workouts all by my lonesome on the track, in the cool moonlight with the fireflies and bats to keep me company.
If you’re a mid-packer like me, the people who share your universe are as often befuddled by your running necessities. This ‘running’ thing is ok in theory, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other familial duties and keeps within the domain of normal business hours.
My wife will look at me putting on my running gear from the bed where she is preparing to be numbed asleep by the TV, and say “You’re not going running now.” It is not a question. She knows I’m going running. It is an expression of disbelief bordering on disgust, and tinged with resignation. What she means, if you could see the comic thought bubble over her head, is “You are an idiot, what did I do to deserve this?”.
In polite society one evidently does not go to the track after dark. Evidently that is beyond the bounds of decorum and pushes the boundary of sanity.
It’s ok. After being married for nigh on 20 years, her opinions are more a reaction to habit than an accusation. Like a doctor’s mallet to the knee, she feels compelled to remind me how intrusive and farcical this running thing is.
I can deal with the people at work. I don’t mind the clients who look at me like I’ve got a screw loose when I turn down dinner with them to go for a run. They treat me as if I’m a diabetic who needs to slip behind the curtain for a discrete syringe of insulin. “Well…How long do you need?” (A life time would be nice, any questions?)
It’s the kids that really hurt. Looking up at you from bed with those eyes, they go right for the heart. “Daddy, all you do is work and run. You’re never here.” And so it goes, we are all mid-pack martyrs for our sport.
But, the siren calls and I’m off. Sometimes, I’ll run to the track, and sometimes I’ll drive. It depends on the workout I have scheduled and how much energy I have left at the end of the day.
In New England we can usually only run on the outside tracks when the weather accommodates. I don’t care about the temperature, but the snow makes the corners a little tricky. (Yes, I have tried to do speed work in a snowstorm)
Usually at night the track is deserted. There may be an occasional walker, but they disappear not long after dusk, leaving me to charge in circles, or rather ovals, in the gathering gloom.
It’s not so bad, at the track at night. I’m a night guy anyhow. I like it when it’s cool and quiet. I like it when my body is awake from the day’s effort. I like the way the stress can be turned into energy and effort.
At night the night-bugs are out. Frogs are peeping and grunting from the low areas. Bats flit across the open infield chasing lightning bugs that flash a Morse code mating dance.
My track has birds that live in the infield. They are called Killdeer because of their call “Kill-Deer! Kill-Deer!” as they run about on the soccer pitch, agitated by my presence in the dusk.
My track, (I call it ‘my track’ because the thousands of laps I’ve run there over the years gives me a sense of propriety), my track is old. It is an old asphalt track from whenever they built the school, maybe the 50’s or 60’s? It’s not in bad shape, considering its age.
It is a ‘fast’ track or ‘lively’ track as they say in the parlance of tracks. I know where all the cracks, holes and lumps are. They tried to screw me up a couple years ago by applying asphalt patching to the holes. Overnight they turned my familiar holes into lumps and it changed the whole experience for me, but I adjusted.
When it rains I know where the puddles will form and I know the shallow-water paths, like an old mariners plying among the shoals. I know where to drift outside or inside to find the smoother lanes of travel. I know every inch of my track. I can close my eyes and clearly catalog the topographical anomalies one by one along the whole 400 meters.
I know which way the wind blows at each time of year. I know my target splits for 200, 400, 800 etc. Sometimes I bring a piece of chalk to keep track of my workouts by scribbling progress on the asphalt, like a child at play.
I’ve run on tracks all across the country while traveling, but returning to my track gives me a sense of being home. It’s just right. It fits. It’s comforting.
Sometimes I have to share my track with others from town. I once had a soccer mom ask me “Why can’t you run somewhere else?” Meaning, why are you bothering us while we’re trying to watch the soccer practice? (Umm…It’s a track…)
One time, when I was there for an early lunch, they let the little kids out to run. It was so much fun as they would try to race me for 100 meters or so each time I came around. It was cool. They gave me a boost.
One night running late, the town decided to spray for mosquitoes. There I was, trying to run, when a tanker truck pulls around the track spewing malathion gas. I had to quit early that night.
My track is situated behind, or rather beside a middle school. It has poor illumination from one streetlight over by the school. 90% of the track lies in darkness. There are woods and athletic fields on the two other sides. On the final side, behind a row of medium sized White Pine trees, there is the highway. I’m treated to three lanes in both directions with lots of trucks at night, roaring by with intrusive Doppler shifts of noise.
Most nights it’s just me. It’s cool. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. …but it really hurts. Let us get right to the heart of the matter; with the myriad of peaceful trails and lanes at our disposal, why do we journey to these lonely strips of asphalt and beat ourselves miserable?
Some people would say, “You’re a marathon runner, not a sprinter, what are you doing at the track?” That’s a great question, because it’s a question I ask myself every time I’m there. What’s with all this track nonsense? It’s boring to run around in circles, right? It hurts too. I dread my track workouts like electric shock therapy. Then, why do we do it?
We do it because it represents a universal truth; if you want to get better, you have to spend some time in your ‘discomfort zone’. That’s what the track is for us, a pure and simple litmus test of speed and condition. You can lie to yourself on the long runs, but when it is 800 meters and your wearing a watch, there is no fudging the answers. You can or you cannot run four laps in X minutes, bottom line, black or white, one or zero, and most of the time the truth hurts.
It is also this truth that will set you free. The track will show you the way to strength, power and confidence that you will find in no other place. That’s why we go.
Humiliation led me to the track. Humbled I was by that old nemesis Boston. It kicked my butt and left me weak and tortured. Then it made me mad. I knew I could run the distance, but I had to take 40 minutes off my time to qualify.
I went to the Internet and found a workout plan by some veterans. It consisted of track work twice a week. Tuesday speed - Thursday for tempo. That’s it. That’s the secret. That was the key. Combined with a good base and solid long runs, the track has enabled me to qualify for Boston every time I’ve tried.
It stinks. It hurts. It is hard to make yourself do twice a week, but if you can do it, the benefits are amazing. Besides the fact that it will cut many minutes off you marathon time, track work will make all your distances faster and all your runs easier.
At the track you will learn about yourself. You will learn pace. After a few weeks you will accurately judge your pace by effort level and not have to look at your watch. Repetitive speed work will give you a mechanically smooth and energy conservative stride. It will give you a quiver full of strides and paces from which you can pull when you need them with confidence.
The track will teach you about your body and its limits. It will make you aware of, and let you manipulate your physical thresholds. It will give you the confidence to look discomfort in the eye and say “I know what’s on the other side” and run through it. That gives you the power at the end of a long race to say “Only a mile left. I know I can run a mile”.
Like your long runs, at some point, maybe weeks or months from now, it will start to seem easy, and you’ll say to yourself “what was the big deal?”
Enjoy it while you can, because the track is a fickle mistress. This type of conditioning will dissipate ten times faster than it took you to accumulate. It is a hard peak to stay on top of and there is work on every slope. It’s worth the effort, even if you only do it once, to see what you’re capable of and to discover things in yourself that you did not know were there.
My advice to you is to find your track, or find a track and make it your own. Suffer through a 12-week program of twice a week speed and tempo. By the third week you will start to see changes that will amaze you if you have never done it before.
When the snow melts in the spring and I make my way down to my track for that first real workout it is like seeing an old friend that I haven’t seen for awhile. I’m glad to see that old friend and reminisce over good times had, but then that old friend tells me how slow I’ve gotten and we get to it.
Find your track.