Monday, October 10, 2011

Hiatus (concerning Whigs, Tories, short shorts and burn out)

I have mentioned before my love for not only running but running as an avenue to racing faster. Racing faster than others and racing faster than I have run before. It used to be faster than I had ever run before but now it's run faster than I have run recently. That last qualification hindered my motivation a little but once I wrapped my head around it, I was able to put in some good training and enjoy it. When, last spring, I ran 32:51 for a track 10k it was almost three minutes slower than my personal best but I still came away very satisfied as I had not broken 33 in several years. Still, it's just a little tougher to get out the door, especially for hard workouts when I know my best racing is behind me. I think I finally see on the horizon what people have been telling me for thirty years awaited me. "Burnout." In spite of racing scores of times every year from the age of ten - possibly before, my first running log was at ten - I never had the desire to give up the sport.

When I look at what kept me in the sport, it turned out, ironically, to be what people said would make me burn out. Running too much would burn me out. Well, I was running a handful of 40 mile weeks at ten, 60 mile weeks at sixteen, over 100 by twenty. Funny thing is those miles produced results and I'm a results oriented guy. The more I improved, the more I wanted to do what it took to improve more. Therefore, running miles never burned me out, they made me hungry for more because all those kids who beat me at ten who were afraid of running a lot of miles were now in my rearview. Of course we can't forget about racing. Racing too much would certainly burn me out. Well, like I said, from the age of nine I was racing at least 40 times per year and when I finally got old enough to drive myself to races, there were weeks where I raced four or five days. I would go to my high school championship meet (CIF Finals for those from California) on Saturday and then find a road race the next day. Racing did the exact opposite though. Racing kept me motivated. If you told me there would be months between races I would lose the desire to train. Racing, and winning, and improving, and meeting new people at races, kept me heading out the door each day. And since I never really liked training in and of itself, racing was a great way to get in some training and actually enjoy it.

But thirty years after first being warned of the dreaded burnout, I started to feel it. Why? Well, it the best season of my latter years actually was a curse in disguise. I had great training, raced three recent personal bests in a matter of weeks and an absoulute personal best in the marathon and when I looked to dig deeper for even better times I got hurt. That told me that I might have hit my limit. 4:44, 15:58, 32:51 and 2:38:00 might be as good as I ever got. When I started my comeback from the injury, the times came slowly, very slowly. I was not down with that. I was making much better progress with my lifting. I was lifting more than I ever had in my life, not recently, in my LIFE. For a guy addicted to improvement, that was looking a little more attractive. But still, at my absolute best I am mediocre at lifting while I can still win races while pretty out of shape. So there was still the hunger to excel vis a vis my fellow runners. And this brings us to the straw that broke the camel's back. (I'm not sure exactly where this expression originates but I think it's a pretty messed up game seeing at what point a camel can no longer handle the weight of straw to the point of death. How much straw would that have to be anyways? Camels are pretty tough and straw is pretty light.) But I digress.

I  was headed to a Monday All comers Meet towards the end of the summer and it was a less than stellar day. It was not raining but it had been earlier and there were clouds and a pretty solid wind. Now  this is anomalous in the Northwest only in the summer and this day was reminiscent of about 300 days per year but for some reason this was far too bad a day for most of the usual  All Comers participants. A meet that usually draws hundreds only brought out a brave few. This killed me. My kindred spirits, one of the things I have always loved about the sport, were not so kindred after all. They were, in the words of Thomas Paine "Sunshine Patriots." They were Tories! And this is where I once again segue into a tangent barely related to my essay. Paine later wrote in The Crisis, "I should not be afraid to go with a hundred Whigs against a thousand Tories." I have always felt this way about almost anything in life. Those who feel safety in numbers underestimate those who have no such insecurities. I would rather coach a team of ten dedicated athletes (Whigs) then a hundred who need to be catered to and have the sport watered down for them (Tories). This is why I used to show up to the first day of track practice, look into the stands at the roughly hundred kids there and say "There are too many of you here. Not all of you want to compete in the sport of track and field. But that's ok. This week you'll learn that lesson and we'll lose about 15-20 by the time the season starts and those are the kids that want to be in this sport, and those are the kids I want to coach."

