A Numbers Game: The Story of a Runner, Speed & Time

[A good number of trail runners come from a track or road running background. Many others may be interested in the recent debate on the need (or lack thereof) of speedwork in ultras that recently popped up on Geoff Roes’s blog. It’s with these things in mind that iRunFar publishes its first piece of creative non-fiction, a story of a runner, speed, and what it all means. Enjoy!]

A Numbers Game

I click my watch.  5:22.4.  Too.  fast.  My heart rate monitor says 176 beats per minute, at least 4 beats higher than where it needs to be.  The fact is confirmed by the now ragged edge to my breathing.  Total time for the last four miles: 21:44.  I shake out my arms and tell myself to relax.  Smooth, that’s it, stride it out, just cover ground.  Covering one nostril with my mitten I turn my head and blow, the runner’s candid snot-rocket.  The sticky albumen trails through my beard and onto my neck.  I’m slightly faster than the 21:52 I wanted.  6 miles to go.  If I average 5:28 pace that would put me at… I try to do the math but my brain is foggy- the blood diverted to my muscles and skin for the more pressing tasks of maintaining forward momentum and dissipating heat.  Trying to regain control, I focus on my breathing- at this intensity a steady rhythm of in for two steps, out for two steps.  This in and out is 10% of my energy expenditure.  But a necessary 10%.  With the rest I am miserly, exacting of efficiency, maximizing stride length and minimizing leg lift.  A mere 3 vertical inches of bounce with each step translates to roughly 400 feet of vertical climbing over the course of a mile- all energy expended at the cost of forward movement.

The goal of the workout is 10 miles at lactate threshold- a longer effort at the precise intensity at which my body shifts from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism.  It’s a fine line: too fast and the workout’s benefit is lost in an excruciating wash of lactic acid, too slow and it is an inadequate stimulus for adaptation.  The pain is cumulative rather than acute, and today it is there early.  The number for today is 5 minutes and 28 seconds per mile.

Running is a numbers game.  Days turn to weeks, to months, to years of mileage tallied and recorded, intensity titrated, time ticked off to the tenth of a second.  Twice a day, everyday but Sunday, which is long run day, shoes filling up the trunk of your car, their once plush rubber soles now ground into a gridwork of asphalt and dirt, calories burned and consumed as the refrigerator empties and fills and empties again, skimpy running shorts in various stages of nappy wetness strewn all about the house, old race numbers tacked up on walls, each with unique significance and still stuck with safety pins rust-stained by sweat, hours of sleep- never enough, the patient adaptation of slow-twitch muscle fibers, optimization of cardiac output and the corresponding steady drop of resting heart rate-37 to 36, now 34, the creeping increase in the density of mitochondria in your legs.

Worth is measured in these numbers.  More accurately, the numbers themselves are worth.  5k, 10k, half-marathon, marathon: any distance runner worth his or her salt rattles off their stats for these events without a moment’s hesitation.  They may as well be tattooed across the forehead- that is, as if everyone who cared didn’t already have them memorized.  Perhaps you’ve heard of 12:39.36/26:22.75/58:55/2:04:26.  This is none other than Haile Gebrselassie, the diminutive Ethiopian who also happens to be the best distance runner the planet has ever seen.   Or maybe 14:29.11/30:01.09/1:05:40/2:15:25- the long and lean Paula Radcliffe, whose peculiar and maladaptive head bob belies her unmatched strength and fearsome intensity.  These numbers form a constellation, a profile of a given runner’s abilities.  There are those, like Hicham El Guerrouj, whose aerobic systems are better suited to the track, and there are others, the precocious Ryan Hall for instance, who come into their own only upon moving up in distance to the marathon.

15:30/32:34/1:13:43/2:36:05.  This is me.  It’s not who I want to be.  If asked I might actually go as far as to say it is not who I really am, the 1:13:43 being at the end of a 125 mile training week, the 2:36:05 run in 70 degree heat.  But the numbers don’t lie.  They paint a clear picture: the wide and malcontented middle ground between fast and slow.  Which is, I suppose, why I’m out here on a gray, 20 degree day in November, flying along Sand Road as though there is nothing else in the world.

Nearing seven miles I can feel that I’m falling off pace.  The effort is harder than it should be, the last two splits 5:31 and 5:33.  Each time I press the lap button on my watch I begin anew: there is only one mile to be run, unfolding in front of me.  It curves, there, heading towards Napoleon Park.  Just focus on this one mile, that telephone pole, there.  Focus.  The mind is dangerous here, and it offers up a myriad of premature excuses.  It is cold out, after all.  Is that a bit of wind there?  Yes, it is a head-wind- that explains it.  8 miles at threshold would be enough, ten is probably too long anyway.  Don’t want to overtrain.  Must be fatigued from Monday’s interval workout still.

Nothing can prepare you for it.  This state of mind is mutually exclusive from that with which you began the workout- then invincible, ebullient.  And nothing can help you remember what this feels like.  Right.  Now.  But there are tricks.  Telephone poles help.  And sometimes, in the recesses of your glucose-deprived brain, a memory is dislodged in the tousle- some competition long past- and, reliving it, your body is flooded with a renewing surge of adrenaline.

*

My most memorable race was the first time I broke 10 minutes in the 2 mile.  It was also my first and most treasured victory.  It was my sophomore year of highschool and our first home meet of the year.  Jeremy Howard, a senior on the team who that June would win his fourth state championship in the 2 mile, turned to me on the start line and told me in his quiet voice to tuck in behind him, that he would pace me.  I idolized him to the point at which I had adopted the way he walked: a lilting, forward-tipping jaunt, heels lifting quickly and then pausing momentarily before the toes left ground.  I happily agreed.

It was a windy day.  Our track, an old asphalt oval that dipped and curved- particularly on the far side by the field goal posts- was situated at the top of a large hill, making it particularly exposed to the elements.  We shook our legs out nervously as we listened to the starting instructions.  “To your marks….”  The long pause, hearts in throats, pounding.  Then the gun’s sharp crack.  And with it the galvanization of will.  I could smell the sulfur as we bolted off the line.  4 laps to the mile, 8 laps total, half of each lap directly into the wind: I was glad to sit back and draft one stride behind.  A few scattered cheers from the bleachers as we came through the first 400 meters.  Glancing over I noticed patches of dirty snow under the dilapidated boards.  “73, 74, 75” the timer yelled as we blew by on the inside lane.  Right on pace.   A runner from Brunswick passed us on the outside around the curve, taking the lead, but Jeremy’s pace didn’t shift.  We knew this guy, he was 10:11 – he would come back to us.

Which is not to say there’s no room for leaps of faith or surprises.  Steven Moore of Brunswick may very well be 10:05, even 9:59.  It’s just that he’s not, excepting a huge numeric collusion, 9:30.  Fatigue is never absolute; there are always surprises.  But there are no miracles: you are your fitness, your bone and sinew.

We click off the laps. 1 mile in 5:03.  Realizing that we are slightly slow Jeremy inches up the pace on the fifth lap.  We edge past the orange and black of Brunswick on the backstretch and he does not come with us.  It is just the two of us now.  We stride down the homestretch again, through the spare staccato of the spectators.  This is where the race becomes difficult- 3 laps to go is a long way at this pace and it gives plenty of rope with which to hang oneself.  But I have a carrot- the red-brown flop of Jeremy’s hair- in front of me.   Running well within himself, I can’t even hear his breathing.  Although I can’t hear much as my head is steadily filling with a dull whine.  The pain isn’t localized to any muscle grouping, it is everywhere.  It is pure, screaming signal: ‘stop now’, and it is in my brain.  But there is a stiller place yet, and deep inside you it is taking it all in calmly.  Loosen the shoulders, keep that arm carriage erect, in and out, in and out.  Here we go.  We’ve been here before and there’s no other way.   Here.  This is all that matters.

Fatigue is stranger than it appears.  It was long-thought that the concentration of hydrogen ions in muscle tissue, accumulated lactic acid from anaerobic metabolism, accounted both for the limits in muscle contraction at maximal exercise capacity as well as for the subjective pain.  Yet this hasn’t held up in exercise physiology studies.  In fact, it has never been shown that skeletal muscle becomes anaerobic in this process, the oxygen pressure well maintained even at maximal exercise.   The limiting factor is elsewhere.   More recent studies have suggested that maximal effort is coordinated by the brain and limited by the capacity of coronary blood flow supplying oxygen to the heart.  If there is a danger of the heart muscle becoming ischemic, that is, starved of oxygen because of the escalating appetites of overworked skeletal muscle, their thousands of screaming, tiny mouths, neuromuscular recruitment patterns are adjusted by the brain so as to decrease the number of muscle units that are fired, thus diminishing the overall skeletal muscle oxygen requirement and the amount of work the heart has to do to supply it.  If your budget can’t maintain a workforce of 1000 employees, you cut back to 800 and revise your expectations.  An unconscious failsafe device, and a valuable one at that.  But try as you might, you can’t break through.

With a lap to go my vision is constricted to a small circle on the back of Jeremy’s racing singlet.  The bell signaling the final lap rings and it registers somewhere deep but I barely hear it.  8:47.  We need to run a 72 second final 400 meters to break 10 minutes.  That pace would be pedestrian were we to run it fresh, but after seven laps it feels impossible.  I should start kicking here but it is all I can do to maintain pace.  Down the backstretch one last time and my head starts to loll back and up in an inefficient grimace but I can’t control it any longer.  I am losing form, my stride revealing periodic hitches and lurches.  But there is nothing to be done about it now, all my chips are in.  Where we had previously swung wide coming into the homestretch to avoid the 4 inches of water consuming the inside lanes, this time we plow through it, the cold splashing up to the neck.  100 meters to go, eyes wide, arms swinging wildly.