The fuse had been lit to the flame that would burn me out. The meet was an hour ahead of schedule due to the emaciated numbers. I paced one of my runners to a record in her age group and got ready to go home. I saw a fellow runner show up for the meet, thinking he had time to warm up for his race, which had already been run. The meet was over. He did a quick warm up and attempted a time trial by himself anyway. It went badly but at least he gave it a shot. I felt bad for him. I felt bad for the sport. This was not a representation of the sport I loved. The football players would have shown up. The soccer players would have shown up. I hate it when running gives other sports reason to consider it a "minor" sport. On this day it was true though. I had no connection with 90% of the "summer soldier" runners in my town. That was the beginning of the end. There is a certain fellowship with runners. I feel it reading the running journals of friends and kids I have coached. but on this day I realized I needed more fellowship than that. I needed more fellowship than a handful of people who showed up when hundreds didn't. I didn't want to assimilate with the running culture that was around me. I'd rather go lift. I'd rather go read or write, but not about running. I needed a break. At long last, I was burnt out.

I held on for another couple weeks with half-hearted enthusiasm but I was just phoning it in. It was time to focus on other things for awhile. The good news is that while my own personal running was suffering, I happened to coach a bunch of "Whigs" that just kept coming back for more and improving and winning and while I understood we were truly a sub-culture, it was enough to at least keep my heart in the sport to some degree even if my body was leaving for a spell. Aside from that crew, however, I did not feel like I was a part of the running culture around me and withdrew.  Would I ever return? I wasn't sure. I have taken a few respites from serious training before but it was always part of a plan that included coming back when I was ready. This was the first time I had no desire to start training again. While I know I will always go tun a few miles per week for health and fitness reasons, I felt this could be the end of training for performance.

It seems fitting that racing, which the fear mongering alarmists told me would lead to an early burn out, would not only fail to burn me out, but bring back my motivation to run seriously again. As I headed to Whidbey Island to coach the youth team I work with, I did so in full sweats and had no intention of running any more than from one coaching vantage point to another. When we arrived, we witnessed one of the best cross country courses I have ever seen. A golf course with rolling hills, tight turns, a view of the ocean and just enough wind to make you realize you needed to follow someone if possible. I watched the races and the strategy kids were using and I started to get the feeling back. By the time my last group kids went - a group of 12 and 13 year old girls that swept the meet and broke the individual and team course records - I had IT back. I wanted to to do what they did. I wanted to race that course. I wanted to plan my strategy, to tuck in on the windy stretches, to test my opponent on the uphills, to surge the downhills. I wanted to race. Fortunately I always have a pair of spikes in the car and even more fortunately the shorts we bought the team were too big so I could steal some team shorts from my daughter - she wore the spandex so the baggies were available. (Here is yet another advantage of growing up in the 1970-80s. No matter how short shorts seem, they're still longer than we ran in during that time!) A few minutes later I was in shorts and spikes and registered and ready to race. Except for one important detail.

Now I remembered why I trained. I love to race but I also like to race well and without a lot of training I was pretty sure I was about to have a problem as we toed the line. I figured that just as the wages of sin are death, the wages of not training would be a horrible death on the course at the hands of those more righteously trained and that was indeed justice so I was ready to get what I deserved. I was just happy to be on this course on this day. When the race started, the guy who I had picked to win laid back while another guy was out pretty quick. I laid back on the initial hill and let my legs go on the downside and found myself on the back of the leader. What a pleasant surprise! I knew, however, how quickly things go south when you're not fit, however. I stayed tucked for the first 2400 meters of the 4k course until the long uphill when I sensed the leader slowing more than I thought necessary. i didn't exactly make a move but I just kept the even effort going and felt myself pulling away. Pretty cool! I stayed strong for the rest of the race and won by eight seconds. The time off had done a number on my fitness but I was hungry again. I ran for almost two hours the next day. I look forward to setting goals and training again. I woke up at five am to watch the Chicago marathon. I have had my hiatus. I don't know if I will ever PR again, or even run faster than I did last year. But I look forward to throwing myself at it again... and besides, there's always the last refuge of the runner who realizes he is just too darn slow... the ULTRA. Chuckanut 50k 2012 baby!