A commonly used bit of coaching advice is to instruct the athlete that when he or she is hurting in  a race situation, they should remind themselves that the opponent next to them is hurting just as much, if not more.  It has always struck me as a dubious hypothesis at best.  I mean the very notion of measuring such a thing—the idea of a pain meter, reading off the precise level the victim happens to be at.  Rather, that runner next to us seems the essence of mystery.  Even facial expression is misleading.  Emil Zatopek, the famed Czech distance runner who at one point held every world record from the 5000 meters to the marathon, contorted his face into spectacular displays of suffering seemingly from the gun.  And yet he ineluctably ground his more placidly-mugged rivals into the cinder in the final stages of each race.

75 meters.  The air is an electric storm.  I can’t feel my legs anymore but they continue to spin beneath me.  It is only a matter of seconds until we burst through the line.  But here time is elastic and it bends you with it.  It is a life time.

And then, something unexpected:  Jeremy ever so slightly drifts over to lane 2, opening up a clear straight path between me and the finishing line.  He doesn’t look back at me but I feel his controlled pace slacken almost imperceptibly.  I draw even with him as we barrel down the final 50 meters.  I can hear the sparse crowd now, to their feet, their excitement heightened by what they perceive to be a close race below.  It’s only the two of us that know better.   I meter out the last of my reserves- even here the body is calculating- and throw what’s left of myself at the finishing line.

*

Step.  Step.  Spit.  Step.  I round the bend into Napoleon Park and continue on the bike path along the Iowa River.  One mile to go.  A homeless man looks on dazedly as I swing low under the bridge and then rise again.  I can’t help but reflect briefly on the absurdity of the contrast.  My footsteps echo under the metal.  These turns are hard on my hamstrings now, fatigued and brittle from the cumulative effort.  There is a new rasp on each out breath and frozen spit cakes my face and neck.  I’ve marked this route in quarter-mile increments, small pink spots of spray paint that blur past, one by one, beneath my feet.  The last few minutes.  My guarded weaknesses on the surface now, split open in the cold and undeniable.  It will all be over soon.  But I can’t think of that now, still this ebbing gap.  I can see the white line by the railroad tracks that marks that 10th mile.  I no longer care about the time and its implications, only holding this line. Please God, don’t give up now, not yet.  Not yet.  Hold it.  Just a little longer…  A staunch nonbeliever, this is the only time I talk to God.

Surely, the mind is dangerous here, but it is what allows the pursuit in the first place.  Over ultradistance events humans routinely outperform horses.  Indeed, the earliest hunting techniques in our evolutionary past involved chasing down such ungulates over miles and miles, a strategy possible only given the ability to dream, to envision the dark slate of the longer term.   But I can’t help but feel that it goes deeper than this.  A sentiment echoed in Freidrich Nietzsche’s challenge: “Did you ever say yes to a pleasure?  Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain.  All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.

Ultimately, it is the absurdity of this pursuit- here on Sand Road, with the arbitrariness of my biomechanics, genetics, maximal oxygen uptake, and Timex watch, the equally arbitrary constant of the earth’s gravitational field and the consequent physical limitations- that constitutes the beauty of the task.  What I mean is this: running lays bare not only our mechanisms for making meaning but also our fundamental freedom as to how we fashion and mold that meaning.  In the end, the universe doesn’t know the difference between a 2:36 and a 2:04: it all boils down to the difference it makes to you.

I lower my head and push through the line, making sure to reach over with my right hand and click the button on my watch.  Hands on knees, I am retching now but nothing comes up.  The myth is that the pain stops when you do.  But that is when it comes rushing, tumbling you in its waves as you shakily sway, clutching knees.  Eyes closed, head pounding in a vortex of high-pitched din, you are all body, straining against its own skin, undeniably real.  Iridescent shapes float across the dark underside of eyelids, a shimmering light show of Day-Glo yellows, reds, purples—synapses bathed in Merry Prankster psychedelics.

A few more moments and then straightening up, eyes still closed, hands on hips, head tilted back. Feet walking in slow, mincing steps.  Finally left arm lifting and eyes opening to look at the watch.  54:52.  12 seconds late.  But for today this is where I need to be.

There are 7 comments

  1. Sarah Lavender Smith

    This really captures the stress–and rewards–of speedwork. The numbers don't lie, and there are no shortcuts! It's also a reminder that you can have extremely effective speed workouts not just on the track but also out on the road. Thanks for republishing it.

  2. Terrence

    "It has always struck me as a dubious hypothesis at best. I mean the very notion of measuring such a thing—the idea of a pain meter, reading off the precise level the victim happens to be at."

    When I'm running well I think I can take way more pain than your average bear, but my confidence in this hypothesis can be shattered in the time it takes to do a single 400 repeat and leave me wondering if I am the biggest wimp in the world.

    I like your mind. Thanks, Lewis!

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